Alex Erdman of bespoke travel consultancy Local Foreigner checks into Nihiwatu, a luxurious, off-the-radar island retreat that's a 40-minute flight from Bali.
NIHI SUMBA ISLAND, Indonesia - When scouring high-end hotels with the eye of a hawk and nose of a hound is your job, reaching the wow-level is rare. As absurd as it sounds, hotels turn into checklists of likes and dislikes, amenities blur together, and destinations halfway around the world begin to move you less than spots much closer to home. Peering out the window of the plane, even before touching down on Sumba, I could already tell that Nihiwatu would be different.
Originally built by Claude and Petra Graves in 1988, the hotel was purchased and subsequently developed in 2013 by Chris Burch (ex-husband of designer Tory Burch), yet still retains its deep-rooted surfer vibe. Located on the island of Sumba, a 40-minute flight from Bali, Nihiwatu is the only true hotel on the island. While nearby Bali has become a household name with eat-pray-lovers filling big-box hotels, Sumba is off the radar of even the most well traveled. There is no industry, little construction, and locals live a life similar to those in the Hill Tribes of Thailand.
After an hour and a half drive with the top down in a safari-style truck through rural towns with a warm breeze blowing my ponytail in the wind, we arrived. Perched high above Nihiwatu, with a stunning view of the lush jungle bordered with golden sand succumbing to the sea, the long journey already felt worth it.
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Claim to Fame
There's an incredible wave in front of the boathouse that surfers travel worldwide to ride. The hotel only allows twelve surfers on the wave per day, so it's never congested and always a special experience.
What's on Site
The resort is small, with only 24 accommodations in various shapes and sizes, from one-bedroom villas (perfect for honeymooners) to four-bedroom estates (for families or groups of friends). While they're set throughout the property to maximize privacy, the resort's common spaces have been designed to promote a very social culture. Additional villas are in the works, including what is sure to become the most fantastic tree house on earth. Styles vary from villa to villa, although all have their own pools and traditional thatched roofs. The original estates built by the Graves Family were designed in a traditional Sumbanese style, with buffalo horns and photos of locals decorating walls painted in sandy reds and oranges. The new villas are more contemporary and sexy, with darker woods color schemes in cooler tones like lime greens and blues. As limestone is plentiful on the island, it used throughout the property and adds a beautiful and bright touch to the villas.
The villas, although luxurious, are not the crown jewel of Nihiwatu. What makes this hotel special are the people who are attracted to it. The staff and guests who are inspired to travel all the way to the "edge of wilderness" (as they like to call it), all add to the unique and remarkable spirit of the property. Each villa comes with its own butler, but, at the end of a five-day stay, they feel more like friends accompanying you from activity to activity and providing insight to life on the island. Guests are social and mingle together over cocktails each afternoon as the sun sets, while beach BBQs and themed dinners occur almost every other night. There is no single demographic as the property hosts a mix of professional surfers, honeymooners, workaholics, friends, and families. The beauty is that when you want privacy you can have it, but more often than not you will find yourself down at the boathouse sipping cocktails with new friends.
There is an onsite riding school, scuba diving, surfing, and boating. For beginners, "surfsafaris" can be taken to other destinations around the island to learn on easier waves. A highlight of the stay is embarking on a "spasafari" to Nihioka, their sister location about an hour-long hike away. Upon arrival, guests have breakfast in a Robinson Crusoe-style hut on a cliff above the water and are then taken to their private bale (a little hut common in Bali) where two spa technicians (one per person) await. There are two additional beaches here, and additional accommodations are in development.
The food is wonderful and the staff caters to every guest's needs. Of special note are the morning bread and a traditional Indonesian meal that can be arranged for those who want to sample the fragrant and flavorful dishes of the region.
Room with a View
My favorite accommodations are the Marangga Villas, which stretch all the way to the edge of the small cliff overlooking the water. Each comes with its own bale which can be made up at night for couples to sleep under the stars.
This Place Is Perfect For
Families, couples, or groups of friends traveling together.
But Not So Perfect For
Couples or families who prefer their privacy and would rather not socialize.
One of the highlights of visiting Nihiwatu is the access it gives visitors to Sumba. I walked around in awe during our trip, unable to believe that there were no other visitors on the island aside from those staying at the resort. The natural beauty is jaw-dropping, from the beautiful white sand beach on-site, to the natural waterfalls scattered around the island. Festivals occur throughout the year, allowing guests a special chance to witness traditional Sumbanese culture.
What to Do Nearby
The island has very little infrastructure, and no town center so to speak. Villages are scattered around the island and most staff come from nearby. I recommend walking through one of the villages on the way to Nihioka, surfing, a hike off-property, and lunch in a rice terrace. We took the most incredible hike to a remote waterfall about 45 minutes away from the hotel and were the only visitors. Anywhere else in the world, a destination this beautiful would have been crowded with visitors (or at least locals!), but we had it all to ourselves. That feeling of remoteness was what made the entire stay so special.
Good to Know
Guests should plan on staying for at least four or five nights, as travel times are long and you will not want to leave once you are settled.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
How to Get There
The closest (and only) airport is Tambolaka, an hour and a half drive from the property. Guests can reach Sumba from Bali. I recommend spending a few nights in Ubud prior to traveling.
The hotel will provide all transportation as there are no public options and rental cars do not exist on the island.