Luxury Explorer Review

5-Star Hotel Review

Nihi Sumba


An Indonesian island paradise

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Nihi Sumba
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Nihi Sumba


The southern coast of Sumba, Indonesia

Travel Information

50-minute flight from Bali's Denpasar International airport to Tambolaka, Sumba with 1.5-hr drive by hotel transfer through the forests and mountains

Top Tips

Sundowners watching the horse races on the beach. Hike to the spa for proper pampering. Visit the inland waterfalls.

5-Star X-Factors

Voted #1 Best Hotel in the World by Travel+Leisure - can you ask for much more?

The wild side of luxury

“There will be horseracing on the beach at 5pm, Ibu, with cocktails and snacks followed by turtle releasing. and the buffalo may come too" advised Marthen, our personal bitler, "Shall I pick you up, or would you like to find your own way to the beach?”

Just minutes after arriving, our heads were spinning, Contributing editor Kelly and I were standing on our top terrace trying to take in a dreamtime panoramic view, whilst simultaneously watching a golden eagle gliding on a thermal directly above our heads. There had been no time to process what we had just seen on our tour of our villa, one that hit the bullseye of my fantasy island hideout. Oh pinch me, I thought, I must be jet lagged, as every sense was flashing on overload.

A quick freshen-up in the jungle shower (to that view) and then we were holding a gin and tonic perching forward in an Adirondack chair, nestled in the nape of the crescent beach facing the most exquisite sea. An oversized orange orb was preparing itself for an amethyst coloured finale. ‘Riders in the Storm’ was playing in unison with the crashing of the rollers onto the pristine cream sand beacg.

Local men and boys, dressed in tribal costume, were preparing their beautiful sandalwood horses for a customary performance, similar to that of the Pasola; a race along the beach culminating in the throwing of a spear into an effigy (in this instance). You bet on a colour and all the winnings go to the Sumba Foundation; a philanthropic concern set up by the founders of Nihiwatu, Petra and Claude Graves, which supports education and fights malaria, malnutrition and more. The young men have been riding since they could walk, so bareback with spear in hand they gallop wildly up the beach with feathers flying from their headgear.

We chose red, he won, and we shrieked ‘hurrah’ clinking our long iced drinks in true winning style with our new island ‘besties’. We soon discovered what an awesome cause our winnings were going into: a sustainable ethos woven into Nihi’s DNA. The horse race was followed by the daily release of baby turtles from Nihi’s hatchery. We had only been at Nihi for two and a half hours.

The show was not over. This symbolic event was followed by a herd of beautiful ash-grey buffalo, guided by a young shepherd, with wide sweeping horns and a gentle demeanour, entered out of nowhere on stage right for a refreshing saunter in the shallows. They looked timeless, almost Stone-Age, standing unfettered against a sunset so unbelievably picturesque in purple, tangerine and pastel pink, while the sea reflected the twilight canvas, changing from ocean blue to a deep purple. They left as mysteriously as they had arrived, into the hovering mist of dusk that cloaked the horizon. Wow. We had only been here three hours.

The evening sky was flawless, we saw more shooting stars than we could count, or, was that the result of Nihi’s signature cocktail we enjoyed at the effervescent surfer’s Beach Bar? Perhaps it was simply the effect of the spellbinding alchemy.

Where are we?

Sumba is an Indonesian island about 300 kms east of, and a one-hour flight from, Bali, in the Lesser Sunda Islands. It’s a 90-minute drive from the airport to Nihi (formerly Nihiwatu), the island’s only 5-star luxury resort, where the ‘luxe’ is as much in the nature as it is in the nurture.

Sumba is twice the size of Bali but with a population of just 600,000. It’s still relatively tribal, but, fortunately, headhunting was phased out in the '60’s. However, there are still many rituals and generational traditions practiced here. Animals are both worshipped and slaughtered as part of ritual and sacrifice while they practice, both an animist Marapu religion, along with Dutch Calvinist Christianity, with a small minority of Catholic worshippers. It feels a far cry from the colourful Hindu temples and neon bars of Bali, making it blissfully more remote.

The shift from Nihiwatu to Nihi

Nihi, nee Nihiwatu, began as a surfer’s paradise founded by Claude and Petra Graves in the 80’s. We met Claude after the horse racing and soon realised that he is an iconic fixture of Nihi, with a past that keeps small crowds captivated for several hours around the bar, as well as owning a truly exquisite estate, Haweri, on the edge of the property. His vision when he arrived has evolved for sure, but he seems very happy with the way the passing of the Nihiwatu mantle has been curated.

In 2012 Chris Burch (husband of Tory) and South African hotelier, James McBride, took over both the property and Claude’s vision, and expanded it from a modest pilgrimage to a discreet, luxurious, 5-star hideaway that is still rooted in its legendary surfer days and resplendent nature. It is a destination for nature lovers, explorers, surfers, luxury island junkies, families, honeymooners, A-listers, bucket-list-tickers and, above all else, repeaters

It’s here you can expect the unexpected, creating moments that would be hard to capture anywhere else in the world. We spoke to many loyal returners, some of whom were on their fifth time back, and for them there is simply nowhere else like it. They couldn’t define the reasoning in simple paradisiacal terms, or luxury terms, they didn’t want to. You just had to get it, to feel it. And, we did.

The layout

The resort houses 28 villas, each one secluded in a plethora of tropical foliage with plunge pools, private decks, outside showers, divine beds and so on. The villas are all different externally and internally but each one reflects the essence, simplicity and beauty of the Sumbanese village architecture.

The basic principle of these villas - contrasting rustic with refined, rough surfaces with smooth finishes, using local materials wherever possible - allows the wild side of Sumba to embrace the creature comforts of contemporary 5-star. For example, the locally sourced materials such as pandan leaf weave were used to line the roofs and hand-cut sandstone was used to create a random pattern on the walls.

