How did a former out-of-the-way surfers’ retreat become one of the most awarded hotels on the planet? The answer is coincidence and accident.
The story starts when hotelier James McBride was Managing Director at The Carlyle in New York. During that period he met entrepreneur billionaire Chris Burch (His first business, which he grew to $140 million in sales, was buying sweaters for $10 and selling them for $15 as an undergraduate at Ithaca College. He later co-founded Tory Burch with his ex-wife) who was living in the hotel. At The Carlyle, McBride also met Philippe d’Ornano, heir to the Sisley Cosmetics empire, who would talk about world-class surfing on a remote island in Indonesia.
Fast forward to 2012, and McBride was based in Singapore as CEO of YTL Hotels. Burch called from New York and asked if he would go down to Sumba (an island the well-traveled McBride wasn’t familiar with) and check out a resort that was for sale and he was interested in acquiring. It wasn’t an easy trek, flying to Bali, staying overnight, then taking a puddle jumper to the island, then an hour-and-a-half drive.
But once McBride got there, he was impressed. The surfers he met told him it was the best wave in the world. The undulating landscape, the long, wide white sand beach, nature, and local culture impressed McBride, who spent the early part of his career opening hotels for The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. At that point there were 10 rustic rondavels, and he was surprised to run into his friend from Sisley as well as a member of the owning family of Hermes. But as avid surfers know, it’s all about the wave.
McBride went back to the Lion City and reported back to Burch, who a couple of months later asked him to go back and provide a fuller report. Burch then visited, fell in love with Nihi (originally named Nihiwatu), and asked if McBride would like to partner with him. Having spent a couple of decades meeting global movers and shakers and admiring how many had made the leap from corporate corner offices, McBride made the jump and with Burch acquired the resort (Having caught the entrepreneurial bug, McBride is now also an investor in luxury ketchup and mayonnaise purveyor Sir Kensington’s).
From Robb Report and the Financial Times to Vanity Fair, Travel + Leisure, Hong Kong Tatler, Singapore Tatler, Conde Nast Traveler, Vogue Australia, The Peak, Prestige, Departures, Harper’s Bazar and more, Nihi has generated as much coverage as any single hotel I can recall. It has nearly 30,000 followers on Instagram, more than the entire Peninsula Hotels group and twice as many as iconic hotels such as Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, Montage Laguna Nigel, The Breakers and Halekulani.
The Telegraph put it this way: “A resort of private, traditionally-thatched villas spread along a wildly beautiful beach that authentically incorporates elements of local tribal culture while providing every luxury.”
The buzz about Nihi doesn’t stop with the press and social media. Former Abercrombie & Kent President George Morgan-Grenville, who now heads Red Savannah, a high-end adventure travel company, wrote in The Gentleman’s Journal, ” Just occasionally, very occasionally, a resort is designed that brings together everything that really matters to create an experience that is quite exceptionally good.”
Separating Nihiwatu from many other excellent places to rest and relax, Morgan-Grenville notes, “The world today offers a dazzling array of choice but equally, a slight sense of ubiquity pervades every infinity pool, urban mixologist and highfalutin pillow menu. In today’s frenetic world, people crave a place that is unusual, where immersion in a strange culture is a given and where most of all, it is possible to have, that often forgotten word, fun. Nihiwatu is such a place.”
Its location, the Indonesian island of Sumba, is about 20 percent smaller than Connecticut, but with a population of 650,000, that would rank it between North Dakota and Vermont. That’s where the comparisons stop. Morgan-Grenville notes, “(Sumba) is a highly segmented society based on a predominantly animistic caste system. Infant mortality is high, access to clean water a challenge and education poor. The island is host to over 200 species of birds and it is one of the few places in the world that megalithic burials are still performed (last performed in England during the Bronze Age). It is said that headhunting has not entirely died out and the legendary game of pasola is still played, in which multiple warriors on horseback fight with spears, occasionally resulting in death.”
If you ever question, are you helping or hurting the destination you visit, in this case there is no argument. The Sumba Foundation, started by the original owner, has built and staffed five health clinics, developed 60 water wells and over 240 water stations, supplies 16 primary schools with everything from books to toilets and reduced the Malaria infection rate by 85 percent. Over 80 percent of funding comes from Nihiwatu and its guests. Over 90 percent of employees, including managers, at the resort, are locals.
What makes the buzz even more interesting is Nihi is a mere 33 villas, is not part of a global brand, but independently owned and operated (although represented by The Leading Hotels of the World, a group of about 400 independently owned luxury properties).
Its humble beginnings date to 1988 when an American surfer, who had sold his business, took off on a world tour with his wife, ended up on the beach, caught a beautiful wave, and lived there for over a decade before building some bungalows and opening a hotel. The waves, or in surfer speak, “breaks” are considered some of the “gnarliest” in Asia, Sophie Roberts reported in Conde Nast Traveler.
