Dreams do come true. Just ask Onnie Shearer and Gabrielle Bugden, dear friends and also the Australian owners of Tea Tree Villa...
It was after a trip to Sri Lanka, where they fell in love with “the relaxed vibe which is often described as Bali 30 years ago”, that they began their journey of creating this beachfront paradise. Together, they dreamt of building a beautiful seaside villa and eight years later, they opened the doors to Tea Tree Villa, located on the South Coast of Sri Lanka in Ahangama (their first guests were members of the Bahrain Royal Family). Sound dreamy? It is. The five-bedroom villa is set among tropical landscaped gardens on the shores of the Indian Ocean (as in, you’re literally soothed by the sound of the ocean your entire stay – just add a yoga class by the water and you’ll leave totally blissed out). And don’t get us started on the food (stay tuned for our travel review next week!)
After the devastating Easter attacks, travel restrictions have been lifted and Sri Lanka has been declared safe. We want to support this incredible country as much as we can – because a visit to this special part of the world is something you’ll never forget. We caught up with the inspiring duo to find out more about realising their dream.
Photography: Jenna Potter | Go to www.teatreevilla.com
What drew you to Sri Lanka in the beginning and why did you fall in love with the country?
Our husbands’ first visited for the surfing. They would come back raving about the beautiful coastline, food and people. We went together after that and fell in love with the relaxed vibe which is often described as Bali 30 years ago. Sri Lanka has a rich history and culture that we found fascinating. From the ancient trade of spices, elephants, gems and pearls to the amazing wildlife, it’s quite an intoxicating mix – a bit like The Jungle Book meets Sinbad the Sailor.
How did you meet and then decide to go into business together?
Our two families became close while living in Dubai. Our kids went to the same school and we saw each other almost every day. We also did a fair bit of travelling together from Ibiza to Oman and of course Sri Lanka. Having big families with similar aged kids and similar values made us firm friends for life. We really didn’t put too much thought into going into business together… we just jumped in!
How would you describe the Sri Lankan people?
Sri Lankans are warm and welcoming with ready smiles. After we bought the land, we were immediately welcomed into the local community. Our neighbors, who are a family of five brothers, have become a big part of Tea Tree. Kasun is our Tuk Tuk driver, one brother is the local fisherman, the other brother is the local tailor who makes our staff uniforms. Their father keeps a watchful eye over Tea Tree and is like the unofficial Mayor of Ahangama.
Tell us where the Tea Tree Villa journey began? From finding the land to the day you first opened?
After many trips to Sri Lanka, we set about finding our own villa. With eight kids between us and both dads’ keen surfers, this proved to be a challenge. We dreamt about finding a place that was convenient, safe and enjoyable for the whole family without compromising on luxury. Nothing really fit the bill, so we decided to build our own villa and started hunting for the perfect block of land. Four years later – we finally found it! It was the perfect location, a good distance from the main road and quiet. It was also absolute beachfront with a safe swimming area for the children. It was a nice surprise for the surfers to learn there were two surf breaks in front of the villa and many more just down the road.
It would take another four years of hard work before we finally opened the doors.
Who were your first guests?
We were all excited when our first booking came through. It was a direct booking through our website and was a large group of three families. We were delighted and a bit intimidated to find out that they were members of the Bahrain Royal Family. Talk about pressure! They were such gracious guests and we were thrilled and proud to read their glowing review. The bookings flowed from there and we haven’t really looked back.
How did you go about finding the staff?
Our wonderful Sri Lankan Villa Manager Madhu had been working in Dubai for over 20 years as a housekeeper and nanny. Four of those years were spent with the Shearer family so we all got to know and love her over this time and knew she would be the perfect person for the job. We had met our Chef VJ on previous holidays to Sri Lanka and after tasting his food we were keen for him to join the team. For the rest of the team, we have relied on recommendations from other villas and hotels in the area.
The food is exceptional – was this something that was really important to you?
That’s so good to hear! We wanted to create a menu that was fresh, tasty and family-friendly without being overly fussy – just simple delicious food. We are lucky to have access to amazing fresh produce in Sri Lanka. The seafood is exceptional. It’s not uncommon to see the local fisherman plucking fresh lobster off the reef out the front of Tea Tree. Our Chef VJ trained in Italy for several months when he was younger and has been working in villas in Sri Lanka ever since. His wealth of experience enables him to be very flexible and creative. From roast chicken to chocolate souffle nothing is too much trouble and his Sri Lankan Curries are simply the best.
