In 2017, Travel and Leisure Magazine named the best resort in the world as voted for by their readers. For the second consecutive year, the winner came not from Dubai, Monaco or the Maldives; but a small, unassuming corner of East Nusa Tenggara in Indonesia, on a tiny island known mostly for its horses and sandalwood forests.
Keen to see what could have put this modest location on the map, Panorama Destination ventured out on a voyage of discovery. Setting off from Jakarta in the early hours, the journey felt like so many others in Indonesia. Transiting in Bali was familiar too. It was from there that our world began to change.
The propeller blades of our twin-engine aircraft, twirling over the rugged and rippling hills of Sumba below, told us we were entering the realms of adventure, following in the storied footsteps of Alfred Russell Wallace, David Attenborough and Laurence Blair to the outer recesses of the Ring of Fire; off the beaten track and into a land of magic, monoliths and mysteries.
“Imposing stone tombs adorned with fresh flowers”
The road from the airport in Sumba snakes through villages and farmland, past crumbling churches and imposing stone tombs adorned with fresh flowers. Enormous arching horns protrude like spears from muddy pools in the fields, where buffalo wallow in the mud and sturdy horses graze.
All over the island, the distinctive pointed roofs of village houses can be seen jutting through the trees - made from native alang-alang grass with sides of plaited bamboo, these ubiquitous structures appear like giant woven wizard hats, assembled in circles with untold secrets lurking inside.
These curious huts are home to ancient heirlooms – iconic ikat fabrics, colonial coins and even the occasional trophy from the bygone days of headhunting; treasures and relics of clan battles, all hidden away in the soaring wooden rafters.
At the end of the road, nestled in a natural enclave on the coast, we crest a hill that overlooks the sea. Here sits Nihi Sumba; we have arrived at the edge of wildness. Upon arrival at the resort, the reasons for its reputation begin to reveal themselves.
Our first taste of Nihi Sumba is a warm welcome, followed by a trip through the trees to our villa, named Marangga. The accommodation at Nihi Sumba creates a perfect balance between traditional design and modern comfort; each secluded cottage is built in the distinctive style of Sumbanese village huts. The high, sloping rooftops provide a cavernous and cool interior.
Each villa has its own character, with many corners hiding little flourishes, sweet surprises and personal touches. From the personalized welcome mat drawn in sand that greets us upon arrival, to the complimentary sweets and treats from Nihi Sumba’s very own chocolate factory, staying in Nihi Sumba is defined by luxury service, unfaltering care and a meticulous attention to detail.
All Marangga cottages feature a bedroom (48.68 m2) with a private garden, outdoor shower, bathtub, outdoor dining and lounge area, terrace and decking complete with a private plunge pool (30.8 m2). The spectacular Cliffside Bale is elevated above the sea to provide a little nook for daytime sun bathing or stargazing at night.
Our villa opens out into a lush garden that traps the sun in the morning and gathers the first rays of dawn into little jewels of ocean mist on the jagged leaves of pineapple fruits. A sun deck and sofas cluster around an infinity pool, looking out to the sea, where the first waves of the day are breaking. The first percussive notes of rain on leathery palm leaves just add to the beauty of the scene as we cross the threshold of our new home.
Suitcases sit forgotten and unopened by the door as we gaze in wonder; breathing in the beauty of our new home and wondering what the next few days will bring.
The day begins with breakfast. Nihi’s menus are bursting with fresh ingredients and flavours, filled to the brim with delicious local specialties and indulgent foreign favourites.
Thanks to the resort’s three restaurant areas, the experience of dining can be as varied as the food itself. The Ombak Restaurant, Boathouse and Nio Beach all offer a different ambience and backdrop for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with each location offering up its own character to match the sumptuous treats on offer.
With a stocked ocean larder on the doorstep, seafood is something of a specialty here. Fish of all shapes and sizes are bursting with an array of spices, herbs and tangy flavours, enveloped in the delicately smoky aroma of coconut and bamboo from the resort’s signature barbeque experience.
In addition to the lovingly decorated dining spaces, guests can choose to dine alone in their villa, or enjoy a romantic candlelit banquet for two beneath the stars, served diligently and discreetly by a personal butler.
With bellies full and bodies re-fuelled, we head to the waves for some action.
