Every now and then you stumble upon a place that truly has a magic aura about it. Is it hard to expect less when your next stop has been voted The No.1 Hotel in The World? Perhaps… But what if it wasn’t about the luxury, and rather the experience and satisfaction of contributing to a grander vision? One with soul, integrity and conscience that will have you rethink your idea of luxury travel…
The dream started in the form of a rolled letter delivered on the morning of my birthday. An itinerary and a date to meet Phil in Tambolaka airport on Sumba island… Destination: Nihiwatu, The No.1 Hotel in The World.
I had heard about Nihiwatu before: an off the grid eco-hideaway powered by generators running on coconuts, with a legendary wave and an A-List following
The name itself held such a mystical power that I spent the following weeks prior to the trip in a state of continuous wonder. Finally, on a sunny Thursday morning, I made my way to Bali’s Ngurah Rai airport, excited for the journey that lay ahead.
Nihiwatu’s experience starts from the airport’s entrance, where a friendly representative of the resort greets you with a jovial smile and fast-track you through customs. Without having to hand in your passport, your boarding pass miraculously appears and your luggages are swiftly taken care off.
A short 50 minutes flight from Bali and you land in Tambolaka, a small airport with hardly a tourist in sight and that exciting feeling that you’re entering unchartered territory
Reunited at Tambolaka airport, Phil and I were met by one of Nihiwatu’s affable drivers, and taken on a 90 minutes drive through the scarcely known island of Sumba.
THE LOST ISLAND
Sumba lies on the eastern side of Indonesia, encircled by Flores, Timor-Leste and Australia. An island twice the size of Bali, it has a distinctive landscape to the Island of Gods: no volcanic terrain here but a semi-arid climate with rolling hills and savannahs in the North East, fields of Alang Alang grass in the Central Highlands and a lush tropical vegetation in the South.
Due to its remote location, Sumba has seen few developments in the last decades, allowing its population to preserve its culture and still follow the ways of their ancestors, earning itself the name “The Lost island”
Sumbanese believe in animism and in Marapu, a religion that is devoted to the worship of ancestors, which they practice through impressive megalithic burials, animal sacrifices, and the fierce Pasola festivals, where clans of horsemen battle each other with spears, hoping to spill as much blood as possible in order to fertilise the land. It is a fascinating culture, one that extend to the most intimate details of their lives, from the way they dress – men still carrying a sword to their hip – to the organisation of their houses in traditional settlements.
NIHIWATU STARTED WITH A DREAM
It was the search of the perfect wave that brought Claude and Petra Graves to Sumba for the first time in the 1980s. The wave they discovered was so remarkable that it would later become known as God’s Left Hand, one of the best Left-hander break in the world. They fell in love with the spot and dedicated the next decades to build what was first a modest surf retreat, with the vision of keeping it secluded and in harmony with the surrounding nature and its community. Calling it Nihiwatu or “mortar stone”, in reference to the name given by early settlers to the stunning rock formation along the tide. They spent the first years building the resort camping on the beach, with its legend growing among the surf community and a few discerning travellers. In 2012, as they were looking for investors, they caught the eyes of financier Christopher Burch and hotelier James McBride who together expanded the resort, while perpetuating the Graves’ philanthropic vision and legacy.
Our first sight of Nihiwatu came from the top of a cliff. A series of peaked thatched roofs blending seamlessly in a vast expanse of lush tropical vegetation and overlooking a spectacular unspoilt sandy beach
For the next few days we would stay in one of the Marangga Villas, a romantic ocean-front one bedroom villa, with its private garden and plunge pool, outdoor shower, dining and lounge area and a spectacular cliff top bale overlooking the Indian Ocean.
Nihiwatu is remarkable at integrating luxury with its surrounding environment, paying homage to its Sumbanese location, with constant references to the local way of life and materials found on the island. The thatched alang alang roofs, the bamboo structures and the ikat weaved fabrics are just few indications of the resort’s connection to its community and habitat.
Lounging on the cliff top bale, you have an outstanding view of Nihiwatu’s famous wave, also called Occy’s Left, in reference to surf legend Mark “Occy” Occhilupo’s mastery of the break. Occy featured in Jack McCoy’s 1992 classic The Green Iguana and his performance on the long barreling wave is still unparalleled. What makes the wave so special is it’s unique location on the West coast of Sumba, exposing it to swells generated by the Southern Ocean storms and travelling across the Indian Ocean to culminate here. To keep it exclusive, the resort limits the numbers of surfers to 10 at all times for each session.
In addition to each villa having its own private pool, Nihiwatu also has a spectacular communal lap pool, for guests to mingle and enjoy the incredible views over the ocean. We made the most of it!
