About 250 miles east of Bali, in the remote southern reaches of Indonesia’s vast archipelago, sits the island of Sumba. From the sky, it resembles a curl of emerald green embedded in a seascape of azure. By car, on the 90-minute drive from tiny Tambolaka Airport to Sumba’s southwest coast, past steep rain-forested valleys, a dusty time-capsule reality emerges: In villages of bamboo huts encircling megalithic batu kubur stone tombs, sarong-clad women carry containers of water on top of their heads. Here and there on the side of the road, unmanned booths display bottles of gasoline. Otherwise, the only commercial enterprise I spot along the entire route is a small wooden kiosk selling sugar, rice, local coffee beans and freshly caught fish.
Roughly the size of Connecticut, with a population of some 700,000, Sumba is home to hundreds of tribes speaking at least 20 distinct languages and practicing an ancient, ancestor-honoring, animist religion called Marapu. I don’t just feel far from home – I feel like I’ve been transported to a distant century.
Until, that is, we reach a rise in the road where a small wooden sign reads: “Welcome to the Edge of Wilderness.” There below, sculpted into a seemingly endless, unspoiled coastline of jungled bluffs and white-sand beaches, is Nihiwatu, the island’s lone five-star resort.
I am greeted at the welcome pavilion by Jenny Wedo, my personal butler during my stay. A petite Sumbanese woman with a ready smile, she escorts me down a long, cobbled garden path to my elegant two-storey villa with a high-peaked thatched roof. Wedo offers to show me around Nihiwatu, or at least part of its 65 developed acres (out of 567), suggesting I go barefoot as we head towards the sea.
We don’t get far. Near the rustic Boathouse beach bar, Nihiwatu’s heart and soul, where local workers, wearing ikat cloth turbans and traditional, machete-like parangs, are repairing the alang-alang grass roof, I nick my foot on a sharp stone.
Wedo immediately apologizes, though clearly it’s not her fault. Her feet are tough, she says. Like most people on Sumba, she’s been going barefoot all her life.
To some, the disparity between an unabashedly luxurious lodge – it was selected by Travel + Leisure magazine as the world’s number one hotel in both 2016 and 2017 – and its impoverished neighbors could be unnerving. To others, like American adventurer Claude Graves, it was an opportunity to give back. The one-time Kenyan nightclub owner founded the hotel in 1999, as a laidback, six-bungalow surf retreat with a left-hand wave – “God’s Left” – renowned among surfers worldwide and strictly limited to 10 reserved slots a day.
In 2001, with the financial and hands-on help of guests, Graves established the Sumba Foundation. Today, 60 Foundation-built wells and hundreds of water stations bring potable water to the 19,000 people living within 12 miles (20 kilometers) of Nihiwatu. Malaria infection rates in the region have dropped by 85 percent. The Foundation has also set up five health clinics and 16 schools with more in the works.
“There were plenty of billionaire surfers who wanted to get involved but didn’t know how,” says Graves, himself a diehard surfer, rattling off a list of repeat celebrity guests. “They came for the wave but wanted an experience, and not something fluffy. We put personal notes in the guest rooms listing 15 different projects they could support. We went from scratching for $100 to getting $10,000 donations. There’s something for everyone.”
“This is not a resort where you are shuttled into perfect luxury and blocked off from the world… Here, guests can get personal with the local people and their culture. Here, you have the power to make an impact.”
American fashion entrepreneur Chris Burch, in partnership with South African hotelier James McBride, purchased the resort in 2012, transforming Nihiwatu into a show-stopping, 33-villa tropical hideaway with a spectacular cliff-top spa on a secluded headland above the sea, accessible by horse (or a 90-minute hike). Yet for all the upgrades and worldly delights, Nihiwatu, the largest employer on the island with nearly 300 local workers, remains steadfastly committed to improving the lives of the indigenous people of Sumba.
“This is not a resort where you are shuttled into perfect luxury and blocked off from the world,” says Nihiwatu’s Director of Yoga and Wellness, Mary Tilson, after an early morning class in the hillside yoga pavilion – a serene spot with sweeping views of Nihiwatu’s pristine beach. “Here, guests can get personal with the local people and their culture. Here, you have the power to make an impact.”
