Sri Lanka’s famous Taprobane Island, a speck of palm-fringed paradise just off the southern coast, was lashed by the deadly tsunami, leaving its visitors stranded but its world-renowned villa spared.
Owner Geoffrey Dobbs, who threw the historical villa’s doors open to well-heeled paying guests after refurbishing it in the 1990s, was swimming off the island when the massive waves struck, his mother told AFP Thursday.
Marie Dobbs said that the first sign of something being awry was a colony of bats flying out of their cave near the rocky island, which is normally reached on foot from the mainland through ankle-to-knee-high water.
"We thought that was strange, bats don’t fly in the day time," she said.
Then, "the ocean just rose, rose, rose, like a wall."
Dobbs and his brother, who was also in the water, grabbed a catamaran and held on until it dumped them back to shore, while his sister-in-law grabbed a coconut palm.
Four guests swimming in the infinity-edge pool saw the salt water rise up before it engulfed them, but they clung to the walls of the pool to stay in.
With the high waters surrounding the island, they were all stuck, with no water supply or power.
"We had very little water, but we had lots of champagne. We had all the luxury, but not the essentials. We were all quite jolly about it," quipped Marie.
"We spent the day speculating, eating cashew nuts… We just thought it was local. We only gradually heard it was a national disaster through text messages."
Nearly 119,000 people have been left dead, mostly in Asia, by the tsunamis which also struck Indonesia, Thailand and India.
The following day, a staff member whisked them all to two other exclusive hotels owned by Dobbs’ in the fort town of Galle.
Despite everyone by then beginning to realise the extent of the devastation, which has left at least 24,743 Sri Lankans dead and another million homeless, some US guests moaned about the inconvenience of the calamity.
"They were complaining about the screams from down there keeping their children awake," she said, motioning towards the Indian Ocean and the totally wrecked coast.
"You just couldn’t get through to them about what was happening."
Dobbs, who spends half of his time in Sri Lanka and half in Hong Kong, immediately joined the massive relief operation, taking a truck up and down the devastated coast with food and other supplies, his mother said.
Taprobane’s villa was built by Frenchman Count de Mauny, bought by American author Paul Bowles after his death, and later snapped up by Dobbs.
While it lost only its wooden pier and balustraded entrance, Dobbs’ fourth luxury property — which its brochure claims is one of the world’s top 20 villas — was completely washed away at Tangalle, a village further west.
"It was my favourite," she sighed. "Geoffrey was building me a house next door, but luckily hadn’t gone further than the foundations."