The Rebirth of Indonesia’s Sumba Island
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The Rebirth of Indonesia’s Sumba Island

© Hemis / Alamy © Hemis / Alamy

“Can you believe this place?” asked James McBride as he led the way to the beach.

“It sort of endorses your lunacy, in a funny way.” In his pink shirt and straw fedora, McBride was hopping over rice paddies like a giddy schoolboy. Every 50 yards we paused to take in another improbable view: rippling fields of emerald green, pandanus palms teetering on a clifftop, a rocky headland pummeled by surf.

We’d made the 20-minute drive out from Nihiwatu that morning to reach this 250-acre swath of undeveloped Sumba beachfront, which McBride and his partners had acquired only a few weeks before. But the veteran hotelier—who once ran New York’s Carlyle hotel—already had clear plans for how this new property, which they’d christened Nihi Oka, would enhance the original 15-year-old resort.

“We’ll bring Nihiwatu guests out here for the day,” McBride said, “to give them a whole new experience beyond the resort itself.” Those guests will have the entirety of Nihi Oka to themselves: eating breakfast in a tree house above the surf, swimming off the soft white beach, enjoying alfresco massages in a bamboo pavilion over the rice fields.

For now the terrain was still rough-and-tumble; we had to bushwhack our way in spots. It was 8 a.m. and we were already sweating under the Indonesian sun. All the while, McBride kept tweaking details. “We’ll put some stairs in here, so people can reach the beach easier,” he said, scribbling on his map, like Harold with his Purple Crayon. That’s what McBride loves about his role at Nihiwatu: the blank canvas, and the unbridled creativity it inspires. “You feel like you’re in Kauai sixty years ago,” McBride said. “Or Rockefeller, doing his thing in the Caribbean. We’ve got such a start.”

Asia's dreamiest and unlikeliest beach resort sits on an obscure corner of an obscure Indonesian island with hardly any tourism development. Sumba is 250 miles southeast of Bali (and twice its size); travelers must fly there first to catch an hour-long flight to Sumba’s tiny Tambolaka airport. Nihiwatu is still the island’s only proper resort.

Its story begins in the spring of 1988, when an American surfer named Claude Graves and his German wife, Petra, hiked across West Sumba, pitched a tent on the shore, and decided this must be the place. A decade would pass as they secured land rights, built the first bungalows, and hired local staff. In 2000, the Graveses finally opened their 10-room surf retreat, and called it Nihiwatu.

Why here? Directly offshore is the wave known as “Occy’s Left,” a perfect left-hander now revered as one of Asia’s most consistent surf breaks. Nearby are several equally untouched and even gnarlier breaks. All of this gained Nihiwatu a reputation as a surfer’s idyll—one with a surprisingly high standard of comfort, yet remote enough to feel you’d dropped off the map.

But the soul of Nihiwatu, from the beginning, was its relationship to the broader island community. Soon after the opening, the Graveses set up the nonprofit Sumba Foundation to bring health care, clean water, education, and employment to the Sumbanese. Since then, many resort guests have spent at least a few days volunteering at the foundation’s clinics and schools and visiting local villages. These interactions were part of what made Nihiwatu so unique, and earned it such a cultlike following. Repeat guests are 70 percent of the resort’s clientele—which includes pro surfers, wealthy amateurs, and the occasional non-surfing celebrity seeking splendid isolation with a sense of purpose.

By 2013, Nihiwatu had grown to 22 rooms, and the Graveses were ready to move on. They sold the resort to American entrepreneur Chris Burch (C-Wonder, Tory Burch), who brought on McBride as a partner. The new owners’ goal: to raise the luxury quotient but also retain Nihiwatu’s bohemian spirit and strong community focus. “Our job is to keep the balance,” Burch says. “Staying ethical and original and true to Claude’s epic vision, while also upping the level of sophistication and service.”

Meanwhile, Burch and McBride have gently expanded Nihiwatu’s footprint—not least with the beach at Nihi Oka. They now own 567 noncontiguous acres in West Sumba, of which only 65 will ever be developed, McBride tells me. “We’re buying land mainly to protect it, so what happened in Bali doesn’t happen here.”