Roberts writes, the goal was to balance five-star service with Nihi’s “bohemian spirit and community spirit” across nearly 600 acres. Something Morgan-Grenville and others say has been accomplished.
While still a magnet for surfers, the resort now caters to luxury travelers of all types, including families (it has an array of water sports and a full equestrian center and has a number of accommodations perfect for multi-generation family vacations), spa seekers who are wowed by its Spa Safari (details below), couples seeking a romantic getaway, couples traveling with other couples, as well as those of you who are looking for something that clearly doesn’t come from the cookie-cutter but still delivers a luxury experience.
One aspect you will want to pay close attention to is which villa you want to stay in. Not all have air-conditioned bathrooms (see below) if that type of thing bothers you. Divers will also want to avoid July and August, when the surf is at its best, but conditions for diving are not optimal.
While one would think there would be limited nightlife at a small resort with no local towns, Katie Frederick, owner of Ever After Honeymoons, says when she visited with her fiancé, they met other couples who they ended up socializing with during their stay.
She adds, “Most of my clients who have stayed at Nihi have told me they ended up meeting and becoming fast friends with other couples who were there. I’ve even had several who then ended up taking vacations together.” The Boathouse, which is a popular gathering point at the end of the day to watch the sunset, have a drink and enjoy freshly caught sashimi, makes meeting other people a natural occurrence. By the same token she says, “If you don’t want to meet other people, the accommodations are all very private, so it’s possible to stay there and never be seen.”
A couple points to consider
Like slots at an airport, spots to surf on the “private wave” which is for advanced surfers, are limited to 10 a day. You’ll want to make sure you reserve yours so you don’t get shut out.
Because Sumba doesn’t have an international airport, it also makes sense if possible to combine it with an international port such as Bali, Yogyakarta (stop off to see the 9th-century Buddhist temples at Borobudur) or the bustling capital of Jakarta. As a domestic airport, there are also restrictions on foreign-registered jets so you will want to make sure you do some advance planning.
If you feel the need to be within 20 minutes of world-class medical facilities, rule Nihi out. Same if luxury for you means lots of marble and crystal chandeliers, or service that comes from a thick book of rules and regulations.
Even McBride notes, “If you are the type of person who is going to stick a thermometer in your wine, we are not for you.”
However, like the various journalists, Frederick calls Nihiwatu, “Something special. It’s luxury but it’s not contrived luxury. It’s authentic, and it’s not like anything else I’ve seen.”
Sue Ferguson of J.Mak, a company that works with a variety of luxury hotels agrees, “If you are looking for standard luxury, this is luxury, but it’s different. It’s a combination of Africa in Asia. It’s hard to describe, but I’ve never met anyone who went and didn’t love it.”
No two villas are the same, and in fact the 33 villas are grouped into nine different “estates.” It is probably worth spending a bit of time with a hotel representative or a travel agent who has been there to sort through which villa or estate is right for you, as some are better for families and groups, others are better for couples seeking romantic solitude, or if you are just going to surf. The general theme is high thatched roofs and locally inspired architecture and design with luxury finishing and works from local artists. To get you started, here is our overview:
This is owner Chris Burch’s estate, and was winner of PURE’S 2015 Best in Design Award. It is ideal for multi-generational families or couples traveling together.
It is comprised of five villas, each with their own private pools and is located in the heart of the resort. The complex is designed for large families and groups of friends with common entertaining areas, although each villa has its own private pool and living areas. It can be rented as a single entity or villas can be rented individually. There is a 200 ft. pool with a cold plunge pool, plus dining and covered lounge area with a fully equipped kitchen.
Mamole Tree House
The treehouse features three upper-level bedrooms to get your Robinson Crusoe fulfillment. It also has terrific beach views, and would be a fantasy vacation for your kids, although Frederick recommends it for “children who are old enough to listen.”
Two of the two-story, circular villas offer a lounge area on the entry-level, with the bedroom, bathroom and balcony on the upper level. A bamboo bridge connects the two treehouses, and a shared infinity pool with lounging deck features on the front. The main Mamole Tree House includes a private infinity pool and large living area with bathroom on the entry-level, and upstairs, a bedroom with a bathroom, balcony and connecting bridge to the main outdoor bathroom.
Both Frederick and Ferguson say Marangga is their top recommendation for couples seeking a romantic hideaway. Each one of the four Marangga comprises one bedroom (500 sq. ft.) with a large private garden, outdoor shower, bathtub (although bathrooms can be closed off if you want air conditioning), outdoor dining and lounge area, terrace and deck with a private plunge pool.