“A hollow, rolling monster that converges on the doorstep of the resort”
The wave at Nihi Sumba is the stuff of legend - known as one of the world’s top breaks, it has developed an almost mythical status in surfer circles.
Named ‘Occy’s Left’ in honour of the Australian surfer and filmmaker Mark Occhilupo, who put the location on the map, Nihi’s wave is a hollow, rolling monster that converges on the doorstep of the resort in three barrel sections, as waves from the west and the south come tumbling over the reef. These unique conditions create a fast, temperamental and tempestuous beast that is off limits to all except the guests of Nihi Sumba. An absolute must for surfers’ bucket lists the world over.
Carl Johan Kimell – known locally as CJ or by his Sumbanese name, Amewawu - is the resident surf master at Nihi Sumba. He knows the pulsating rhythms of Occy’s Left better than anyone. Trained as an architect in Sweden, CJ was drawn to Indonesia in search of adventure and to satisfy his wanderlust. His travels have brought him here, to the edge of wildness, tasked with taming one of the world’s most unpredictable and spectacular swells.
For him, there is no better job in the world: “I’ve never surfed a wave that diverse”, explained CJ as we sat down to a cold beer and a chat over the crash of the waves . “It changes moods on every wind and tide and swell. On its day, it can give you the ride of your life”, he added.
Having surfed a little in Java and Bali, I took to the waves expecting a reunion with the lazy, stable swells of the mainland. The very first drop-in on Occy was a wake-up call and a reminder of who is boss. Surfing Occy’s Left is like waltzing with a silverback gorilla; a majestic experience, but if you put a foot wrong then prepare to be pulverized!
Another of the island’s wild and legendary inhabitants can be found just up the shoreline, tucked away amongst the trees at the Sandalwood Stables and raring to get out and ride.
Sumba’s horses are intrinsically linked to the island’s history, and continue to feature in the modern incarnations of ancient rites and rituals. For centuries, these stocky animals have been warhorses for the Sumbanese Pasola festival, when the island’s men joust and jockey to prove their skill and devotion to the gods in preparation for the new harvest season.
Guests at Nihi Sumba can venture out onto the 2.5 kilometres of pristine white sandy beach owned by the resort, or delve into Sumba’s rippling and rugged interior to discover the island on horseback.
“Step back in time to a land of warriors and goddesses”
Nihi Sumba’s guides include a horse whisperer and the riders of the Pasola clans among their number. Their skill as warriors, riding bareback at breakneck speeds in the parade grounds of the Pasola fields, come in equally handy when plodding blissfully through the surf of Nihi Sumba’s beach at sunrise.
For a step back in time to a land of warriors, goddesses and the synergy between man and beast, a trip to the Sandalwood Stables is an experience that’s not to be missed.
A destination the horses know well is Nihi Sumba’s very own spa village, known as ‘Nihi Oka’. ‘Nihi Oka Spa Safari’ is a package at the resort that serves up a dazzling array of spa treatments in a heavenly destination. Just reaching the spa is an unforgettable experience; you can choose to make the journey on horseback, or hop into an open-top jeep, which will whisk you away for a full day of indulgence and rejuvenation to the calming sound of the waves.
The path to Nihi Oka dips and bends and rises through canyons covered by jungle ferns, then curves through delicately cultivated gardens, past streams tumbling lazily down towards a clearing in the tropical palm trees. Here, perched atop a cliff overlooking the ocean, is Nihi Sumba’s spa.
Refreshing breezes sweep up from the ocean, scented with jasmine and Aloe Vera from the nurseries that grow the spa’s ingredients. As we make our way to our very own villa, crickets’ wings chatter in the undergrowth; soft green grass on the fringes of stepping-stones, where butterflies flirt in the wildflowers.
“Delicate attention to detail and unobtrusive, attentive service”
We create our own personalized regime of indulgent spa treatments, then settle in for a full day of pampering, unfettered by time constrains and free to unwind in blissful isolation.
The gardens, huts and clearings of the Nihi Oka Spa complex include several private villas for treatments, a tree house restaurant, private beach and an infinity pool overlooking the ocean. In addition to a nutritious feast by the pool, one of our favourite touches was the mirror below each of the massage beds, tilted at an angle that allowed us to look out to sea during treatments and drift away with the waves.
As with all of the offerings at Nihi Sumba, the spa is defined by indulgence, delicate attention to detail and unobtrusive, attentive service. Due to the resort’s exclusivity, we were lucky enough to have the whole exquisite oasis to ourselves.
