Think of giving not as a duty, but a privilege….
This philosophy is very much the heart and soul of Nihi Sumba, a unique (and almost undiscovered) luxury resort on one of Indonesia’s little-known islands.
Today more than ever, luxury travellers are looking for holidays which are more than just beach holidays; they want an experience – access to a new way of life, culture, local food and environment. They want adventure, fulfilment, to learn new skills, and get a sense of purpose. I was looking forward to visiting Nihi Sumba and meeting its owner, Chris Burch, who bought the island in 2012, in partnership with renowned hotelier James McBride, with the single priority of making Nihi Sumba one of the best resorts in the world, operating in sustainable harmony with both the natural environment and the Sumbanese people. The duo has definitely gone on to achieve this, as several publications have since voted Nihi Sumba the best resort in the world.
Sumba is an island the size of Jamaica in the Indonesian archipelago that has been cut off from the rest of the world for so long that its ancient animistic traditions survive to this day. Only now is it slowly being drawn into the present with help of Nihi Sumba and the Sumba Foundation, a charitable foundation that has brought health, vital medicines and education to many of the Sumbanese people. Recent high-profile visitors to Nihi and supporters of the Sumba Foundation include David and Victoria Beckham and their family.
For travellers wanting a far-away escape with a unique culture, understated luxury, unrivalled experiences and a chance to “give something back” to the land and people, this is the place to go. I have travelled all over the world, and I still enjoy the feeling when a new place takes my breath away by sheer beauty. Nihi Sumba certainly did this, and fulfilled all my passions for “off the beaten track” understated luxury. Obviously, a travelling companion (in my case, a new husband) helps sets the tone for adventure, and our 5-day itinerary was filled with some truly unique experiences. This – as well as the setting and friendly staff – was key to a memorable stay.
Sumba is around a one-hour flight from Bali. Although twice the size, there is very little development and what hotels there are on the island are limited. Arriving by plane, you see how entirely different the island is to Bali’s mass tourism and populated hotels. After a 70-minute drive, we arrived at Nihi Sumba, which seemed an oasis of calm away from the street life and bumpy roads. We had an immediate view of the two and a half kilometre Nihi Sumba beach with its wild waves, including the famous left-hand break that attracts surfers from all over the world.
Each one of Nihi’s thirty-two villas have been designed and built with Sumbanese culture in mind. With magnificent views over the sea, we had a one-bedroom villa split over two levels, with an outdoor bathroom featuring a stylish copper bath and our own private freshwater pool. The conical roof was thatched with local Alang Alang grass and the interiors included local ceramics and traditional ikat textiles. The natural materials and subtle colours added to the feeling of wild beauty and calm.
The hub of social activity is the main sandy-floored Ombak (meaning “wave front”) open-air restaurant and lounge bar, which comes alive at night, when you can either mix with other guests at the bar or have your own candlelit dinner. (On one of the evenings, a party ensued and there were a few missing guests come breakfast time!) All the meals are included and you can choose from a wide variety of Western and Indonesian food. There are special dining experiences to choose from and as we love Japanese food, we chose the Kaboku Restaurant. Limited to just six people, the sushi chefs prepared a seven-course meal with an assortment of locally caught fish with wine and Saki pairings. All superbly prepared, and the food was as fresh as it was delicious.
Whatever you are interested in, the team at Nihi can create bespoke itineraries to choose from, including yoga, water sports, spear fishing, unique dining experiences, rice island hikes, sunrise spa safaris and horse-riding along the wild stretch of Nihiwatu’s white beach. Nihi Sumba Island has one of the world’s most coveted private waves. Known as “God’s Left,” experienced surfers from around the world come to surf here. However, to keep the surfing experience unique, Nihi limits the waves to ten registered surfers a day. The sea is too rough to swim in however, so we found just lazing by the Nio Beach Club infinity pool was equally as appealing!
One of our favourite experiences was when we took a one and half hour trek down through the jungle of the National Park to Matayangu, known as The Blue Waterfall, which although arduous, was really worth the effort when you first see the breath-taking blue falls. After swimming in the lake, our guide set up an Indonesian picnic above the falls. The trek up, however, took a couple of hours, which was tough and best done if you are a little fitter than we were!
The next day for me can only be described as one of the best spa days that I have ever experienced. My husband was anxious about the idea of another safari trek into the jungle but as it turned out, the 90-minute trek was an easy one across the rolling countryside and rice fields. On arrival at the cliff top spa, a fleet of staff bearing cold towels and fresh coconuts take you to a sheltered creek for a dip in the freshwater pool before breakfast. Overlooking the sea is a private breakfast area, where freshly prepared mango awaits you and a chef is ready take your order for a cooked breakfast. After which, you are shown to your own open-air, bamboo-clad treatment room overlooking the sea, where two spa therapists are ready to treat you with 3 hours of beauty indulgence – think deep massage, body wraps, hair smoothies and organic facials. I was in heaven! After lunch, we drove back through the villages to the resort in open-top vehicles – all part of the Nihi Oka Spa Safari experience.
Feeling utterly pampered, we got back to our villa just in time for a horse ride along the beach. This is a rare chance to have an entire beach to yourself as the sun is setting. We also had the opportunity to be part of a leatherback turtle release down on Nihi beach. The Nihi Sumba Turtle Hatchery was started in 2004 in response to seeing thousands of turtle eggs being sold in the local markets. Indonesia is home to six of the seven remaining turtle species in the world and in Sumba alone, they have found five of those species. This understanding for nature, the environment and the preservation of local culture is integral to Nihi and is part of the work that its owner, Chris Burch, and the Sumba Foundation are doing on the island.
The next day, we had a chance to visit the local school and clinic to learn more about the work of the Sumba Foundation from the General Manager, Kenny Knickerbocker, and the Health Program Director, Dr. Claus Bogh. What they have managed to achieve is impressive. Since the Foundation’s inception, 22 primary schools are now supported with education and food programmes, and they have built a network of health clinics, treating thousands of patients and saving hundreds of children’s lives with critical cases of malnutrition and malaria. Malaria infection was one the biggest concerns on the island and a 70% reduction island-wide is attributed to The Sumba Foundation Malaria Training Center, which was established in 2010.
“One way or another, everyone living in the area is benefiting from the many projects we have initiated over the years,” Kenny Knickerbocker told us. “Since the Foundation started 17 years ago, the communities are prospering, and families have been given an opportunity to rise out of poverty due to the health, education and economic programmes that we have put in place. Our projects have grown to now cover a 176-square kilometre area in West Sumba, but there is much still much to do,” Knickerbocker told us. All this work depends on the generous support the Foundation receives from corporate sponsorship and private donations and of course, from the Nihi guests (in fact, some 25% of the $800,000 annual funding that the Foundation receives comes from Nihi guests). Through support from Chris Burch, owner of Nihi Sumba Resort, all administrative costs of the Sumba Foundation are maintained, allowing 100% of donations to directly fund these meaningful projects.
We had a chance to meet with Chris, who clearly has a deep passion for the island and improving the lives of the Sumbanese. “I have always been a risk taker, and I knew when I first saw Nihi that I was in for the long run. The aim here was to have a positive and lasting impact on consumers’ lives, and to leave the place better than when we found it,” he told us. On our last night, I reflected on Chris’s words and looked back over the last few days of a wonderful stay and recognised that this little bit of paradise on the edge of wilderness, with all the good that Nihi and the Foundation are doing, is not only worthy of its title as one of the best resorts in the world, but also as a leader of responsible tourism, where every guest can feel part of a much bigger picture.