I’m standing on a small overlook on the southern shore of Sumba, an Indonesian island the size of Jamaica, 90 minutes by plane east of Bali. Here, in the village of Lamboya, tall thatched roofs dot undulating green mountains in the distance, as hundreds of men—from grizzled elders to cocksure teens—gather in a large open field, their feet bare but their heads and midsections wrapped in layers of neon textiles.
Just for today, they’re warriors riding on small horses whose manes have been festooned with bells and shaped into cones, throwing blunted wooden spears at opposing riders galloping rapidly toward them. Flanking me are tens of thousands of Sumbanese spectators, some standing on truck beds with their katopo (sword) or climbing into trees for a better view, all of us forming a colorfully dressed rainbow under a haze of clove cigarette smoke.
We’re here for Pasola, an ancient war ritual that began in the western village of Kodi when a clan chief’s wife left him for another man and the village wanted to improve the spirits of their leader. It’s now celebrated each February or March, depending on the region. Historically, bloodshed in this context was a thing to cheer, because it meant a bountiful harvest. The rare cultural event has been virtually unknown to most outsiders like me, but thanks to a small collection of culturally conscious resorts popping up on the island, I’m getting an insider’s perspective: My conversations with the local staff at Nihi Sumba before the event set the stage, while the team from the Sanubari escorted me to the field today.
Those deep community ties have been a key pillar of Nihi Sumba since 1989, when it was founded by Claude and Petra Graves, an American and German couple who stumbled upon Sumba while traveling the world in search of surf and interesting places. They created the 10-room luxury surf lodge, then called Nihiwatu, to help preserve and share the culture of an island that receives a fraction of the tourists of Bali. They anticipated that the secluded beaches, rich culture, and barreling waves would draw visitors willing to go off the beaten path and that those intrepid travelers could have a positive impact on the perpetually struggling community. To that end, they established the Sumba Foundation, an NGO dedicated to preventing malaria and improving access to clean water and electricity.
Nihi Sumba has set an example for other international hoteliers, who have begun to develop corners of the impoverished, mostly Christian island, with low-impact sustainability and ambitious social responsibility goals in mind. In the past two years, the island has welcomed the Sanubari in 2022 and Cap Karoso this spring. Read on for a closer look at how these three resorts are raising the bar for what sustainable, community-centric travel can look like on a remote island—and how they’re offering a richer guest experience as a result.
- Book now: Nihi Sumba
Though it began as a petite surf lodge next to idyllic waves, today Nihi Sumba—purchased in 2012 by American entrepreneur Chris Burch in partnership with hotelier James McBride—sprawls across 667 acres in southwest Sumba. Over the years, the team has grown to more than 430 individuals, more than 90 percent of whom are Sumbanese. Each of the 27 expansive indoor-outdoor villas comes with its own butler and features a unique design, down to the shapes of the private swimming pools, the palettes (sea blues in one, jungle greens in another), and one-of-a-kind decor that’s been handwoven or carved on the island.
Every day, the handlers at the resort’s stable open the gates to allow the 26 resident horses to make their midday run down to the beach below. The Nio Beach Club, with its wood-fired oven and infinity pool, is a prime lunchtime spot for watching the salty-maned horses frolic on the sand or even swim with guests. Breakfast and dinner, meanwhile, are served at Ombak, the sand-floored restaurant that underwent a renovation this year; guests gather for sundowners and canapés at Boat House, where the last of the day’s surfers on the renowned Occy’s Left wave—capped at 10 slots per day—often put on a show.
On Wednesday nights, the resort hosts a barbecue dinner that includes a short film featuring the work of the Sumba Foundation. While watching, I learned that 40,000 people are being supported by the NGO’s water infrastructure system and 360-plus water stations. The foundation has also helped reduce malaria on the island by 93 percent through the work of its five clinics that diagnose and treat the disease and distribute treated mosquito nets.
What to expect
While the official Pasola only happens in February and March, the resort puts on its own demonstration at guests’ requests. Otherwise, you can engage with the culture through market visits or ikat-weaving lessons and take in the natural surroundings by trekking to waterfalls, mountain biking, or stand-up paddleboarding on the river. On Mondays and Fridays, guests can volunteer with the Sumba Foundation, which may include serving lunch at a nearby school or helping to teach English.
Another wildly popular activity is the Spa Safari, an all-day affair that begins with a scenic hike (or drive in a safari vehicle) to a verdant clifftop that looks out over rice fields and the Indian Ocean. There’s zero cell service or Wi-Fi here, so you can feel truly present as you spot sea turtles while enjoying a meal—such as red snapper with veggies from the farm—in a Robinson Crusoe–like perch above the crashing surf. Next, take advantage of unlimited, all-natural spa treatments, including Indonesian lulur body masks and massages with calming tuberose, ylang-ylang, and frangipani oil. The mirror under my clifftop massage table allowed me to drift off while watching the ocean curl onto the beach.
You can tour the resort’s permaculture food forest, Ombak Garden, which grew to five acres in 2021 and now provides 40 percent of the food at the Ombak restaurant, including butterfly peas, cassavas, peanuts, pak choy, avocados, and papaya. Nihi also has a chocolate factory on site where guests can make their own bars.
- Book now: Cap Karoso
Handcrafted Sumbanese-meets-French design—splashed with modernism and brutalism—is at the heart of Cap Karoso, a 15-acre resort and 7.5-acre organic farm that opened its doors this March in verdurous Kodi, on the island’s far western tip. French owners Evguenia and Fabrice Ivara turned to Sumba-born ikat master Kornelis Ndapakamang to create the open-air lobby’s striking wall, made of panels wrapped in saturated red and brown threads, a deconstructed ode to the island’s most famous textile; travertine desks riff off the island’s traditional megalithic tombs. The accommodations include 47 studios and suites and 20 stand-alone villas, scattered along a gentle slope that leads to a long beach. There, during a full moon super low tide at golden hour, I watched locals of all ages flock to the tide pools and exposed reefs to play and fish for food.
