In June 2014, I visited the little-known Indonesian island of Sumba and its only five-star resort, Nihiwatu. Here’s why I’m already itching to go back…
I had been looking forward to visiting Nihiwatu and the island of Sumba for weeks, so I was disappointed to say the least when, the night before I was due to fly out from Bali, I received an urgent message from the reservations team: the flights had been cancelled. There was an ash cloud, following a volcanic explosion on another island.
I had international flights leaving in a few days, so if the rumours were true – that flights flying south from Bali would be cancelled for up to ten days – I would have to cut Nihiwatu out of my itinerary.
Fortunately, luck was on my side. After a hastily arranged stay in Seminyak and a great, impromptu night out, which more than made up for the delay, I received another urgent message from the Nihiwatu reservations team the following morning as I was enjoying my coffee:
“There’s a flight to Sumba today at 11.20am…If you get there by 10.45am we’ll fast-track you…Hurry! You can do it.”
I have never packed my bags so quickly, and within the hour I found myself in the airport departure lounge, ready to go to Sumba. Naturally, the flight was then delayed.
As we waited to board, I noticed a tall, wiry man with a sun-beaten, craggy face, with the word ‘Nighiwatu’ (I later found out that this is the original spelling of Nihiwatu) tattooed on his leg. I’m yet to see anyone with the words ‘Four Seasons’ branded onto their skin, so I took this to be the first sign that Nihiwatu wasn’t going to be like any ordinary luxury hotel.
Flying from Bali to Sumba – a flight that takes around an hour; there are now two scheduled flights a day, as opposed to a couple of years ago, when there were only chartered flights – we took an ash-avoidance detour and approached the airport from the east. We crossed a bare landscape, flat and sun-bleached, which then changed as we travelled westwards, becoming more undulating and hilly.
Once we arrived at Tambolaka airport in the north-west, we climbed into a car for a 90-minute drive to Nihiwatu, located on the south-west coast of Sumba. The winding road climbed up into the hills and revealed glimpses of the traditional lifestyle of Sumba – a tiny child hauling a huge water buffalo along by a rope, a man with a sword strapped to his hip, riding his Sumbanese horse along the roadside – a place that has yet to be affected by tourism and Westernisation.
Sumba is not a well-known island, but this is part of its undeniable charm. An hour’s flight south-east of Bali – of which Sumba is twice the size – life here has been largely untouched by the outside world. Nihiwatu is currently the only five-star resort on the island.
Tradition is staunchly adhered to on Sumba, although visitors might be relieved to find that the practice of headhunting has died out. However, men still carry swords with them; village disputes are often solved by sword fight; and in February and March, Sumba holds Pasola, a jousting festival that sometimes results in death, despite the blunted spears that were introduced in an effort to prevent bloodshed. In Sumba, death is not feared in the way it often is in the West, but is celebrated with livestock, horses and buffalo sacrificed at funerals. The culture of death is further evident in the megalithic tombs that pepper the island’s terrain.
Despite this ‘dark’ side to the Sumbanese culture, the people were some of the warmest and friendliest I have ever met. The smiles of the staff at Nihiwatu are wholly genuine, which is something often lost in many luxury hotels where ‘service with a smile’ is a requirement rather than a natural response. The fact that many of the returning guests (many of whom have been coming back for years) greeted the staff with a hug is testament to the real bonds that people form on this island.
The Sumba Foundation
One of the benefits that Nihiwatu has bought to Sumba is the Sumba Foundation, set up in 2001 by the founder of Nihiwatu, Claude Graves, and Sean Downs, who visited for a surfing holiday in 2001. All the profits from Nihiwatu go to the Sumba Foundation.
One of the greatest achievements of the Sumba Foundation to date is the 85% reduction of malaria cases in Sumbanese children in the villages targeted by the foundation; prior to this achievement, 62% of children under five years old had malaria.
When I arrived at the resort, it was everything I hoped it would be: blending tastefully into the hillside, the buildings are spread out, linked by sandy paths and stairways shaded by vine-covered trellis’. Lunch is served with a view of ‘The Wave’ – a constant distraction for many of the die-hard surfers at the resort – and dinner presented further up on the hill, with a choice of communal tables or private spots overlooking the sea. During the day, there’s always a cold coconut or beer on offer down at the Surf Shack, where you can chat with the Watermen about anything from life on the island to the technicalities of free-diving.
The villas (of which there will be 32 by the end of 2014) are beautiful, airy and spacious, with natural materials, such as coconut-shell cabinets, and local fabrics hanging decoratively on the walls. A plunge pool overlooks the sea, which I could see through the trees, and a daybed provides the perfect spot for an afternoon snooze to the sound of the surf.
Nihiwatu is set right in front of The Wave. This is the reason for Nihiwatu’s existence. Claude and his wife Petra arrived on the shores of Sumba in 1988 on a search for the ‘perfect wave’. They found the deserted lefthander at Nihiwatu and promptly set up camp on the beach; four years later, the locals allowed them to build on the land, and Nihiwatu was born.
Offshore: Surfing, Snorkelling & Spearfishing
That story in itself is testament to how great the surfing is at Nihiwatu, but the regulars also back up the claim. The man I spotted at the airport with the word ‘Nighiwatu’ tattooed on his leg is one of the resort’s longest standing clients, a Californian former pro-surfer named Terry Simms.
