Villa de Zoysa review | yoga retreat, Sri Lanka
Friendly easy-going yoga retreat in Boossa, Sri Lanka
The Quick Read: Villa de Zoysa is a charming colonial-style house within easy reach of the famous Unawatuna and Hikkaduwa beaches in southern Sri Lanka. Hosting a maximum of 12 guests, with sunlit corridors and a shady central courtyard, it’s small enough to feel like a home from home, yet big enough for everyone to be able to find a nook to curl up with a book or just sit and smell the frangipani. The main focus here is yoga, with their 14-day courses catering for all levels. Twice-daily two-hour sessions are held in the outdoor shala (classes often tip over onto the beach). Ayurveda treatments and consultations are also available, as well as cookery classes so you can master the local rice-and-curry dishes for yourself. The owner, Devinda, encourages you to treat his home as your own, and it quickly feels as if you’ve been here forever.
Who it’s best for: Sri Lanka is sometimes referred to as “India lite” and is popular with solo women travellers. The White House helps with reasonable single room rates and a large communal dining table (so no solo suppers). It’s also good for friends and couples, although if you’re hoping for romantic candle-lit dinners a deux, you’re in the wrong place. People looking for an adventure at a decent price without too much of a culture shock will find the simple creature comforts of the house combined with the friendliness of the area just what they need.
What you can do: People mainly come to Villa de Zoysa for the 14-day yoga retreats. Classes run twice a day (with the occasional day off for trips) but you can do as much or a little as you fancy and it’s very easygoing – nobody will tell you off if you skip class to lie in, or if you don’t want to do a headstand. Classes take a ‘workshop’ format, and can be tailored to requests. The White House hosts teachers from all over the world and from different disciplines, so contact them beforehand for dates if you would prefer a specific style (they don’t publish a calendar of retreats on their website). Massage – deep tissue or Ayurvedic – is available as an add-on at a ridiculously reasonable £12 an hour and there’s also the chance for a mani-pedi. Villa de Roysa also run a 14-day Ayurvedic course which includes a consultation with an Ayurvedic doctor and a series of massages, steams, and cleansing treatments depending on what the doctor feels you need. Plus there’s a detox program with meditation and massage alongside diet.
The beach is on your doorstep (keep an eye out for wild turtles in the shallow waters) and there’s beginner’s surfing just five minutes down the beach (lessons are on offer) or you can catch a bus to the more famous beaches. There are plenty of places to visit close by, including a tea and cinnamon plantation, the village Buddhist temple and Galle Fort, a world heritage site. The chef, Vishwanath, also offers cookery classes. Finally, you can spend some quality time with Lily, Villa de Zoysa’s adopted baby elephant.
Where you stay: Locals call Villa de Zoysa the White House – it’s a striking landmark overlooking the coast. The website calls it ‘your home with a history’, and it is just that – the antique furniture and high ceilings lend an air of grandeur, yet it feels completely informal – barefoot guests come and go as they please. The central courtyard in the middle of the house is dotted with daybeds where you can read, daydream or snooze while loungers line the terrace if you prefer to soak up some rays. A sitting room and library are also available for use with books on yoga, meditation and spirituality to borrow. There are three types of bedrooms: standard (ground floor) which are a little more Spartan with outdoor (but still hot) showers. Standard plus are larger ground-floor rooms with private courtyards. Premier rooms are upper levels suites with balconies and sea views. The premier rooms are well worth the extra expense, for the view alone.
But all the rooms are spacious and beautifully furnished with antique furniture, including comfortable heavy oak beds. Upstairs rooms have mosquito nets suspended from the high ceilings, although the rooms stayed mercifully bug-free during our visit. The bathrooms are lovely, with steaming rainwater-style open showers and wooden details on the washbasins and towel-racks, although a bath would be a nice touch in a relaxing retreat hotel. There is wifi throughout the house, including the bedrooms, although it can get a little patchy.
The yoga shala sits in the grounds, next to the house. It’s open-sided but shrouded with nets to keep out the bugs. The beach is close by and classes often end up on the sand, as the sun sets. The garden is big, beautiful and not overly manicured, with fragrant frangipani trees and impossibly tall palm trees, and cranes pick their way across the lawn, content to ignore the yoga class taking place nearby.
How was it for us: I visited the White House at a stressful time after a bout of illness. I was feeling a bit shy and apprehensive at the notion of communal dining every night but Devinda’s warm welcome soon dispelled that. It was my first real ‘solo’ holiday, and the mix of people really suited me – there were other thirty-something solo women looking to escape stressful jobs and cities, a pair of friends over on a short hop from Dubai, a documentary filmmaker deeply ensconced in a love affair with Sri Lanka who had come to consider the White House as a second home, and, towards the end of my stay, a couple taking a pause in a whirlwind trip around the world. Everyone took part in the yoga, although there was no pressure to race back from the beach or day trips for the evening class if you couldn’t make it.
