An Englishwoman in Sri Lanka
“I used to think losing your job was the worst thing that could happen. In my case, it turned out to be the best.” Henrietta Cottam sits in the dining pavilion of the boutique hotel – Why House – that she runs near Galle in Sri Lanka and tickles the ear of Gelly (Nigella, actually), her dachshund.
After a career in events and running her own high-end catering company, Henrietta found herself parachuted from London and on to the lovely southern coast of Sri Lanka in 2010. Losing one of her main clients, feeling in need of a change of direction before she reached 50, it was her friends’ surprising idea that became the catalyst of her big change.
“They came out as soon as the war ended in 2009 and, in spite of navigating 17 road blocks between the airport and their hotel, had bought the villa that was to become Why House before they’d left. The next thing I knew, I’d been asked to manage it. So we all came back out, had a big Christmas party and in January, it became a hotel. We had a couple of big bookings – Bollywood stars, Amal with her family (before she became Mrs Clooney) – and that got us going.”
Why House is a classic boutique hotel, with just ten rooms situated around a lovely garden with a vast swimming pool at one end and a dining pavilion in the centre – all added during Henrietta’s time here. She has brought very high standards of service and trained up her Sri Lankan staff accordingly.
“Service was a bit of a new idea here. There were few tourists during and just after the war. Thailand and Bali were galloping ahead and Sri Lanka had a lot of catching up to do. It’s a can-do approach here and we have a very informal social atmosphere.”
Food is cosmopolitan, favouring local Sri Lankan hoppers (crispy rice flour bowls filled with dhal, curry or something sweet), seafood, Thai and, when it all becomes too much, roasted chicken, potatoes and bread sauce. There’s a yoga shala and massage available, you can learn to cook Sri Lankan style and Henrietta has organised a weekly cultural show in the garden complete with music, dancers, tumblers and fire-breathers.
Any regrets? “No,” she says. “It’s a great way of life. You can stop and smell the roses. Sri Lankans are a lovely people, very gentle and funny. And I love the guests – they’re the real reason I’m here.”