Each have a Cliffside Bale elevated above the ocean and features a full bed for an afternoon nap, to catch up with some reading in the shade, or to watch the sunset and stars rise. There is mosquito netting so you can sleep under the stars. Frederick recommends Marangga 2, 3 and 4, which are farthest away from the restaurant and are the most private, although you can catch a glimpse of other decks, as they extend over the cliff and out over the crashing waves below.
She likes the “huge” bathrooms (pictured above). If you plan to be on a lot of business phone calls, keep in mind the bedroom/living space is one area, however, you can always retreat out to the bale if you don’t want to disturb your partner, or vice versa.
If you don’t mind being away from the beach but want spectacular views, Puncak comprises two main buildings, the first offering two bedrooms. On the entry level at the front, is a large outdoor area with a private pool and sunken dining area. Inside the villa, a bedroom (500 sq. ft.) with bathroom and a study at the rear take over the ground floor. The second bedroom is accessed by a staircase and features an outdoor jungle shower and a spacious balcony with bathtub, complete with an open-air view of the Indian Ocean.
The main entertaining and dining area, kitchenette and large pool are situated between the two villas and afford commanding views of the beach and wave, including the organic garden below.
The second villa features the large living room on the ground floor with the study to the back and upstairs to the second bedroom, which offers the same configuration as the first villa.
Lamba is the closest to the Boathouse, which serves as the surf shop, so if you are all about the waves, these could be for you. Both Lamba villas feature 500 sq. ft. bedrooms, a day bed with teak cabana, large round bathtub, shower, terrace and deck, outdoor dining and lounge area, their own plunge pool and private gardens leading to the beach. Their bathrooms are fully air-conditioned.
Other Large Estates
Wamoro, Lanturo and Kasambi can all be bought as 4-bedroom estates or in combinations with one-and two-bedrooms. Frederick says, “There are no bad villas in the entire resort. Everyone is private.” However, keep in mind the bathrooms in these villas are not air-conditioned.
3. Dining and Bars
Despite its small size, there is a diverse selection of offerings much of which comes from the local environs, including the hotel’s own organic garden and locally caught fresh fish. Frederick says the menu is diverse, from Indonesian cuisine, to burgers and “if you want something not on the menu, if they have the ingredients, they’ll make it with a smile.”
The open-air restaurant serves a la carte breakfast and dinner daily. During the week there special dining experiences including BBQs. There is a large outside deck, and The Nest, for a romantic dinner or an intimate group meal.
Nio Beach Club & Pool
Nio Beach is for lunch and features fresh fish, salads and grilled dishes, but Sophy Roberts in Vanity Fair says she favors freshly made pizzas from a large wood-fired clay oven. It is also the venue for Sumba White Nights Party. Frederick says Nio Beach Club and the Boathouse form the resort’s nucleus and provide a convivial atmosphere to hear about the day’s adventures from surfers while making new friends.
The latest addition to its dining experiences is Kaboku (Sumbanese for “fish”) is its beachfront sushi bar. Visit Kaboku for an intimate meal of fresh-caught seafood, Omakase style. Watch sushi chefs prepare an assortment of catch-of-the-day, against a backdrop of brilliant sunsets and a roaring beach fire. The chic structure captures a high-end Japanese sushi bar environment, while surrounded by our signature open-air resort ambiance.
Limited to six people per seating, the seven-course menu of local ingredients also includes avocado tofu, shrimp dumplings, Teriyaki dishes, miso soup, desserts, and more. Try the sake and wine pairing with your meal.
Located at the highest point of the resort, open-air Menara Bale is inspired by local Sumbanese architecture and features the tallest Sumbanese roof on the island made from teak wood. There is an area with books, games, table tennis and a pool table. In the afternoon, a local version of afternoon tea is served. This is also an outdoor theatre with daily movies, and guests can request popular sporting events to be shown al fresco under the stars.
If you don’t want to dine in your villa or one of the restaurants, you can have dinner in a treehouse high above the crashing ocean waves or on the beach. There are also plentiful picnic excursions.
One shortcoming of the resort was the lack of a lap pool for swimming. However, that’s been rectified with a 220 ft. long infinity pool overlooking the beach.
Rates include all meals, snacks and non-alcoholic beverages, Wi-Fi, mini-bar fully restocked daily, including beer and spirits, six pieces of laundry per guest daily, scheduled treks and excursions, use of mountain bikes, paddleboards and snorkeling equipment.
The resort has nearly two miles of beach. Among the activities are jet ski, stand-up paddling both in the ocean and Wanukaka River, snorkeling, volleyball, spear fishing for Spanish Mackerel, Dogtooth, Yellowfin Tuna, Mahi Mahi, Rainbow Runner, Green Jobfish and an array of Jacks and Snapper. You can eat what you catch. There are scuba diving and private boat charters.