Sun-drenched suites showcase local Marapu culture with outdoor bathrooms featuring sculptures carved by artisans in nearby Buku Bani village. They sit alongside vintage French and English books, custom ceramics, and woven paper drawings commissioned by French Indonesian artist Ines Katamso. Rooms are air conditioned but have wooden louvers to allow for natural cooling via ocean breezes, while the grass-covered roofs moderate temperatures in the stone-clad interiors. Solar energy heats the water; in the next year, the resort will create a large solar park to supply half the resort’s power. Deep wells bring up water that is double-filtered so that Cap Karoso can bottle it for drinking.
I loved savoring epic orange skies from the deep sofas at the Beach Club, where bartenders trained by acclaimed consultant Nico de Soto create complex cocktails incorporating such ingredients as jackfruit, sandalwood, and smoked pomelo. At Julang, the guest-chef-only restaurant (named for an endemic hornbill species), we dined on seven courses from chef Katsuaki Okiyama of Paris’s Japanese French restaurant Abri. And don’t skip a visit to the thatch-roofed Malala Spa: Manager Teena Ngongo’s grandfather is a shaman, and his knowledge of healing plants inspired the sublime products and treatments, including the Moro Ndahaka Sumbanese Massage, which uses an oil of fermented barks and roots.
What to expect
The resort has cultivated community relationships that enable intimate guest experiences in places that have hardly ever seen tourists before. At Waikoroko village—four miles away by resort car—chief Ndara Kawahaka invited us into his traditional home for a look around and offered us coconuts to drink. This summer the resort launched international artist residencies on the property; this October’s residency with Dublin-based Claire Prouvost will include a community-engaging creative project in Waikoroko with villagers collaborating on large temporary paintings. Monthly ikat workshops for guests are staged at the farm’s open-air studio.
Beginners can surf right in front of Cap Karoso, while advanced surfers can head 15 minutes by resort car for the left-handed Pero reef break. (Rent your surfboard—complimentary for two hours—and other aquatic equipment at the resort.) A 19-mile drive south took us to dramatic beaches, including Mbwana, where a steep climb down between cliffs led to a remote white-sand beach with coastal caves. At Danau Weekuri, a crystalline saltwater lagoon surrounded by jagged limestone and tamarind trees, you can watch kids diving, leaping, and swimming—which my toddler loved. It’s one of many landmarks that can be reached by e-bike or e-Mini Moke.
- Book now: The Sanubari
The Sanubari occupies a 297-acre reserve in southwest Sumba where the scenic beachfront wasn’t accessible to anyone—locals included—until 2017, when British co-owners Rowan Burn and Alan and Roger Thomas sought permission from a ratu (or priest) as a sign of respect before building a road here. In July 2022, they opened a resort with six villas and added three more this year, with about 50 privately owned residences and villas planned to debut over the next decade. In the works is a membership plan that will offer frequent visitors and owners special rates on accommodations, services, and rentals of everything from cars to surfboards to stables. Burn is on a mission to keep the reserve non-exclusive so people across financial, cultural, and age demographics can enjoy it.
The staff, 95 percent Sumbanese, are especially great with kids and provide a relaxed and convivial energy that extends to the open-air, three-meal restaurant and palapa beach bar. Six spacious villas line the palm-fringed, white-sand beach (five have their own 26-foot-long swimming pools), while three more studios offer views over the mountains and rice paddies. The accommodations blend clean, contemporary lines with fine alang alang roofs (made from area grasses), outdoor showers, and locally crafted pottery and textiles.
What to expect
Genuine connections and nature immersions are central to the Sanubari experience, which can include waterfall tours, biking, and surfing, with pickleball and a sauna on the way. The 10-acre organic farm and fruit orchard include 2,500 coconut trees and 500-plus banana and papaya plants (the stems serve as ecofriendly drinking straws). The farm will soon produce oils, creams, and milks for the restaurant, and the resort will train islanders to work in a forthcoming village store to sell fresh produce. On weekdays, kids from the area come to a small school pavilion on site to learn English, do crafts, and have a healthful meal.
At the resort’s stable, I got my toddler on her first horse, a gentle, blonde-maned filly named Odessa that I rode the next day on the beach and then straight into the aquamarine ocean. You can also join in a guided visit to the kampung (village) of Waru Wora two miles away, where dark, cool bamboo homes have a lower level for animals, a middle level for people, and a soaring thatched roof for food storage. Everyone gathers in the highest house for ceremonies; here I learned about the local dowry system and saw countless water buffalo and boar skulls from animals that had been sacrificed upon the death of an elder. In another nearby village, Tanah Kaka, guests can take pottery lessons from the elderly Sumbanese woman who made the earthenware featured throughout the resort. A ceramics studio and ikat-weaving studio are in the works, designed both as guest experiences and as training programs for locals aspiring to have future skills and employment options.
At the seaside restaurant, the menu focuses on locally grown produce and balances Western favorites—think chicken parmesan and dragon fruit smoothie bowls—with Indonesian classics, my favorite of which were a turmeric-rich vegetable soup and fragrant coconut rice with shredded beef cooked in a banana leaf. A new shady bale (Indonesia’s version of a gazebo) accessible via a 45-minute hike up a small hill is a destination for picnics and sunrise or sunset refreshments.