Our dreamtime villa

We stayed in a two-story villa in the Raja Mendaka estate, owned by Chris Burch. Marthen took us from the reception to the villa on a little white buggy, under the canopy of mangled forest overgrowth along with fragrant frangipani, neon pink bougainvillea, hibiscus, scented eucalyptus, the ubiquitous palm tree and several patches of manicured lawns. The omnipresent sound of the waves is heard above everything; the little engine, the laughter, the glorious Indonesian flycatcher, the green pigeons, the lizards and even your rain shower.

Pushing the buffalo horn-shaped handles to open our large wooden doors, we spied our garden, pool, and villa. The sun was lowering its brilliant sphere into the late afternoon, casting a frenzy of blinding diamante sparkles across the ocean and onto our tantalising pool, while the villa was lit up in a glow of golden honey.

You enter through a partially covered deck with table and chairs opening into a spacious living room with stylish island-chic furniture dressed in cream calico with burnt orange Aztec-design cushions, while a surround of ledge to ceiling windows open out on all sides, allowing in the maritime breeze. Traditional sculptures, carvings and ikat prints decorate the ledges and landing. The floor of cooling screed feels soothing underfoot while a study, or second bedroom, downstairs is kept at a temperature close to that of a larder. The mini bar is stacked with water, beer and soft drinks while the hard liquor is offered up daily in rustic bottles labelled whisky, gin and vodka. “Would you like some ice Ibu and some more lime?” Marthem asked as I inspected the ‘all included’ offerings. Marthen was always one step ahead.

Up the stone stairs and, again, you’re swept away by the dreamy simple splendour of your tropical boudoir. A large four-poster cloaked in veils of netting faces the upstairs terrace complete with a freestanding brass tub to that view. I don’t think we ever closed these doors. There is also a separate jungle shower screened by bamboo. The details are refined, even divine in some instances, but all carefully crafted and honed to allow the setting to steal the show. I asked Marthen what the sound of water was that was clearly not coming from the sea, “That’s a waterfall Ibu, hidden behind your pool”. Serenity rules here.

The view

The view from our terrace was mesmerising and provided us with Nihi’s signature frame; folds of impossibly verdant palm-clustered hills spill onto 2.5 kms of perfect beach, while the ocean throws luscious jade-coloured rollers time and tide again. You feel immersed in tropical treetops from your second level yet entwined with the ocean at all times. Privacy here is paramount, you really don’t notice other guests, but you soon connect with them at the bar, on the beach, in the restaurant, watching horses, surfers and so on – it’s a very, very, happy place.

The soundtrack and The Wave

How I wish I could recreate this one. The overriding sound is that of the rollers. You eat, sleep, walk, talk and breathe the breakers here. There would be no hotel, foundation or resort if it weren’t for The Wave at Nihi. Named after Australian pro-surfer, Mark “Occy” – this legendary wave, known affectionately as Occy’s Left, has a chance to build up power and speed for several miles before coming into shore, and is reputedly one of the best left-hand breaks the world over. The soundtrack of waves combined with the far-flung orchestra of jungle creatures feels blissfully transporting, but the standout jewel in Nihi’s gloriously wild crown is the ocean.

Horseback riding on the beach

Sumba’s horses, or ponies to be more accurate (not many are over 14 hands), are known as Sandalwood ponies, named after the tree that once flourished on the island. The stables at Nihi house several magnificent specimens that resemble the beauty of an Arabian horse, though with less of an obvious curve between the forehead and the muzzle. Like the waves, the ponies, which roam free along the beach throughout the day, echo the wildness and free spirit of Nihi, though they are tame enough to ride. We rode to the three palms and back (sighting only one couple strolling hand-in-hand along the way). The following morning, having not had enough of these glorious creatures, I took one into the breakers, right up to my knees, an experience I had wished for since childhood.

Regrets, returns and rewards

While we were here the schools were closed for their summer break, so we didn’t see the vast improvement the Sumba Foundation has delivered to education first hand. As much as we would have jumped at this opportunity we gleaned much while we were there: the repeaters mentioned their ‘school trips’ in most conversations. The impact of the foundation on sustainability for local communities has been enriching, rewarding, life enhancing and genuinely life giving. Your stay at Nihi really does count.

We didn’t stay long enough. A regret that will mean we have to return but, consequently, we missed out on exploring further within Sumba, including adventures to waterfalls, as well as diving and fishing. However, we did manage the 7km Spa Safari trek, across arid rice fields and thirsty pockets of jungle, through a local village, over streams and down the other side of a mountain to a healing oasis perched beside the ocean. You can design your spa day or morning around your needs. The hands are blissfully healing here, and the jungle rooms sit right on the ocean. After a scrub, a massage, a facial, or whatever your body desires, you can swim in the sea or a private lap pool. We were, however, grateful for a drive back to the resort.

Pampered and preened, with glowing cheeks and our hair tightly twisted in a topknot held together by coconut yogurt, oils and Sumbanese secrets, we enjoyed a glass of chilled rosé with the freshest sushi and sashimi from Poseidon’s garden. Marthen had ensured we had our favourite spot for lunch under the woven canopy, beside the glistening shore.

While we were there the food was taking a noticeable upward turn, having been a subject identified that could be improved. The delightful, charming, and experienced new GM and MD, Cara Stoffel and Julien Laracine, were tuned ‘right in’ to all matters – great and small, and after only three weeks, change was already afoot. I think this duo may well take Nihi into the stratosphere, somewhere even closer to paradise.

Did I mention Marthen…? He was the best butler we could have wished for.

Sophie Marchant
Sophie Marchant

Luxury Explorer
Luxury Explorer
Luxury Explorer
Luxury Explorer