A real character, Terry has been surfing for most of his life and now makes a rather cushy living by travelling to several of his favourite surf spots throughout the year as a private instructor to his high-grossing clients. Having travelled all over the world surfing, the fact that he counts Nihiwatu as his favourite destination counts for a lot, although Terry says it’s not just the surf itself, it’s also about the people and the whole vibe; indeed, he not only proposed to his wife at Nihiwatu, but it was also where he honeymooned and – apparently – conceived his daughter. As an aside, at one point I found myself having lunch with not only Terry, but two other men who had both proposed to their wives at Nihiwatu. It is that kind of place.
But, back to the water – after all, this is still the focus of Nihiwatu. The original rule remains firmly in place, in that only ten registered surfers can be at the resort at any one time, and this is one of its major attractions.
It’s not just Terry who has been taken by Nihiwatu. Champion pro-surfer Mark Healey is now head of Healey Water Ops at Nihiwatu, although when I visited, he had just dashed off upon hearing of a big wave in the Philippines (as you do).
Healey heads up a team of Watermen, who take guests surfing, diving, freediving, fishing, spearfishing and stand-up paddle boarding.
On my first morning, I headed out on a fishing excursion with Chris, the resort’s resident angling enthusiast. Chris had the idea to create a FAD (fish aggregating device) 17 miles offshore. The FAD is a raft, attached to a spot in the open water with a weight. After a time, the FAD forms algae, which attracts small fish, which then attract bigger fish. The result is a fishing haven in the middle of the sea.
I’m not going to lie, I was dreading the fishing trip a little. I will try my hand at most things, but I knew my tendency to seasickness (perhaps due to a near lifetime of city dwelling) might hinder my enjoyment. However, I took my seasickness tablets and headed out, eyes set firmly on the fading outline of the coast.
I was feeling pretty good, until we arrived at the FAD, which we began to circle. When we took out the bait and the smell of fish flooded my nostrils, I felt my stomach churn ominously.
And then something amazing happened. We started getting bites. Not just one, after an hour of thumb-twiddling (which is my expectation of fishing), but constant bites – and my seasickness all but disappeared. At one point, every person on the boat was furiously reeling in each of the five lines. Aided by Chris’ commands to ‘keep reeling, keep reeling!’, I managed to haul in a few big fish, including an eight-kilo mahi mahi, shining colourfully in the water, and a couple of wahoo. We ended up bringing back around 100 kilos of fish, much of which later became sashimi for dinner – it doesn’t get much fresher than that.
While I was out on the boat, I jumped in for a spot of snorkelling and spearfishing with Chad. Hailing from Florida, Chad is a great freediver and spearfisherman. He was in his element at the FAD, as there were shoals and shoals of fish swarming around us, as well as lots of little reef sharks, all clustered in the middle of the sea. I tried to spear a fish for myself, but given that I have the hand-eye coordination of a blind cave fish, it’s no huge surprise that I was not successful.
Onshore: Hiking & Destination Dining
One of the major changes in the resort over the last couple of years is the shift in emphasis. Although surfing is still a huge part of Nihiwatu, the resort is attempting to reach out to other types of guests, with a myriad of activities on offer; I don’t surf and I am desperate to return, so the strategy is obviously working.
Early one morning I headed out on a hike to Nihi Oka. The walk through forests of towering trees and across sun-scorched meadows took about ninety minutes, passing locals bathing in the river, men leading their horses along the grassy hillsides, and the typical peaked, thatched roofs of the Sumbanese houses. Tiger, our Sumbanese guide, scrambled to the top of a tree to cut us down some of the finest coconuts the island offers, and Marthen hacked a hole in each of them with his sword.
At Nihi Oka, we reach our destination: breakfast. Set atop a cliff overhanging a beautiful beach, under the shade of a huge tree, a laid table and staff with cold towels greeted us. Given that this was more-or-less in the middle of nowhere, it was quite a surprise to be served a full and delicious breakfast of Sumbanese coffee, fresh fruit and brownies, followed by scrambled eggs, bacon and toast.
On the way back, we caught a lift in the open-top Land Rover and passed a crowd of excitable school children, waving and high-fiving.
Release the Hatchlings
When I got back to Nihiwatu around midday, we found out that the turtles had hatched overnight.
Nihiwatu has a turtle hatchery, which is full of eggs bought from locals in the surrounding villages. Thousands of eggs are saved each year and when they hatch (as they tend to do overnight en mass), guests can release the hatchlings on the beach and see them safely into the surf. From then, it’s up to the turtles, but as experts estimate that only one in a thousand turtles reach maturity, we’ve at least given them a head start.
Nihiwatu regularly hosts local horse races on their beach, which allows guests to see the Sumbanese horses (or sandalwood horses, as they are often known) up-close. These small horses are central to Sumbanese life, as they provide transportation for people and cargo, as well as having cultural importance.
We placed some bets (the money went to the Sumba Foundation) and watched as the biggest horse and rider got pipped to the post as a tiny horse nipped in at the last second, just as the former was raising his arms in celebration. He didn’t seem to mind, though, and proceeded to strut around posing for photos.
Feeding the Soul
As well as feeding the body – Chef Bernard, the German-Mexican chef is superb – Nihiwatu also aims to feed the soul. There’s yoga with instructor Chelsea – who is also a Dive Master – and massages on offer in the Jungle Spa or at the waterfalls. I had an excellent, strong, full-body massage on my terrace, which was bliss.
But there is something about Nihiwatu that goes beyond treatments and meditation. The atmosphere, the people and the environment make for a really special place that pulls guests back year upon year. It is a truly unique resort, and I only hope it stays that way.