The yoga was certainly strenuous but not impossible and the teacher, Erin Larsen, tailored the class to our needs as a group. We tended to do mostly Vinyasa yoga, with a more intensive, Iyengar-style workshop in the evenings with some more specific focus – one woman asked for help with her tight hips, and another time I was shown a few ways to begin opening out my impossibly locked shoulders. No one will force you to stand on your head if you don’t want to, and we left every morning and evening with a smile, picking our way along the garden path to the main house, where the smell of our next meal was already curling tantalisingly down towards us. My appetite had diminished while I was ill, but here returned almost immediately – I felt famished every time I sat at the table, and ate like a king every time. Alcohol was not off-limits, but I rarely bothered – although a gin and tonic on the terrace one night was a perfect end to an evening.
Although I’m normally far from a morning person, my favourite part of the day became that magical time around 6.30am, when I would wander downstairs for tea on the terrace, enjoying the stillness of dawn before yoga. My yoga teacher, incidentally, would be surfing with the locals while I drank tea and rubbed sleep out of my eyes, before bouncing back in time for class, grinning and shaking the salt water out of her hair. I didn’t quite embrace that level of energy, but I certainly felt far more full of life than I had back at home. Devinda was not just a wonderful host in the house – he became a good friend, joining us for sunset cocktails at a nearby hotel, taking us to see turtles, the bustling Galle market and genteel Galle Fort, and even introducing us to a monk at the local Buddhist temple. Although I wanted for nothing, I got the feeling that if I had a specific request, it would be provided in the blink of an eye.
Most nights were spent lingering over the big communal dining table watching the fireflies dance in the garden, sipping ginger tea and chatting after another incredible meal. One evening we joined Devinda for a movie in the sitting room (although most of us nodded off well before the end). I left feeling happy, strong, well-fed, well-rested. I could almost see myself glowing with health.
What we took home: An obsession with curry, strangely – I wasn’t a fan before, but now I try to recreate some of the dishes I sampled and regularly hunt out Sri Lankan restaurants here in London. I also regularly find myself standing by a wall implementing some of Erin’s tight-shoulder techniques – my desk job has prevented much progress in that department.
Would we go back: In a heartbeat. Though maybe not over New Year when it gets heavily booked – although, with a maximum of 12 guests, it would never feel too crowded.
People watch: You can’t fault Devinda as a host: he really takes care of you, making sure you have everything you need and organising any transfers, taxis or tuk tuks. You’re in safe hands.
Food watch: There is no menu to choose from at the White House – but unless you’re extremely fussy that won’t be a problem. The chef there has spent 27 years with the De Zoysa family and can cater for any specific dietary needs if given notice. The food is unpretentious, seasonal, locally sourced, and many meals are gluten-free and vegan. Breakfast consists of mounds of tropical fruit, fresh curd (yoghurt) and masala omelettes with coconut dhal, and still-warm-from-the-oven rotis or thick-cut white bread with lashings of butter. (Erin, our picture-of-health yoga teacher, insisted butter is good to oil your joints and cheerfully slathered it over her bread.)
You’re left to your own devices for lunch but dinner is a spectacular affair of bowl after bowl of exotic vegetables in coconut-rich curry sauces – okra, bitter gourd, mango with occasional fresh tuna or fish curry – accompanied by bottomless bowls of steamed rice. Mango ice-cream or caramelised bananas round off the meal, with cup after cup of fresh ginger steeped in boiling water. Of course, given this is Sri Lanka, you must also sample the tea.
What’s lowly: The rustic charm might be a little too rustic for some people. The outdoor showers in the basic rooms are poorly lit and make you feel a little vulnerable to the elements. The spa room is also fairly basic – no fluffy towels or robes here (not that we cared).
Insider tip: Pack light; everyone just wears yoga gear and there’s no dressing for dinner (if you run low, the laundry service is very good). Bring long trousers and something to cover your arms for evenings on the terrace – the mosquitos keep very busy.
Price with a companion: From £525 per person in a double room based on two sharing for 13 nights, including breakfast and dinner, twice-daily yoga, laundry facilities and wi-fi.
Price going solo: From £715 per person in a double room for 13 nights, including breakfast and dinner, twice-daily yoga, laundry facilities and wi-fi.
Value for Money: The packages are great value, and although it’s half-board, you could easily skip lunch thus spending very little money on extras. Add-ons such as Ayurveda or massage are very reasonable.
Reviewed by Siobhan Norton
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