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On the crest of a wave

Born of a legendary wave off a pristine beach, a harmonious effort blending socially aware eco-luxury, sustainability, and authenticity has quietly propelled Indonesia’s Nihiwatu resort to the top of the world rankings 文/by Chad Merchant

It’s been called Indonesia’s forgotten island. Just an hour’s flight from Bali, its far more famous cousin, Sumba is a beckoning force to adventurers and seekers of different and fascinating cultures. But what really put Sumba on the map – if only to a handful of die-hard enthusiasts – was its waves. Reaching out to surfers like a magnet, the crashing, rolling waves of the turquoise seas surrounding Sumba’s rugged coastlines became an almost irresistible draw for those seeking surfing nirvana. And fittingly, perhaps, that search is where the tale of what is now the world’s top resort begins.
Nihiwatu’s story is a remarkable one, and also quite rare, if not indeed unique. In the spring of 1988, surfers Claude and Petra Graves came to Sumba in pursuit of the perfect wave and, at the end of an arduous two-week trek to the island’s rugged southwest coast, discovered the magnificent crescent of the Nihiwatu Beach, along with its soon-to-be-famous left-hand break. The couple set down roots, but not just to surf. Their intent was to build a small resort, and in so doing, to do something that would make a difference in their lives and in that of their neighbours living nearby. Their dream slowly became reality, but it was not without hardship.
For three challenging years, Claude and Petra lived without clean water, refrigeration, or electricity. They lived on the edge of the jungle, six hours from the nearest town and medical facilities, just as their Sumbanese neighbours did. In 1991, construction began on the resort. Villagers who were contracted to work were not only paid for their efforts, they were taught basic English, proper hygiene practices, and cooking skills. Only a few villagers initially showed up to work each day, but over time, the number swelled to over 500. Claude and Petra became intimately involved in the community, and that special relationship laid the groundwork for what they later transformed, with the help of some friends, into The Sumba Foundation. The Foundation set out to tackle Sumba’s most pressing crises: health, education, clean water, and eradication of malaria.
Fast-forward to 2012 when American entrepreneur Chris Burch travelled to Sumba, having heard of its incredible beauty and unfettered freedom. By this time, the Graves were looking for help to develop their vision further. Chris was so beguiled by his visit, he called on his friend, South African-born hotelier James McBride, who was at the time president of YTL Hotels, and based in Singapore. Together, the men found a deep passion to share in Claude and Petra Graves’ vision, and later in 2013, Burch acquired Nihiwatu and partnered with McBride with the aim of evolving the resort to world-class status, all of which would benefit the Sumbanese people. To say they have achieved their goal in less than three years would be an understatement. A substantial investment into the resort, already awarded as one of the world’s top eco-resorts, brought it to an entirely new level, all while maintaining Nihiwatu’s very special interconnectedness with the villages and people of West Sumba. And earlier this year, Sumba was cast from the shadows and into the bright lights when Travel+Leisure magazine named Nihiwatu as the number one hotel in the world for 2016.
And it is indeed a well-deserved accolade. Guests want for nothing during their stay at Nihiwatu. Each villa is assigned a personal butler who is part of a team dedicated to ensuring every need is met. The stunning villas – with evocative names like Marangga, Kasambi, and Lantoro – are a dream for upmarket vacationers, blending Sumbanese design elements and local building techniques with top-of-class luxury fittings and superlative attention to detail. Thoughtful touches abound, too, contributing to a subtle, understated ease and comfort that further underscores the resort’s sublime appeal. At times, it’s almost overwhelming how mesmerising Nihiwatu is: a natural, luxurious blend of comfort, authenticity, and tranquillity.
Dining at the resort is a sheer delight, too, whether at the main Ombak Restaurant, at the new Nio Beach Club, or in your private villa.
I particularly enjoyed lunches at Nio, my feet in the sand with the expanse of beach and ocean unfolded before me, while culinary delights were prepared nearby in the wood-fired clay oven. Australian Executive Chef Ben McRae leads the culinary team, and brings his passion and experience to bear on a range of dishes which skilfully marry traditional cooking with modern innovation, with a rustic and authentic flair. Food miles are kept to a minimum and sustainability is enhanced through the resort’s three organic gardens. The kitchen is also supplied by nearby farms, gardens, and of course the sea.