The dedication of Nihi Sumba stretches out beyond the boundaries of the resort and touches many corners of the island. The wider significance of its role in Sumba is truly special.
The Sumba Foundation is a non-profit organization created to bring about positive change for the population of Sumba and alleviate the burden of poverty on local people by providing improved healthcare, education, access to clean drinking water and economic opportunities. A substantial chunk of the funding for the Foundation comes from Nihi Sumba.
“Positive change for the people of Sumba”
During our stay, we got to see this funding in action, with a visit to one of the Foundation’s schools and a malaria clinic. Built in 2004 as part of the Foundation’s wider Malaria eradication program, the clinic reaches out to an area covering around 120 square kilometres, encompassing 400 villages and around 22,000 people.
The Foundation’s four clinics are staffed by fifteen WHO-certified microscopists who analyze plasma slides; 200 more have been trained and certified by the Foundation. The clinic we visited treats around 700 people each month. On the morning we arrived, ten people had already been screened for Malaria, five of whom had tested positive.
Through education and outreach initiatives funded by the foundation, Sumba’s clinics have helped to catch symptoms of the disease early enough to make some headway with treatment. Since the project started, infection rates in the surrounding areas have dropped by 85%. On average, the programme saves the lives of 2 to 4 children every week.
We came face-to-face with some of the main beneficiaries of this action at one of the sixteen primary schools supported by the Foundation. SD Impres Anakaka is built, funded and staffed by the Sumba Foundation in collaboration with Save the Children. Clustered in a clearing of banana groves and dusty scrubland, the little school is home to 339 students, aged from five to thirteen years old. Here, children get access to books, food and clean drinking water as they prepare for Indonesia’s national exam. The school is a valuable foothold in education for local families. In total, more than 4,000 children in Sumba have access to education thanks to the contributions of Nihi and the Sumba Foundation.
The work of the Foundation is an eloquent example of how tourism can directly benefit local communities; Nihi itself is a heavenly escape for guests, but through its support for the Sumba Foundation it also provides the means through which Sumba’s people can break the bonds of poverty and create better lives for themselves.
Nihi Sumba does a great deal to help the people of Sumba; the resort is the island’s biggest employer, with over 250 dedicated members of staff – 90% of whom were born locally. Nihi also provides free English lessons to its employees, helping them to broaden their horizons.
To keep the kitchens stocked with fresh organic produce, Nihi gives away seeds and saplings to local farmers, who can then sell the fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices back to the resort. There is a symbiosis that exists here between the resort and the local population that is virtually unheard of in an industry dominated by growth at all costs, where development resembling exploitation can so often appear as slash and burn.
The Nihi Sumba was born out of a deep appreciation for the people, spirits and traditions that bestowed its name; the resort exists for the people who helped to build it and continues to operate in honour of their beliefs and culture.
The people of Sumba are the proud architects and custodians of this superb oasis, perched on their sacred shores. Nihi in turn provides them with employment, education, healthcare, a manageable influx of tourism and a sense of pride that comes, not from charity, but from standing on their own two feet and presenting their unique heritage to visitors.
Nihi is Sumba’s gift to the world; through the work of the Sumba Foundation, guests are able to give something in return to the wonderful people of this storied and special island.
Sumba sits on the fringes of Indonesia’s great sprawling archipelago, away from the well-trodden chain that includes neighbouring Bali and Lombok. As a result, Sumba’s native language, religion, customs and traditional lifestyle have all been preserved remarkably intact throughout the ages. Sumba’s culture is truly unique.
Here, the pages of history can flutter back through the ages to a time of monoliths and animism, where ancient spirits dictate the daily lives of a proud and distinctive people. At Nihi Sumba, time also swirls forward, to a future in which high-end tourism development does not take place at the expense of the environment or to the detriment of local customs; where the most luxurious and indulgent getaway can also be a haven where one can find commonality with nature and a shared history.
Nihi is known as ‘the edge of wildness’. But in contrast to its rugged surroundings, every inch of the resort represents the very apex of luxury travel and the frontier of one’s imagination when considering top-end of tourism.
Nihi is as unique and special as Sumba itself; a sacred land of sandalwood, monuments and magic, set against the backdrop of immaculate barreling waves.