After closing for six months of renovations, Nihiwatu reopened last spring with revamped public areas, a new restaurant on the beach, and nine additional (much larger) villas. Work is ongoing: by summer they’ll have a tree-house spa and 13 more guest rooms.

Were the changes on target? Shortly after Nihiwatu’s relaunch, I paid a visit to see what happens when a boho surfer haunt comes of age.

It was not an unpleasant task. I spent my week in Sumba in a state of suspended bliss, orbiting among infinity pools, natural mud baths, waterfall-fed swimming holes, glowing valleys full of rice paddies, misty mountaintop villages straight out of Tolkien, and a beach that looked as if it were airbrushed on the side of a van.

That beach is spectacular, with or without the left-hand break, and one can easily see why the Graveses pitched their tent here. It can’t have changed much in the 27 years since: every morning I’d walk the mile and a half to the end, and every morning mine were the only footprints.

Nihiwatu’s redesign—by the Bali firm Habitat 5—finds a winning balance between refined and raw. Guest villas allude to traditional Sumbanese homes, with steeply pitched thatched roofs and massive kasambi tree trunks for support columns. Sumbanese ikat tapestries and black-and-white photos of local villagers hang on ocher stone walls. Wide-angle windows overlook lush gardens and the sea beyond.

Local touches show up everywhere: bathroom sinks are hewn from slabs of roughly carved stone; wardrobes are fashioned from coconut wood. The space is natural where you want it to be, sleek where you need it—as in the seamless glide of sliding glass doors; the light switches that glow in the unfamiliar dark; or the straw paddle fan that swirls inside, not outside, your monumental canopy bed. Most striking of the new villas: the Kanatar Sumba Houses, where an outdoor shower is magically cantilevered off the second floor. All the other outdoor showers went home and cried.

Ninety-eight percent of the staff are from Sumba. Like most guests, I was assigned a butler, a jovial Sumbanese man named Simson, who arrived at 7 a.m. every morning bearing breakfast—papaya, rambutan, watermelon juice, house-made yogurt, Sumba coffee. (The foodhere is terrific, highlighting the bright, fresh flavors you crave in the tropics.) One morning Simson was limping because a scorpion had bitten him on the toe back home. “I didn’t check before putting on my sandals!” he said, as if it were his fault, not the scorpion’s. He quickly added that one seldom encounters them at Nihiwatu.

Scorpions or no, I can’t remember a resort on any island that I’ve liked more than Nihiwatu. And while it is clearly not for everyone—there are no golf carts to whisk guests around— I can’t imagine what sort of crank wouldn’t fall for the place.

As they reach out to a broader clientele, Burch and McBride are determined to honor Nihiwatu’s commitment to the island. To this day, all profits from the resort go to the Sumba Foundation. They’ve even added an on-site “Guru Village,” where doctors stay for free in exchange for volunteer work. During my visit, a team of Australian eye specialists was in residence; they spent their mornings surfing and afternoons performing cataract surgeries in local clinics.

Of course there’s an inevitable dissonance between Sumba’s privation and Nihiwatu’s privilege, between a subsistence-level economy and a butler-staffed resort. Perhaps that’s why so many guests are compelled to support the foundation and, not least, to visit Sumbanese villages. To do so is to realize how unique— and symbiotic—the relationship is between Nihiwatu and the island it calls home.

Sumba is overwhelmingly rural, given over to old-growth forests, rice and maize fields, banana trees and coconut palms, and undulating hills carpeted in tall green grass, suggesting a tropical Switzerland. Chickens, cows, goats, dogs, and ponies wander along the roadsides. Pigs roast on front-yard spits; water-buffalo hides are stretched on bamboo frames to dry in the sun.

One morning I joined Dato Daku, a veteran Nihiwatu staffer, on a visit to his village, a short drive away. The twisting path into Waihola squeezes between huge boulders, thwarting easy access. Dato showed me how sentries would perch atop the rocks, armed with spears to hurl at intruders.

