After 15 years, Justin Eeles returns to the resort of Nihiwatu in Sumba and discovers the wild natural beauty of the island and the charm and character of its people have remained virtually unchanged.


Returning to an emerging travel destination after a gap of a few years can often be a cause for disappointment. With the rush of unfettered development so often destroying the magic that makes a destination special, transforming it from pristine beauty to a tangled polluted mess, I wondered how much Sumba had changed since my first visit to the island. Would the lure of the tourist dollar have changed it forever or would the island’s wild nature and remote location have kept it off the radar?


Getting to the island is certainly less difficult – there are now regular flights from Denpasar, making it much easier to hop over for a few days to explore. From what I witnessed on a recent visit, thankfully not much else has changed.


Alighting from the sole plane on the dusty runway, I was relieved that the stark difference between Sumba and more populous islands like Java and Bali still hits you the moment you emerge from the cabin. The airport terminal at Tambolaka may be slightly bigger than before but the feeling that you’ve arrived somewhere new, exciting and virtually unchartered still remains.


My destination was Nihiwatu, a once secret resort known only to the world’s top surfers and a handful of lucky travel writers. Located on the dramatic south west coast, Nihiwatu was first set up by Claude Graves, a keen surfer who discovered the area’s unique attributes and decided to build a small resort for likeminded surfers, drawn to the natural beauty, wild surroundings and unique local culture of the area.


Over the years, as the resort has grown, mainly through word of mouth, it has attracted a wider and more well-heeled crowd, drawn to the seclusion, luxurious facilities and excellent choice of activities available. With a recent change in ownership, Nihiwatu has expanded even more, now offering a wider choice of rooms and facilities. What I wanted to see was whether this growth had affected the adventurous spirit and soul of this pioneering resort.


On first impressions, the opposite seems to be true. As I left the proud new terminal, I was met by one of the resort’s fleet of converted open-air land cruisers, a vehicle more associated with an African safari than a tropical getaway. It’s the perfect taster for what will follow – Sumba’s landscape and culture is in many ways closer to the arid African bush than her verdant tropical neighbours to the west, with Nihiwatu the ultimate luxury safari lodge. Should you wish air-conditioned comfort instead, don’t worry, the choice is yours – as it takes over an hour to drive to the resort, traversing the island’s mountainous interior before beginning the descent to the southern coast, I cowardly chose the latter option.


Located above a perfect stretch of sand, almost hidden in its surrounding rich vegetation, Nihiwatu blends seamlessly into the landscape. Offering a wide choice of accommodation, from palatial one-bedroom villas to an enormous five-bedroom estate, the resort can sleep up to 80 guests. Spread along the hillside, all rooms offer sea views and are just a short stroll from the hotel’s glorious 2.5km private beach. With the resort’s rooms and public spaces following the local architectural style of high thatched roofs, from afar it could be easily mistaken for a local village.


Its location, however, is the only giveaway – traditional villages in Sumba are built on high ground, making it easier to defend attacks from enemy villages. In an island where headhunting and bloody wars are not such a distant memory, the position of a village was very important to its survival. Although attacks no longer occur, the island’s annual Pasola festival reveals the population’s continued skills at warfare. Here rival villages compete in a frenzied horseback battle, staged to appease animist gods while sacrificing blood to ensure a fruitful harvest. Part of Sumba’s ancient Marapu religion, this is just one in a series of rituals, sacrifices and festivals that fill the Sumbanese calendar.


A visit to one of these traditional villages is a high point of a stay at Nihiwatu. With the resort employing a large number of locals from neighbouring villages, as well as providing health care and education through The Sumba Foundation, there is a strong bond between the resort and its surroundings, allowing guests the unique opportunity to experience this amazing ancient culture up close.


Many guests might find it hard to leave the resort. Miles away from modern life, almost completely cut off from the outside world (wi-fi is available if you can’t break free completely), this is a place to enjoy nature at its best.

Apart from the joys of surfing an un-crowded wave – a maximum of ten surfers are allowed out at one time – there is world-class diving and fishing literally on your door-step. For snorkeling, guests can simply swim off shore to a reef teeming with marine life or jump in a dinghy to explore nearby sites. Other watersports include paddle-boarding, jet-ski-ing and even horse-powered wakeboarding along the beach. With expert tuition on-hand from Nihiwatu’s team of sport professionals, guests don’t need to be an expert to enjoy these natural wonders. Apart from surfing and diving lessons, guests can also polish their riding skills at the resort’s impressive Sandalwood Stables. Here both beginners and expert riders have the opportunity to explore the surrounding countryside on a horseback safari or end the day on a sunset ride along the sand.


Continuing the safari theme, Nihiwatu has recently launched its Spa Safari, where guests trek from the hotel to a nearby village and then continue on to a coastal spa pavilion at Nihioka, perched on a cliff and surrounded by lush greenery. Here they are treated to fresh coconuts, healthy meals and unlimited treatments throughout the day in an area of outstanding natural beauty.

Dedicated to providing all you would expect from a wellness retreat, the hotel also offers beauty treatments at its Boathouse and Beach Spas as well as regular yoga and Pilates sessions in its glorious raised pavilion.

The hotel’s kitchens, under Executive Chef Bernard Prim, already offer an excellent choice of healthy cuisine. All restaurants feature vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free dishes, and the menu offers international delicacies as well as vegetables picked from the resort’s organic garden and fish plucked daily from the ocean.


With the long list of adventurous and health conscious activities on offer and the equally desirable option to spend your days horizontal on a beachside day bed, Nihiwatu offers an experience unavailable throughout the archipelago on one of the world’s fascinating islands. But don’t delay, because secrets like this don’t last forever.

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  Justin Eeles