Nihiwatu in Sumba, Indonesia: Indonesia' surf haven now home to the world's best hotel

We arrive into Sumba, known as the lost world island, from Bali. It's about as far removed from the overcrowded, densely populated "Island of the Gods" as you can get. In fact, it doesn't even resemble Indonesia; its green hilly landscape, grazing buffalos and tribes with their own distinct culture seem more like Africa than one of Bali's closest neighbours. It's here, where the local people still believe in the tradition of spilling human blood in order to "fertilise" the soil, that you find Nihiwatu, recently voted the world's best hotel.

Remote and off the grid, Nihiwatu was formerly a surf lodge until it was bought by self-made fashion billionaire Chris Burch in partnership with hotelier James McBride four years ago and transformed into a culturally immersive enclave of active adventure and serious extravagance. Three hundred kilometres east of Bali in the Lesser Sundra Islands, Nihiwatu is the only resort on the island where the population of 650,000 still live a traditional life.

Before we came, so few people I spoke to had heard of Sumba (twice the size of Bali), let alone Nihiwatu, aside from one niche group – surfers – who regaled me of stories of the world's best left hand break (Occy's Left), found on the island's staggeringly beautiful coastline. Some said it's like the Bali of 30 years ago. One can only hope a similar fate doesn't await Sumba. But with the resort's coveted win as the world's best hotel, voted by Travel + Leisure readers globally, it's hard to imagine the island will stay as untouched as it is.

Interestingly, this year's T+L winners list is dominated by places remote and difficult to get to, and Nihiwatu certainly fits the bill. Even when you arrive into Sumba, an hour's flight (following an overnight stay in Bali) from Denpasar, there's at least a 90-minute tough drive from the small Tambolaka Airport. Once you arrive however, it's like entering another world, at the end of the world.

Here the magical resort unfolds alongside a glorious strip of Sumba beachfront where jungle tumbles down to meet a long sweep of sand. We're staying in the Raja Mendaka complex, Burch's own estate, with its coveted position overlooking the famous Nihiwatu coastline. The two storey, one-bedroom villa sits at the top of the estate and is designed to reflect a traditional Sumbanese house. Our villa comes with a view of Nihiwatu's beach, a private infinity pool, a separate study where our daughter sleeps under romantic (and practical) mosquito netting and a complimentary mini bar stocked with gin and tonic. Fresh limes are delivered daily.

Upstairs, the master bedroom opens to a platform among the trees with a bathroom complete with outdoor jungle shower. Best of all is the decadent brass outdoor bathtub. Every guest is assigned their own Sumbanese butler, smartly dressed in traditional attire, and waiting to meet guest's every whim.

Our villa is one of 28 and each comes with its own pool. There's also a treetop spa, a professional equestrian centre, and private access to world-class surfing. Most recently Nihiwatu has opened a whimsical three-bedroom Mamole Tree House built on stilts overlooking the Indian Ocean. The Nio Beach Club also opened this year with a phenomenal communal lap pool perched on Nihiwatu Beach, while Chris and Charly's​ chocolate factory has started production on-site. The feel is more luxury safari lodge than beach resort, with open-top Land Rovers at the ready to ferry guests off for soft adventure beyond the resort.

Also checking in with us is a lawyer from Sydney, his graphic designer wife and their five-year-old daughter. Adam has come for the waves, telling me this is one of the few luxury surf retreats in the world where there is also plenty on offer for family members not interested in waves. Surprisingly he is one of only a handful of guests actually there for the surf. Nihiwatu has evolved to become much more than a surf lodge, attracting well-heeled guests from all walks of life.

One morning we head off in one of Nihiwatu's Land Rovers to Nihi Oka, the resort's private beach club (which also offers a decadent all-day spa safari). Even the drive is fun, bumping over rocky trails, waving at the friendly locals who live in traditional thatched houses with their distinctive high-pitched central peak. We're greeted by staff bearing fresh coconuts and a wooden sign which reads: "Welcome to the Center of Serenity." We eat lunch in a treehouse above the rugged surf, swim in Nihi Oka's beachfront pool and explore the bucolic setting among rice paddies, as waves crash along the shore.

Advertisement

It's Nihiwatu's stunning beach itself however that captures my imagination. Remote, moody and framed by dense jungle, we take long walks and sunset horse rides along its 2.5-kilometre stretch. We wave at the locals, some on horseback, and return for Nihiwatu's signature cocktails at the lantern-lit, open-air Ombak restaurant, marvelling at this incredible resort "on the edge of wildness". Go while it still is.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

nihiwatu.com

GETTING THERE

Garuda International and Jetstar operate daily flights from Melbourne and Sydney to Denpasar. There are daily one-hour connections between Denpasar to Sumba's Tambolaka airport with Garuda, however the arrival of Australian flights means it's necessary to overnight in Bali. See garuda-indonesia.com; Jetstar.com

STAYING THERE

Rates start from $US900 for a one-bedroom villa plus 21 per cent tax in high season including all meals and airport transfers. Alcohol extra. See nihiwatu.com

Sheriden Rhodes was a guest of Nihiwatu.

Comments