Waihola itself is an otherworldly flashback to the Iron Age, and a reminder that Sumba is in, but not entirely of, Indonesia. Most islanders identify as Christian, not Muslim, though many still practice an ancient form of animism known as Marapu. At the center of the village are the enormous stone graves of clan ancestors. Sumbanese are traditionally entombed with their wealth, like pharaohs, which explains why the tombs are covered with slabs that weigh up to five tons. Elaborate funerals involve the sacrifice of dozens of animals—pigs, buffalo, cows, even horses. A family can easily go bankrupt staging an appropriately lavish ceremony.

Waihola’s 20-odd houses are set close together, with tall roofs shaped like Pilgrim hats and thatched in alang-alang grass. At the edge of the village is a 2,600-gallon water tank installed by the Sumba Foundation. (Before, women had to walk three miles to the nearest well, balancing pitchers atop their heads.) On one rickety porch two women sat at wooden looms, weaving the ikat for which Sumba is famous. The older children were excited to welcome a visitor. “Da! Da!” they shouted in greeting. The younger ones were not yet comfortable with strangers and their strange technology. One toddler beamed at me with wide, hopeful eyes; when I raised my camera to snap her portrait, she dissolved into tears and dove for her mother’s arms. (That said, her mother was wearing a Ramones shirt.)

Inside Dato’s house, the beds were covered in mosquito nets, also provided by the foundation. A cooking fire burned all day long at the center of the room. It was noon, yet too dark inside to see beyond the glow of the fire. In the smoky dim I could barely make out an ancestral sword hanging on the wall.

There is reason for the islanders’ fierce reputation. All Sumbanese men carry a machete secured to the waist with ikat cloth. It’s now used for more quotidian tasks—bushwhacking, opening coconuts—but not long ago it had a different purpose. Although headhunting is a thing of the past, clan-on-clan skirmishes are still common. That antagonism is also channeled into ritualized battles: Pajura, a group boxing match wherein contestants tie rocks to their fists, and the famous Pasola, a sacred Marapu festival wherein hundreds of horsemen charge and hurl spears at one another—the spears are blunt, but the casualties are real. Marapu belief maintains that crops will fail unless ample blood is spilled in the Pasola.

By the flickering firelight, Dato fixed us some betel nut. He offered me a gob and I began to chew, then quickly regretted it. The stuff was intense. I considered spitting it out but feared offending my host—especially since Dato had taken the sword off the wall and was now showing off his swashbuckling skills. The betel nut hit me with a dizzy head rush, making the scene feel even trippier than it already was, sitting in this millennia-old village while a wild-eyed, red-toothed man with a sword danced maniacally above me.

And what of Occy's Left? It still draws in the faithful, though the resort caps access at 10 surfers per day, to protect the wave and the relaxed vibe. But the upside of Nihiwatu 2.0 is that there’s now far more to do than surf. The downside is that once you’ve paddleboarded, free-dived, spearfished, line-fished, kayaked, snorkeled, and scuba-dived at Nihiwatu, all those activities are going to feel deeply disappointing anywhere else.

For this you can thank Mark Healey, the legendary big-wave surfer, who was brought in last spring as Nihiwatu’s head waterman. The 33-year-old Oahu native is also a champion spearfisher, free diver, bowhunter, skydiver, and part-time Hollywood stuntman. He would make other humans feel hopelessly inadequate were he not also a genuinely charming and curious guy. Talking with Healey over Bintangs at the resort’s boathouse became a favorite activity, as he recounted a life spent on and under the water.

Healey has a recurring dream: he’s hiking through a sun-dappled forest, when suddenly he spots a bluefin tuna floating 10 feet above his head. Oh right, he’ll realize, I’m in the ocean. Not that it makes much difference. “There’s only a slight, porous barrier between the air and the sea,” he told me. “It’s not so much a membrane as a continuum.”

