Dee Gibson is a London-based interior designer who fell in love with Sri Lanka on a holiday, purchased some land and built a boutique hotel, Kalukanda House, a private, exclusive use, luxury villa in Sri Lanka offering soul nourishing, experiential slow travel.
Here she speaks to us about her project and this exotic island in the Indian Ocean.
What made you fall in love with Sri Lanka?
The island is just glorious, from coast to coast, north to south to west. There are mountains, beaches, safaris with elephants, temples, tea plantations, people doing all sorts of things. Many people stay for a week and go home wanting more.
I bought the land on a whim, on the last day of a two week holiday. That is the kind of connection one has when they visit Sri Lanka.
Visitors often do Sri Lanka as an add-on, to India, Maldives, or anywhere else connected via Dubai. How long do you need?
Sri Lanka is widely known as a beach location, especially where we are in the south.
Ideally you’d have two weeks and travel around. It is a small island and you can have such a varied two weeks.
But if you don’t have the luxury of time, it’s possible to spend a week on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, engage with people, mix the beach with safari, maybe do some surfing as well.
Is it safe to visit Sri Lanka? What about the war?
The civil war was mainly localised in the north. It’s now been and gone and it’s very safe to go. Sri Lankans are very warm people. They’re very welcoming, very smiley, very community minded.
Tell us more about your “whim”?
I’m an interior designer and I have a property developing background as well. On holiday with my family I was starting to think maybe, just maybe, we could do something here.
I met an agent and I’m standing on the land where Kalukanda House now sits, looking at this huge cliff face. Golden light was hitting it and the beach was just there. And I just said, I’ve got to make this happen.
Back in the UK I realised this was an opportunity to show Sri Lanka to other people. So the concept grew and it’s now a boutique hotel.
This was a personal design project for me.
I spent a year sourcing local materials and antiques, so that everything in the house is Sri Lankan, born and bred.
The columns were built in the colonial style and I had a craftsman build them by hand on site. We recycled old roof tiles and old doors and windows.
What’s really lovely about that whole process is people tell me Kalukanda House feels like it’s just meant to be there, Like it’s been around for a long time. But what’s wonderful is that I’ve been able to build it with modern infrastructure. So the aesthetic is slowly back in time, but it has all the things we would expect as travelers.
What was it like to build a business in a remote part of Sri Lanka?
People in my network were curious about what I was doing, so I already had a ready-made market. When we opened in February 2018, I could hit the ground running and had bookings.
Then at the end of 2019 we were taken on by the Hip Hotel collection, underlining the concept behind Kalukanda House, which is to be a unique property.
People want the personal touch and people value owner-operated properties, because you can tell there’s a lot of love and passion. That’s what has gone into this.
It’s not something on paper that’s then been translated by someone else who’s completely disconnected.
We absolutely have to travel as humans. We are designed to be nomadic, but I would ask people to travel with people who want to create some kind of social impact and make human connections.
I think it’s really important that we understand other cultures because the more we travel, the less we will build walls around ourselves. And the more we’ll see ourselves as a global community.