Trekking is also popular and there are trails for all levels, including support from local guides. Both the Blue Waterfall (above) and the Spa Safari (see below) are very popular.
Nihi is for horse lovers. The hotel brochure says, “Horses are the soul of Sumba.” There are sunrise and sunset beach rides, trails and riding lessons. There is also a Kids Pony Club.
Also for kids of all ages, the resort is building its own chocolate factory, where you can see firsthand locally harvested cacao beans evolving into sugary treats, and even help out.
In terms of getting in tune with the local culture, there are cooking and weaving classes and a tour of the local market.
Surfing is, of course, the essence of Nihi. The swell season is from April to October with July and August the peak. There are waves for all levels. There is a surfing policy that states, “To maintain a surfing experience unparalleled in the world, please note that we reserve surfing on our famous left-hand break wave to ten registered surfers, each charged at USD $100.00 per day. It is essential to reserve your slot (maximum 1 per room) at the time of confirmation to avoid disappointment (surf slots can only be reserved by accomplished surfers). Beginner surfers need not book a surf slot, surf lessons can be booked under the guidance of a Nihi waterman. For beginners and intermediate surfers, there are also neighboring waves that can be traveled to by boat, at an additional charge.”
The ‘Nihi Oka Spa Safari’ offers couples a full day experience journeying across Sumba’s west coast to the Nihi Oka valley. Frederick says, ” You leave in the morning, hike through rice terraces and local villages.” She says her boyfriend bought hand-carved swords and handwoven blankets. When you arrive, there is “breakfast in a treehouse. There you have your own dedicated bale and two therapists. You swim, get a massage, swim, massage, repeat.” Frederick says the hike only requires a moderate level of fitness, and if you want, you can be driven back and forth instead. There is also a private overnight villa that she recommends for one night.
7. Getting There
Waikabubak/Tambolaka Airport (TMC) has a 5,906 ft. runway, but no fuel. It also lacks immigration and customs meaning you will need to stop at an Indonesian port of entry when arriving and leaving the country. The airport is not 24 hours. It is about 50 minutes from Bali (DPS), which makes for an interesting combination if you have enough time. There are scheduled flights from DPS, including by national carrier Garuda Indonesia, which also offers its 50-seat Bombardier regional jet for private charters.
From TMC it is an hour-and-a-half by road by luxury Land Rover, with Wi-Fi, beverages, and snacks. It’s a scenic adventure described as an “African-Asian” experience as you climb over the mountains, through forests and across teak, mahogany and rice plantations. Actual journey time varies as you may get delayed by ranchers driving their herds of water buffalo down the road.
You can reach the resort directly by helicopter, which makes sense if you are in Ubud where there is a helipad. The ride is close to three hours, including a refueling stop, so for the most part, flying to TMC and then driving is the smartest way.
8. Notable Awards
Conde Nast Traveler Gold List – 2014-2020
T + L – #1 Best Hotel in the World/Top 100 Hotels in the World – 2016/2017
T + L – World’s Best Awards – 2015-2019
The Telegraph – One of the 50 greatest hotels in the world – 2016
Conde Nast Traveler – The World’s Best Hotels Gold List – 2016
Pure Life Experiences – Winner Best in Design – 2015
Asia Spa – Winner Destination Hotel/Resort of the Year – 2015
UK Tatler Travel Awards – Best Resort in the World “style & soul” – 2014
Conde Nast’ World Savers Award – 2013
Travellers’ Choice Top 25 Small Hotels in Asia – 2013
Travellers’ Choice Top 25 Hotels for Service in Indonesia – 2013
Conde Nast Traveler’s World Savers Award – 2012
Travel + Leisure’s Global Vision Awards – 2012
One of the world’s most eco-friendly luxury hotels by Kiwi Collection – 2012
Trip Advisor – No. 2 Best Hotel in Indonesia Travelers’ Choice Award – 2012
9. Other Notes
While the resort takes credit cards, there is no money changing facilities so if you want to buy local crafts, you’ll need to bring some cash. If you require babysitting services, it’s no problem, but you should make advance notice. If you are coming with staff, it is possible to set-up accommodations in the staff housing.
There is a hospital with limited medical facilities 40 minutes away. Medical evacuation insurance is highly recommended. Malaria is a risk throughout Indonesia, and although the resort itself is a low-risk area if you are concerned Malarone is suggested.
Think about staying at least five nights, and preferably seven. There’s enough to do. McBride says, 50% of guests extend after getting there, but to ensure your entire stay is in the villa you want, it’s better to just schedule a couple of extra nights in advance.