Headhunting, we’re told, is not unheard of in Sumba, the Indonesian island where Nihiwatu is located. But … it has nothing to do with recruitment.
On this raw and primitive island just 250 miles east of Bali, the Sumbanese have a history of not only taking heads as war trophies, but hurling spears at each other on horseback with the intention of spilling blood to fertilise the land. It’s not your typical setting for a luxury resort, but then again, not all resorts claim to be “on the edge of wildness.”
Nihiwatu’s existence is owed to Claude and Paula Graves, an American and German couple who stumbled upon Sumba island (and its legendary wave — ranked one of the top 10 surf breaks in the world) in 1988. After camping out on the beach for several years, they built a humble resort employing the local people and started The Sumba Foundation, an NGO that not only develops water stations across the island but has thus far, reduced malaria on the island by 85 percent.
In 2013, Nihiwatu was bought by Chris Burch (American fashion billionaire; ex-husband of Tory) and James McBride (veteran luxury hotelier and former president of YTL hotels), who are now developing all 560-acres of Nihiwatu into world-class standards while preserving the local culture and traditions. Furthering Graves’ cause, 100 percent of Nihiwatu’s profits go to The Sumba Foundation, and guests are encouraged to donate upon checkout.
The path to Nihiwatu is far from smooth — one-hour flight from Bali and 90-minute drive through local villages and dry, impoverished land — but it is worth every bump in the road. Once we made that final turn onto Nihiwatu’s driveway, the view of the 2.5-kilometre stretch of pristine, turquoise beach framed by bright fuschia flowers made us forget all about the long journey.
We were welcomed with cold towels and refreshing lime drinks, and then escorted to our private villa by our butler Simson, who was dressed in a Sumba-inspired uniform with a colourful headband, waist scarf and parang (translation: machete) tucked into one side. Apparently, every Sumba man — young and old — carries one, although at Nihiwatu, they only use them for chopping coconuts (phew).
Our villa at Marangga, like all 21 (soon to be 32) at Nihiwatu, was built by local craftsmen in the traditional Sumbanese way using indigenous materials such as Alang Alang, teak and rattan. Designed with tribal accents, the spacious bedroom with a flowing mosquito net faced out towards the sea, while our bathroom had double sinks, plenty of closet space, a giant bowl-like bath tub and interestingly, a toilet with no door (adding to the ‘wild’ factor, perhaps).
Outside was a rain shower, private pool and deck with lounge chairs, and a stone path that led down to a separate bale that brought us even closer to the ocean with prime views of the Nihiwatu wave. During sunrise, it was the perfect place to watch locals forage for seafood off the ocean floor; in the afternoon, surfers riding the waves; and at dusk, the beautiful sunset of Nihiwatu turning the sky infinite shades of orange.
There are no televisions or phones in any of the villas, but there is strong Wi-Fi and plenty of electrical outlets in the rooms, usually side-by-side, to keep all your gadgets juiced up.
Nihiwatu has two main restaurants: Ombak, a bar/restaurant that serves breakfast and dinner with a suberb view over the beach and Nio Beach Club, an open-air seaside restaurant that serves lunch right by the water. Both have sand floors to wriggle your toes into, not to mention a small but delicious selection of Western and Indonesian dishes such as burgers, pizza and lamb chops, to gado-gado, chicken satay and fried noodles.
To mix things up, there’s a jungle barbecue party every Thursday at Ombak with fresh catches on the grill, while Nio Beach Club hosts the weekly Sumba White Nights party (so pack accordingly).
The best part about mealtime was the chance to meet other guests (a mix of well-heeled families with small children, couples and groups), either before dinner at the bar, or at the communal dining tables set up for the parties. The butlers also doubled as servers, greeting us by name and chatting with us about so much more than the menu.
How else would we have found out that Tinus, a toothy butler with bushy brows, had 12 siblings and traded 50 buffalo in exchange for his wife (who happened to be the very elegant Dorkus from the F&B department)? Warm and friendly, the Nihiwatu staff — of which 95 percent is local — were always up for a chat.
While surfing is traditionally seen as the main draw for Nihiwatu (the legendary wave is reserved for just 10 surfers a day), there are plenty of other things to do like scuba diving, jetskiing, trekking, mountain biking, fishing, stand-up paddle boarding, yoga and pilates, just to name a few.
Most activities are included in the room rate except for special excursions, but here are three unforgettable experiences that no one should miss:
1. Trekking to Nihioka
A half day trip, the day begins at 7am with an hour-long trek through rice paddies and rolling hills to reach the private beach of Nihioka, where we were greeted by freshly chopped coconuts and an unforgettable treehouse breakfast lined with palm leaves, hibiscus flowers and with a panoramic view of the private turquoise beach.
After a breakfast of coffee, toast, fried eggs and bacon cooked over an open fire (plus baskets of muffins, brownies and banana bread), it was time for a sleepy foot massage on the other side of the beach, followed by some free time to swim and enjoy the waves.
Transportation back to Nihiwatu was by open-air jeep thankfully — a breezy ride through the local villages where we handed out high fives to all the students we passed.
2. Weihola village tour
Escorted by Simson, we embarked on a trip back in time to visit the local village of Weihola just an hour away from Nihiwatu. There, we walked through a dusty Sumbanese village of traditional huts shared by families and their livestock, which included pigs, dogs, and sometimes, buffalo (many of which are used for sacrificial purposes).
A lady with red, betel nut-stained teeth let us into her home, where we learned that fires were lit in the centre of the hut for warmth and cooking (hence the top-hat shaped roof), and the more buffalo horns a family had in their doorway, the more well off they were.
It was an eye-opening experience — a stark contrast between village life and life back at Nihiwatu, where air conditioning, running water and plush bedding were a given.
Back at the car, we shared our bottles of ice cold water with a few of the kids who’d followed us back (who’d normally have to walk for hours to fetch water from the wells), and their huge smiles were a humbling reminder of all the things in life we took for granted.
3. Horseback riding on the beach
With horses being central to Sumbanese culture, Nihiwatu has recently developed their own stables at the far end of the beach, with a Beach Polo programme in the works (McBride being an avid player).
Sunset rides are led every day by the resort’s very own horse whisperer, Caroline, who recently trained the wild Sumbanese ponies to be saddled. The ride took us down the length of the beach facing the brilliant sunset — reflected beautifully off the wet sand — before turning around to head back to the stables over a small hill.
Many have used the word ‘paradise’ to describe Nihiwatu, and while that’s true, it’s so much more than that.
Nihiwatu is a place that has found the perfect balance of luxury and sustainability, a place where once-in-a-lifetime memories are made and a place where you can not only interact with the local people, but have a direct impact on their livelihood — all by simply enjoying yourself in paradise.
Being “on the edge of wildness”, there’s a real risk of losing your head (and heart) at Nihiwatu, but luckily, it won’t be by machete.
Rates with full board start at US$900 a night at Nihiwatu from 1 March 2015. Visit www.nihiwatu.com for the latest information.