To call Nihi Sumba a “surf resort” is akin to describing the Taj Mahal as “a white marble tomb.” Rather, it’s the ultimate expression of its kind. Yes, there is the legendary left break, but its service, setting and place in the community are all purposefully and thoughtfully created to evoke a deep emotional bond to the place.
Founded in 1988 by Claude Graves, a charismatic and peripatetic surfer who was following the perfect wave, Nihi (originally and still known by its early fans as Nihiwatu) was acquired in 2012 by US entrepreneur Chris Burch and his partner, James McBride, previously the managing director of the famed Carlyle Hotel in New York. It was Burch and McBride who cranked up the dial on its toes-in-the-sand aesthetic, transforming Nihi from surf destination to destination in itself.
The hotel sits on a 1.5-mile private crescent of sand on the western shore of Sumba, an island about 500 miles east of Bali that time—or rather developers—forgot. One of the only hotels on the island, which is roughly twice the size of Bali, Nihi is very much the bellwether for new construction that’s about to hit. Today Sumba still feels like Bali 40 years ago, if you replace Buddhist shrines with marapu rumah adat (houses where ancestral spirits dwell) and some Christian (Dutch Calvinist) churches. It will come as no surprise that Four Seasons, Aman and others are all eying development opportunities here, which would be a great shame. If you want to see the island that Burch and McBride, and before them Graves, fell in love with, you’ll need to come soon.
Reached by a road that snakes over hills and through palm forests, the Nihi compound is made up of 33 scattered villas and anchored by an open-air lobby pavilion, where you are greeted at check-in. With palm trees and bamboo ensconcing these discreetly placed structures, many of them built in the local thatched and peaked-roof vernacular, Nihi looks very much of its place, an idealized version of a Sumbanese village.
Pre-pandemic, most visitors to Nihi were US nationals often jetting in on their own planes or stopping over from more crowded Bali—or on an island-hopping yacht trip aboard one of the luxurious phinisi schooners that ply the Indonesian archipelago. In spite of—or maybe because of—its remoteness, this is also a place that draws a loyal following, with some guests coming back year after year.
The Staff & Service
Nihi has made a concerted effort to train and hire a local workforce for a career in the hospitality sector. The staff is comprised almost entirely of Sumbanese graduates of a Nihi-sponsored hospitality school, whose relaxed but attentive care and love of their island helps shape a visitor’s connection to the place. Our guide on our Nihioka Spa Safari hike (a curious name for a 90-minute hike through rice fields and forests to reach the spa, which sits on a remote outcropping apart from the hotel compound) was incredibly knowledgeable about the wide variety of flora and fauna, and seemed to know—and introduced us to—every villager we met along the way.
Every villa at Nihi has a distinct personality. The Mamole Tree House, with its elevated catwalks meandering among treetops connecting one room to another, feels like the playground of a billionaire who refused to grow up. The actual billionaire’s own house (The Owner’s Estate, aka Raja Mandaka) is more of a traditional interpretation of a Sumbanese village, with manicured lawns, symmetrical wings containing separate living quarters and bedrooms and an enormous infinity-edged pool overlooking the Indian Ocean. All villas share the same panoramic views, their own pools, indoor-outdoor bathrooms (an exhibitionist’s delight, but an entomophobe’s nightmare) and canopy beds with crisp cool sheets.
The Food & Drink
If menus and food presentation are a reflection of an effort to please guests rather than the whims of chefs, then Nihi’s clientele must be demanding, picky aesthetes with rather unadventurous palates. Yes, the food is generally quite delicious (its breakfasts in particular) and beautifully presented, but it feels like Nihi missed an opportunity to educate its guests in the incredible variety of Indonesian cuisine and local Sumbanese specialties. While those who love a wood-fired pizza or a large buffet barbecue will be pleased with the excellent execution of those meals, if you want a transportive dining experience endemic to the culture of the island, you may need to venture to one of the roadside warungs (part café, part convenience store) in the villages between Nihi and the airport on the other side.
Nihi’s spa is simply a must, even if hands-on healing isn’t typically your thing. Built high on a cliff the next cove over from the hotel, the spa is reached either by Jeep or the aforementioned (and highly recommended) Nihioka Spa Safari. The half or full-day rapturous experience includes body wraps, massages, scrubs, facials and every imaginable permutation of pampering. The treatments are administered in open air bales (pavilions), outfitted with massage tables with strategically angled mirrors underneath the face cradle so you can take in views of the ocean below—assuming you can keep from drifting off to sleep during your treatment.
In the early years of Nihi’s development, founders Claude and Petra Graves lived much like the villagers around them. They had no running water, electricity or access to medical care. Like their neighbors, they contracted malaria dozens of times. So when they opened Nihiwatu to guests, they encouraged them to become involved with the surrounding community. Soon after, they formed the Sumba Foundation to help ease the burdens of poverty—including access to education and healthcare—in Sumbanese communities. The model has proven to be a successful experiment in combining non-profit and for-profit ventures for transformative social impact and has received World Travel and Tourism Council’s “Tourism for Tomorrow Award.” The hotel offers guests opportunities to get more deeply involved with the work of the Sumba Foundation by leading English classes or serving lunch at nearby schools, for example, or playing games and singing songs with local kids.
You could spend an entire vacation within the cosseted isolation of the resort, where one of the world’s most sought-after breaks, “Occy’s left,” draws surfers from around the world. (Fortunately, the wave is limited to ten surfers per day, and there’s calmer, beginner-friendly surf at a nearby Coconut Cove.) One regular sight on Nihi’s long sandy crescent are the resort’s horses, which can be saddled up English style for sunset beach canters and trail rides—or, during high tides, guests can swim with them as they cool off in the ocean. But there are many reasons to leave the compound: Nihi provides market and art shop tours in nearby towns, a paddle board excursion down the gently flowing Wanokaka River, and surfing “safaris” (that word again) to other parts of the island.
Its menus lack truly local Indonesian cuisine selections, which is a shame considering the lack of outsider knowledge of the region’s rich tradition and unique flavor profile.
PRIOR’s bespoke team has partnered with Nihi Sumba to custom-craft an immersive week in Indonesia, including a land-and-sea adventure on the spectacular Dunia Baru phinisi, and with private air to connect the destinations seamlessly and safely. Inquire at email@example.com.
Marc Blazer is co-founder of PRIOR, and an investor in hospitality, food and beverage businesses around the world. He is a shareholder and director of The Australian Agriculture Company; former chairman and co-owner of noma, the world renowned restaurant in Copenhagen; former owner of Le Pain Quotidien India; and advisory board member of The Drinks Alliance, a craft distillery conglomerate.