A suite of curated experiences is on tap, too, for those who want something to do when they’re not relaxing by their private pool or enjoying a beachfront lunch. At the top of the list is surely the resort’s signature Nihioka Spa Safari. A 90-minute morning trek through fields and forest, across streams, and by small villages, culminates with a welcome arrival to the resort’s sister site, Nihioka. Breathtaking scenery awaits as a private breakfast is served in an amazing treehouse pavilion, perched on a promontory overlooking the pristine turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean and the spectacle of the pounding, crashing surf. After a sumptuous breakfast, guests retire to their private cliffside bale, where they may indulge at their leisure in unlimited spa treatments at the hands of a pair of private therapists. Time is unregulated, and the menu of treatments may be ordered from as desired, with the resort’s open-air safari vehicle standing by for a return trip to Nihiwatu whenever it’s wanted. It is a magnificent indulgence in a remarkable natural setting. Beyond the Spa Safari, Nihiwatu offers a full menu of excellent choices, from bountiful horseback riding options to guided treks to secluded waterfalls and deep sea fishing, world-class surfing, and much more. There’s even a whimsically designed organic chocolate factory at the resort – an absolute delight for kids.
But none of this is what makes Nihiwatu so special. Surely, as a resort, it ticks all the boxes you would expect. But the soul of Nihiwatu defies easy explanation. It transcends the property’s exquisite design and attention to detail. It even goes beyond Nihiwatu’s enviable location, perched on the edge of wildness fronting that magnificent Big Blue and one of the region’s most legendary surf waves. I believe that what sets Nihiwatu apart is that it offers all of these elements in tandem with another: a beautifully authentic interdependence on the very people of Sumba whose lives the resort and the Foundation were initially envisioned to benefit.
This symbiosis manifests itself in a number of ways. First, the resort repatriates the lion’s share of its profits back into the community through The Sumba Foundation, an American-based non-profit organisation which to date has set up (and supports) over 15 primary schools, built and funded five health clinics, built dozens of freshwater wells which supply over 175 villages with clean water, and reduced rates of malaria – previously among the highest in Asia – by over 85%. The Foundation also works to feed primary schoolchildren at risk of malnutrition, an activity I was privileged to join, ladling out a healthy hot stew packed with protein, fibre, and nutrients to a gaggle of very grateful young children who lined up as orderly as anyone could ask, bowl and spoon in hand, and thanked me – in English – as I served them.
Nihiwatu’s property covers over 565 non-contiguous acres of land, but only 65 acres of this will ever be developed, the remained being set aside for farming, or to remain in its natural wild state. Though phrases like “the next Bali” are occasionally bandied about regarding Sumba, Nihiwatu’s owner is adamant that will not be the case, and is taking steps in land ownership to ensure it. Nihiwatu is also Sumba’s largest private employer, with over 90% of the resort’s 350 or so employees being local Sumbanese. The employees are given complimentary English lessons and vocational training, and earn good wages. That income not only supports the employees and their extended families, it flows back into the community and boosts the economy through basic consumer spending, giving locals the means to purchase needed goods and services.
Managing Director James Trollip explained to me the relevance of this: “Nihiwatu has effectively built and sustained an economy here that simply did not exist before,” he said. “We also invite local farmers to bring their produce to the resort every week, where our chefs will pay them for what they take. They are also welcome to harvest grass on the property for their own use. We also give villagers seeds from our organic gardens, so they can plant and grow food of their own and then sell it back to us.”
This unique connectedness also extends to the guests who visit Nihiwatu. The staff at the resort are pleased to arrange opportunities for guests to spend some of their holiday time volunteering with the Foundation, or visiting the clinics, water projects, school lunch programme, and community farming projects. The spirit of Nihiwatu also connects the staff and guests to each other in a manner I’ve not seen in other resorts, and they socialise and mix freely and easily. There is no corporate barrier, no rigid artifice. The staff are more like gracious hosts than management and employees, even hosting communal BBQ dinners where the resort’s guests and staff can mix and mingle – and they do so with ease and comfort, forming meaningful connections, creating indelible memories. It’s an extraordinary thing to experience, and it’s all down to the unique soul of Sumba which permeates the resort and all that it touches.
Nihiwatu guests are also shown the impact of The Sumba Foundation’s efforts, and it’s not uncommon, as a result of this exposure, for them to become benefactors to the Foundation.
What I found at Nihiwatu is truly a remarkable and very special relationship, one which both empowers the community and strengthens the resort’s considerable appeal in equal measure. As I was told, “Nihiwatu was founded on the trust and cooperation of the local community, and the resort would not exist were it not for the consensus of and benefit to the Sumbanese people.” Combining sustainable eco-luxury and hands-on authenticity with laudable philanthropy and a mutually beneficial and benevolent relationship with its local neighbours, it’s little wonder that Nihiwatu has vaulted to the top in such short order.