My wild Indonesian beach horse had a split personality. We headed to the tip of the three-mile-long Nihiwatu beach, me giving the animal polite but firm kicks to the ribs, yet it refused to so much as trot or go near the water. Then, and I knew this was going to happen, once we turned around and it saw where it lived it went, in two-wheeled terms, from being a push bike to a Ducati 1299 Superleggera. It went faster than anything I’ve seen at Ascot. It rode through the surge of the Indian Ocean, which was fun for the first mile. But as I pulled on the reins, and the nag refused to heel, the cartilage in my back went on strike and it felt like nails were being hammered into my spine. So, there I am, flat-out aboard one tonne of pot roast, and I see a couple on a romantic sunset stroll. Rather than scream HELP I decided to grit my teeth and try to look cavalier as I galloped past, leaning backwards ever further, knowing that at the end of the beach was a huge infinity pool and no way round it. Finally, as the frontier of sunbathers appeared, it slammed on its anchors, pulled a 90-degree left into its stable and, shaking and sweating, I prized myself off its saddle and gingerly slipped off.
That might be enough of a set-up to put one off Nihi Sumba Island (previously known as Nihiwatu), which has been ranked as THE best hotel in the world two years in a row. However, I call it a testament to its marketing motto ‘The Edge of Wildness’ and a place of adventure that few £1000-a-night resorts can attest. And before I get stuck in to telling you about sustainable luxury and eco charm, let me just say that this is a hotel that lives up to its billing; if you’re well-heeled and independently minded, with a subscription to National Geographic and the director’s cut of Point Break, you will love the place.
One of 17,000 islands in the Indonesian archipelago, and an hour’s flight from Bali, Sumba is the same size as Jamaica yet there’s only one proper hotel; this one.
Getting here from the UK was a mission, but that’s what weeds out the uncommitted. I fly 14 hours via Singapore and then on to Bali, where I check into The Legian hotel. This has been my Indonesian outpost in the past, thanks to spending much of my twenties lording it up in Paris with their executive chef, Australian Luke McLeod, who learned his way around a kitchen from Alain Senderens and Pierre Gagnaire. The Legian offers acclimatization, a massage for jetlagged limbs, sea bass ceviche and seared red snapper for the gullet, and a very deep sleep.
The following morning it’s off to Sumba Island, which is the antithesis of bright-lights-Bali. The passage is eased by Nihi having a team at Denpasar airport to sort luggage, queue-free check-in and a VIP lounge before boarding the hour-long Garuda flight to Sumba. There, I’m loaded into a canvas-topped Land Rover and begin the hour and a half drive south to Nihiwatu beach. I notice that all the men have machetes tied to their hip. Within minutes of steering away from Arrivals I’m slightly disconcerted by the stream of blood we drive through. Sumba is tribal, and I make a note to look up when they stopped eating visitors here (head-hunting, I learn, fizzled out in the 1960s), but in this instance I can laugh off my anxiety. I’m witnessing a Marapu religious ceremony, where a crowd is sacrificing two large buffalo right in the middle of a main road.
As we descend the hill into Nihi Sumba the most idyllic vista opens; traditional Subanese thatched rooftops poking out of the dense vegetation of banana, coconut and papaya trees. The hotel is largely camouflaged. Rice paddies and jungle make up most of the 560-acre property, of which just 65 acres is developed and spills onto a long, champagne-coloured beach. Beyond the sand is an isolated cluster of three large rocks with plenty of ancient folklore. These are the “Nihiwatu” – mortar stones – and they’re battered by one of the planet’s best surf breaks.
Only ten surfers each day are allowed to take on “Nihiwatu Left”, aka “Occy’s Left”. Such is its prestige, its attracts world champions as well as budding Keanus like me. Nihi is also a mecca for yoga practitioners, with an expert instructor always in residence. A covered yoga platform sits on the hill above the property giving unobstructed views across the Indian Ocean and unblemished south west tip of the island. Classes are held at sunrise and sunset and are included in the room rate.
Claude and Petra Graves discovered this spot in 1988 and settled here, camping out on the beach, drinking water from a creek and spearfishing for food. He’d grown up in New Jersey but had spent most of his working life in East Africa. Having established Kenya’s hottest nightclub, the Graves sold up and shipped out in search of the world’s greatest wave. Motivated by a desire not only to surf and be at one with nature but to help protect Sumba’s unique cultures and empower the communities, Claude now dedicates his time to the Sumba Foundation. Funded by profits from the hotel and individual benefactors, the charity provides malaria clinics, wells and schools. Its work is something Nihi encourages every guest to see. And I know one always reads how friendly the locals are, but the kids here are utterly joyful.
The Graves still live in “the big house” but are less involved in the running of the hotel since selling five years ago to American fashion and real estate billionaire Chris Burch and South African hotelier James McBride, formerly of Park Lane’s Grosvenor House and New York’s Carlyle. They’ve ramped up the luxury quota while preserving the rugged charm, turning it into a resort not only for salty-haired surfers but those who view sustainability and philanthropy as an integral part of wellness. This is luxury with a conscience, and the management want to attract the kind of travellers who might engage with local issues.
A lot of guests come not for a week but month-long retreats. The least expensive room in low-season is £600-a-night, while a five bedroom ‘estate’ in high-season bills at the daily rate of £12,000. Guests, therefore, are mostly millionaires-and-then-some, yet this is one of the least flashy places I’ve stayed in a long time. No Melissa Odabash resort wear or Chopard sunnies here; the guests are wide-ranging in age and nationality but united in boho style, anthropological curiosity and environmental sensitivity.
The boat house, surf shack and beach bar are convivial and shabby-chic, where guests and staff all mingle at sundown to boast of the day’s adventures. The main restaurant sits in sand and gazes across to the moonlit rocks. Each night baby turtles are released onto the beach, before everyone heads back to their cocktails or, in my case, a plentiful seafood platter topped with a lobster and a glass regularly refreshed by the Nihi’s Burgundian sommelier.
While the management is western, the hotel is 90 percent staffed by Sumbanese. The 33 suites are all individual in style but many ape the pointed alang-alang roofs of traditional Sumba houses, where grain is stored in the attic. Underneath, you’ll find discrete luxury with tropical bathrooms round the back and private pools snaking around the terrace. The mini-bar is complimentary and includes homemade gin, vodka and whiskey. There is also a chocolate factory on site so you can make your own confections. Think Robinson Crusoe meets Willy Wonka.
A highlight of Nihi Sumba Island is the Spa Safari, where you go on a 90-minute trek across the lush jungle, paddies and waterfalls, passing through hamlets with bale houses, their high peaks designed to connect with the spirits, and megalithic Marapu stone tombs where generations of villagers are buried. Once you’ve worked up a sweat you arrive at the most incredible natural setting for a spa you can possibly conceive.
The treatment rooms are open-fronted stilted huts built upon a cliff overlooking the sand and rock strewn peninsula. The colours below are every shade of blue. A short distance away is a pool and dining area. Having all this separate from the main property makes you feel even more at one with nature, and an angled mirror on the floor means you still see the waves while you’re face down.
In many ways, Sumba Island is a forgotten world but Nihi is a resort that is impossible to forget.