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Sumba Island is a small curl of paradise, located in the eastern curl of paradise that is Indonesia. (From Bali, it is an hour-and-a-half trip by air.) The tiny, remote island is home to the Nihiwatu surf break—a magnetic roll of surf considered to be one of the best in the world—and the equally magnetic Nihiwatu Hotel, which reopened in April 2014 after a six-month remodel. It’s almost painful to refer to this pristine 600-acre compound—a place deeply rooted in Sumbanese culture and the result of nearly 20 years of relationship-building by cofounder Claude Graves with the island’s 400-plus villages—as a resort, but let’s start there. Picture the finest stretch of tropical white sand, laced with palms and stubby green shrubs. Turn your head to the right and there’s that famously perfect break. Turn it to the left and you’ll find a collection of elegant teak-and-rattan villas, open-air restaurants, and spa pavilions. For many sun-seekers, these luxuries are enough. But layer on the fact that Nihiwatu is the island’s largest employer and that 90 percent of its employees are Sumbanese, and the picture shifts. Add in the Sumba Foundation, a nonprofit into which all of Nihiwatu’s profits are funneled, and which counts reducing the local malaria rate by 85 percent and building local schools among its successes, and a very different image of a resort begins to form.
Mind at ease? Now for the fun: Between all that beach time, there are thousand-year-old villages to visit, Ikat weaving to explore, nightly bonfires to circle around, and spa safaris to indulge in (see below). Or volunteer at one of the nonprofit clinics or programs the Sumba Foundation runs or supports. In 2015, watch for 11 new villas and a treehouse jungle spa from new owner, hotelier James McBride.
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Twice the size of Bali, yet with one-sixth of its inhabitants, some say Sumba is what Bali used to be. The traditional way of life has been well preserved here. Most Sumbanese still dress in an ikat, worn like a sarong, while men still carry swords. The island is dotted with small villages, each filled with traditional huts and houses, some of which stand three stories tall and feature elegant peaked roofs. Getting here is a challenge, getting around is a challenge—and, sometimes, the culture itself is a challenge. This is one of the few places where Animism is still practiced, infant mortality is high, and violence still occasionally breaks out between different tribes. The Sumbanese are welcoming to outsiders, however, and witnessing one of the annual ceremonies, such as Pasola, can be a life-changing experience.
Need to Know
Rooms: 21 villas, from $900, including meals. Check-in: Noon, same for checkout. Dining options: All meals are served family-style in one of the open-air restaurants. Food is simple and local: Fresh fish with rice and local veggies, Indonesian BBQ, and an afternoon tea of banana bread and housemade papaya preserves served in the open-air commons room. Craving a little romance? Opt for a private dinner on a treehouse platform, a picnic in Konda Maloba Bay, or a complete dinner in your villa. Spa and gym details: There’s no gym but who needs one when there’s surf to ride, SUP to try, and morning yoga to explore? Nihiwatu offers massages in their on-site spa pavilions or this fun little excursion: Travel with a Sumbanese therapist to nearby Nihi Oka Valley where you’ll receive a massage in a spot overlooking rice paddies or in a private beach cove.
Who’s it for: Honeymooners, those who travel by conscience, surfers Our favorite rooms: For privacy, book one of Kanatar Sumba Houses, which have their own private gardens and pools. Traveling with a group? The Pantai beach villas each have an open-air bar and kitchen, plus 24-hour butler service. Getting around: It’s a 50-minute flight from Bali to Sumba’s Tambolaka airport, which is on the west side of the island. It’s not easy to travel solo, but the hotel offers free airport pickup and plenty of Sumba outings.