Guests with medical expertise have lent a hand – from dentists who’ve volunteered at the Foundation’s Hobawawi Clinic fixing locals’ teeth, to a burn specialist who spent a week training clinic nurses. All guests, including children, are invited to paint educational murals for the nearby schools. I join the Sumba Foundation Tour and opt to help out at lunchtime serving mung bean soup to the 130 students at Alang Primary. Presently, the Foundation provides lunch twice a week to schools across the island. A California fundraising dinner and silent auction at the home of a longtime Nihiwatu guest collected more than $500,000 to support a third lunch day, plus convert the copra-burning biodiesel plant that powered the resort until 2015 into a school meal kitchen.
That afternoon back at Nihiwatu, I cross paths on the beach with a 20-something London fashion editor and her partner. They’d also gone on the tour and have decided to purchase new uniforms for the schoolchildren. “I knew before coming here about the Foundation’s work,” she says. “But seeing the juxtaposition between here and there… it makes you want to be a better person.”
They’re off to go snorkeling, taking a dinghy out to Nihiwatu’s limestone coral reef. I’m not one for water sports but Boathouse manager C.J. Kimmell assures me that the standup paddle-boarding trip on the Wanukaka River is a cinch.
He’s right. After a wobbly attempt at standing up, I sit cross-legged on my board as the lazy current makes its way through scenes of local life: a woman washing laundry, hanging the clothes on a bush to dry; two young boys carrying bundles of firewood on their backs. A three-foot-long monitor lizard edges along the shoreline before disappearing into the tall grass.
“Sometimes I can’t believe I’m here on this forgotten island in Indonesia,” says Kimmell later that day, over sundowners in the Nio Beach Club, the more casual of the resort’s two sandy-floored outdoor restaurants. Nihiwatu’s legendary wave breaks in front of us, 600 feet offshore. Kimmell gazes out at the vast swathes of reds, yellows and countless shades in between at play in the dusky sky. “It’s mythological.”
Sunrise can be equally otherworldly, I discover, when I set off the following morning with guide Maxi Deta on a two-hour trek to Rice Island. The mist is rising over the mountains as we hike the length of the beach, then veer up a steep, muddy path into the jungle. Deta is wearing flip-flops but ably navigates the terrain, taking my hand to keep me steady as we traverse a shallow stream, then cut into the woods where an elderly man collects betel nuts from the forest floor.
Farther on, past a farmer driving a water buffalo through a muddy paddy to aerate the soil, a half-dozen men are searching for a missing horse. For ages, Sumba’s sturdy native ponies were a valuable export, bartered with Chinese, Arab and later Portuguese traders. Today, they are still prized and included (along with costly water buffalo) in wedding dowries, as well as sacrificed at funerals to accompany the departed into the afterlife.
Finally, across a narrow bamboo bridge we reach the knoll known as Rice Island. From where I breakfast on papaya, melon and Indonesian fried rice or nasi goreng, overlooking a valley of lush green rice fields stretching like quilt-work to the sea, the view is serene.
Then Deta draws my attention to a clearing on a far-off hill where a few weeks earlier hundreds of horsemen from rival tribes battled with wooden spears in the sacred annual rite known as pasola. “We know pasola is dangerous but it’s the tradition in our culture,” he says. “This year there was not a lot of blood, so we will not have a good harvest.”
Later that day, I settle in at the open-air Menara game room-lounge, sipping on a cold glass of green tea, pineapple juice and lemongrass with Briton Chris Bromwich, Nihiwatu’s Business Development and Asset Manager (as well as its resident deep-sea fishing guru). I’m curious to know why he thinks the resort has received so many accolades.
“We never thought we would,” he admits. “This is not just a hotel. It’s a relationship with community. It’s about leaving our mark in a positive way. That’s the journey of Nihiwatu.”
A version of this article appeared in Issue 29 of Experience magazine published on October 9, 2017.