Talk us through the interiors – what inspired the design of the villa/décor?
We had so many ideas when it came to design, but very little experience. We were put in touch with a British designer based in Colombo, David Kenyon from Limestone Designs. Dave patiently translated our evolving vision perfectly and delivered a high-quality design with both international and Sri Lankan influences.
When it came to the interiors, we both have similar taste so it really was an enjoyable process. We relied heavily on Pinterest and Instagram for inspiration but we also talked about what worked in other villas we had stayed in and more importantly what didn’t. One thing that was very important to us was quality. We tried to source the best quality products we could find.
Sustainability and connection to the community was also important to us. The furniture was made locally by the talented team at Only & Co, headed up by another creative British expat Linden Davies. His team of local craftsmen have been using the same techniques for centuries. We also sourced a lot of our homewares from local suppliers such as Tallentire House, Barefoot and Paradise Road.
Buying a villa in Asia is a dream for many people. What were some of the biggest challenges along the way?
The first challenge was finding the right piece of land that had “clear title” as you are quite often shown sites with existing land ownership disputes. We would advise appointing an experienced consultant to help navigate the land title issues and company set up. Stew White from Silk Road Partners in Colombo was instrumental in mitigating the risks for us.
The other big challenge was not actually living in the country. We basically built the villa over WhatsApp! This was only possible because we invested in an experienced and professional project management and construction company. Definitely, do not try to do anything on the cheap. We were fortunate we could trust Koombi Project Management to deliver the project on time and keep us in check!
And what was easier than you expected?
We knew from previous experience that staff were the key to a successful villa. Appointing Madhu as our Villa Manager and VJ as our Chef set a great foundation. Having the Tea Tree team to help care for the villa has given us great peace of mind and has certainly made the everyday running of the villa a much easier process.
Tell us about the beautiful bunk room - what were your goals when creating this room?
We wanted to create something special and fun for the kids. It sleeps up to 9 so it’s like a slumber party every night but with really comfy beds. The kids love the independence of having their own room and it makes for wonderful memories. It also means mum and dad can have a bit of privacy.
Tell us about some of the little pockets in the villa such as the hammock…
Being so spacious means that there can be up to 25 people in the villa at one time. Having a quiet little place to sneak away and read a book (or hide from your kids) is a holiday necessity. The hammock is attached to the pandanus tree in the front garden overlooking the sea but away from the villa. It is a gorgeous place to rest. The pandanus tree is considered sacred in Sri Lanka. We had our reservations about keeping it initially but we are so glad we did. It provides hours of imaginative adventures for the kids and the perfect hammock hidey hole as well.
It has been designed with children in mind – there’s a TV room where children can relax after a day in the pool, a kids pool within the pool – was your intention to always attract families to the villa
We designed the villa with our own families in mind. A lot of villas we had stayed in didn’t have a kitchen as they are usually staffed. We wanted to include a good functioning kitchen in the main house in case people wanted to make their own breakfast or cocktails or the kids needed an emergency meal.
Our children were quite young when we started the project so we created an environment to suit our needs. Things like having the option to fully fence the pool means everyone can have a relaxing break. Same with an air-conditioned room where the kids can go and watch a movie out of the sun.
What are some of your favourite things to do in Sri Lanka/things you tell your guests not to miss?
Sri Lanka is a nature lovers dream. Home to leopards, elephants, sloth bears, and crocodiles, a safari in one of the National Parks is a must. For something a little more low key, Tea Tree is five minutes from Ahangama Train Station. It costs less than a dollar and takes half an hour to ride to the historic Galle Fort. The train is old and the windows are open. It really is like stepping back in time as you ride through beautiful tropical scenery. Once in Galle Fort, there is so much to see and do. Gem shopping for one! Top quality gems like sapphires and aquamarines are relatively inexpensive.
You’re now both based in Dubai and Australia – how often do you get to Sri Lanka?
We both try to go at least once a year. It’s become a special place for family holidays and celebrations.