LAID BACK LUXURY
We spent the evening sipping cocktails at the Boathouse bar with the other guests and sharing sashimi platters freshly fished from the ocean, before heading to dinner at Ombak, the resort’s sandy floored restaurant.
For all its luxury accolades, Nihiwatu is rather laid back: a fire set on the beach every night, guests barefoot on the sand, great food, great wine and attentive good-humoured staff is an idea of effortless luxury that simply won us over
NIHI OKA TREK
The following day we embarked on an excursion to Nihi Oka valley for a trek and a half-day of pampering at Nihi Oka Spa Safari. The two hour trek took us through a variety of landscapes, from lush rainforest to rice paddies fields and a traditional Sumbanese village. It was fascinating to walk through the beautiful peaked thatched houses and see how they were organised around Sumbanese ancient traditions. We met villagers and had a short glimpse of their way of life, families all gathered together, children playing a game of badminton, a cattle herder passing us. The kids’ cheekiness was fun to see and a privilege to meet them.
NIHI OKA SPA SAFARI
At the end of the trek, we emerged into what one could only call a vision, Nihi Oka Spa Safari: a dream like series of cabanas, tree huts and clifftop bales set in the most stunning location.
At this point, you don’t really know if you are sweating from the two hours walk through the jungle or from the jaw-dropping view, either way you’re greeted with a big smile, a fresh coconut and a cold towel, and taken to your own ocean view bale for a gargantuesque breakfast.
THE SUMBA FOUNDATION
Each day at Nihiwatu has been simply incredible, but the highlight of our trip was truly our time spent with the Sumba Foundation. On our third day, we volunteered our morning with the school lunch program and had the privilege to meet and serve food to Sumbanese kids at Anakaka school. Sumba is one of the poorest province of Indonesia and access to clean water as well as malnutrition are still an everyday challenge for most of the population. The way to school can take more than an hour and kids often go through a whole school day with only a single meal.
The work of the Sumba Foundation has had an outstanding impact on the community. Since it was established by Claude Graves and Sean Downs in 2001, it has fostered a series of community based projects leading to date to the creation of 4 medical clinics, 100 wells and water stations, a malaria training center that has seen Sumba’s malaria rate reduced by 85%, and 16 primary schools
The foundation is also involved in economic growth projects, with remarkable vision for the future: assisting farming communities, it provides them with organic non-GMO seeds to ensure the integrity of their crops and has started a biodisel project, moving away from fossil fuels and switching to organic fuels to operate the generators used by the community, the foundation and the resort.
Check out the work of the Sumba Foundation here.
HORSEBACK RIDING AT SUNSET
On our last afternoon at Nihiwatu, Phil booked himself a surf session while I headed to the Sandalwood stables for a sunset beach ride. There I met up with experienced horsemen Carlos and Berto, who joined Nihiwatu many years ago. They chose a horse for me and encouraged me to come close and establish a connection with the animal. “It is important that she trusts you” Carlos said. I hadn’t ridden a horse for the last ten years and felt a bit nervous. But I was in good hands, and so fitted and booted, we set off for a ride on the beach.
I hadn’t realised the full extent of the beach’s beauty until that ride. It was simply incredible. We were passing through the massive rocks that gave the name “Nihiwatu” to the resort. Where they the same that the early settlers of Sumba had seen centuries and decades ago?
I asked Berto how much the resort had changed in the 13 years he spent working at the stables. He told me: “it is still the same”.
Heading back to the boathouse through the beach for a cocktail with the other guests, I felt suddenly overwhelmed by these last few days, my talk with Samuel, the beauty and rawness of this place, the work done to preserve the community and its culture…
I couldn’t help but thinking about Claude and Petra Graves’ dream… what they had achieved and the most precious gift that they could have offered us: to see the same unspoilt beach they fell in love with decades ago
Staying at Nihiwatu is truly a one of a kind journey, one that will not only leave you enchanted but also make you think about a better way to travel: Inclusive rather than exclusive, authentic not whitewashed, a balancing act of give and take where luxury only matters if its profits are being shared to make a difference.
I hope you enjoyed the ride.
(Pictures are all mine)
– The Tropical Nomad –
————————————————– TRIP NOTES ———————————————
GPS: Latitude: -9.777661 | Longitude: 119.376150
Getting there: Garuda Airlines and Wings Air both operate a daily flight connection between Bali’s Ngurah Rai Airport and Tambolaka airport in Sumba.
Staying there: A stay at Nihiwatu starts from 750 USD per villa per night and include all meals and snacks, all non alcoholic drinks, and mini bar with one full re-stock per day, as well as schedules excursions. We booked our stay at Nihiwatu with LUEX for their first hand knowledge of the resort as well as their expertise of the surf breaks in the area – highly recommended! Check them out here.