Though he’d surfed all over Indonesia, Healey had never been to Sumba. When he arrived at Nihiwatu, he had precious little to go on. “There are no tide charts for this place, no depth charts,” he said. “It’s literally uncharted.”

Healey and I started by tackling Occy’s Left, which barrels neatly just 100 yards offshore. “It’s not a spectacular wave,” he allowed. “Not super dramatic. What it does have is consistency. Surfers don’t have skate parks or half-pipes we can go to, so a dependable set means you can get a ton of riding done. If you’re a surfer, that’s pretty special.”

I am not a surfer, but thanks to Healey’s expert instruction I got up on my first try. I flopped on every ride thereafter, though not for Healey’s lack of effort; he was unreasonably encouraging throughout.

The next afternoon we went stand-up paddleboarding on the Wanukaka River, riding seven miles from jungle to sea. The terrain changed at every bend: one minute Louisiana bayou, the next, Amazonian rain forest, then African savannah, then Moroccan oasis. The paddling itself was easy, though we had to pivot around wading water buffalo, villagers washing laundry, fishermen casting nets, and, most menacing of all, giggling gangs of naked children intent on knocking us off our boards. They’d dive-bomb us from bridges, cannonballing en masse. I’m a steadier paddleboard rider than surfer, but I was no match for the five Sumbanese boy-pirates who managed to board me, then shake me to and fro till I tumbled into the river. We all fell into laughter as we drifted downstream in the cool, lazy current.

Healey and I were up at dawn the next morning, riding 16 knots out—next stop: Darwin, Australia—on the bluest ocean you’ve ever seen. With us were Chris Bromwich, Nihiwatu’s master angler, and 12-year-old Jasper, a fellow guest and my fishing buddy for the week. The depth gauge read 4,900 feet. There wasn’t another craft for miles. Just below the surface were boatloads of mahimahi and glittering rainbow runner, as well as a circling trio of silky sharks. We dropped lines, and within an hour we’d brought up six mahimahi. It was like floating in a giant barrel.

Even better was leaping in with our masks on to watch Healey work his magic with a speargun—free-diving down 50 feet to stalk a four-foot mahimahi. Through the water we heard the spear find its mark: sssshhhhwwwooomp. Healey reeled it in and used his knife to deliver the death blow. A swirling cloud of blood formed a kaleidoscope of crimson and blue.

Two hours later, that fish was lunch, grilled and served on a bed of couscous with lime and coriander.

My final night, the boathouse bar. After yet another showstopping sunset, we’d all gathered around the fire pit to watch an equally transfixing display: out on the water, dozens of lights twinkled like fireflies. Local villagers come at low tide to gather urchins and seaweed from the tidal pools in front of the resort; their lanterns shimmered in the dusk.

I sat sipping whiskey with the boathouse crew. Chad Bagwell, Healey’s new right hand, used to run spearfishing excursions in his native Florida. He’d flown out from Miami only a month before, coming straight to Sumba. Two nights later he was on the spine of a mountain sharing betel nut with a wizened Sumbanese elder.

“I’m so jealous of Chad for having this be his first experience in Asia,” Healey said.

Marshall Boulton, the South African surf guide, nodded in agreement. “Twenty years from now, Chad’s gonna look back and say, ‘I was on Sumba when it was still unspoiled.’”

This set off a series of riffs about how fortunate they were, being on the ground floor of Nihiwatu 2.0.

“Back then we only had to dive two feet for a six-foot wahoo.”

“Back then we had to climb a mountain to get cell service.”

“Back then nobody had heard of us.”

Healey recalled his first week on the island, visiting a village chief. “I remember thinking: this guy’s great-grandfather twelve times over is buried in a tomb in the front yard—and he was doing the same thing as him.”

It was a good thing Healey hadn’t visited Sumba till now. “If I’d come here as a younger man, I might not have left,” he said. “I’d have ended up a hippie vagabond hermit, living in a cave by the beach, never going anyplace else.”

He gazed out at those twinkling lights and grinned.

“But I’d probably be damn happy if I had.”

Peter Jon Lindberg is T+L’s editor-at-large.

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