“I have just had the best day of my life,” exclaimed Fraser, a young Ozzie, over dinner. Despite the fact that his face was sunburnt, every muscle ached and he was battling to keep his eyes open, it had all been worth it for the day he had just spent out in the water. And by all accounts it had been the best surf day in Nihiwatu in weeks.
This, after all, is the very reason this five-star eco retreat even exists in its unlikely spot on Sumba, a somewhat remote Indonesian island, well off the radar of the multitude of tourists who flock to Bali, Sumatra and Java each year. It was the waves that lured surfers, Claude and Petra Graves, here several decades ago, followed by a small number of avid surfers once news of their small guesthouse had spread. And it was partly the waves that attracted American entrepreneur, Chris Burch, and South African-born hotelier, James McBride, in 2012 to create this magnificent retreat, which was voted the Best Hotel in the World by Travel+Leisure magazine in 2016.
This is no small feat, but those who have the privilege of staying here – in what the owners have termed “the edge of wildness” – will be quick to agree, because surfer or not, the magic of Nihiwatu lies in its uncanny ability to give every guest at least one “best day of their lives”.
Undoubtedly the best way to start the day is with an hour of yoga with resident instructor, Mary Tilson. You’ll also be rewarded by a magnificent view of beach that curves out from the resort. Another reason to be up early is the possibility of a little wiggly surprise that may be waiting for you in the turtle hatchery. These little creatures may seem fragile in your hands, but release them onto the beach and their sheer determination to reach the water and navigate the dangers therein is inspiring. Watching that little creature set off was the highlight of my stay.
Another was braving the waves myself – or rather, the waters beneath them, with a scuba tank strapped to my back. The sheer force of the currents mean that you won’t find the kind of proliferation of soft corals that neighbouring Bali and Komodo are famous for, but you will still encounter an artist’s palette of colourful hard coral and a good selection of marine life.
Most of us who grew up with the wonderful stories of Roald Dahl have fantasised about one day discovering our very own golden ticket to visit a Willy Wonka-like chocolate factory… Well, at Nihiwatu, you have. It seems serendipitous that someone called Charly would end up making artisan chocolate in Bali. It was a coincidence too hard to ignore for the owners of Nihiwatu and so they invited Charly to create a satellite chocolate factory here. Housed in a whimsical bubble-shaped house, this has very quickly become a favourite stopover for guests, especially children, who can make their own chocolate turtles in between working their energy out on the playground outside.
Guests at Nihiwatu are also given the opportunity of creating even more “best day” memories with a selection of excursions around West Sumba. Hikes and walks are rewarded with amazing views and discoveries: A sea of undulating green patchwork rice paddies; a breakfast perched on a platform overlooking a beach pounded ceaselessly by gargantuan waves; a waterfall so powerful that you hear it thundering through the virgin forest long before you see it, and feel its spray on your face long before you can settle down next to its bright blue pool and work up the courage to do an exhilarating canon ball or two.
These excursions also give you the chance to meet the people of Sumba themselves. Tourists are still a rarity here and so drives are often accompanied by small children running out from their bamboo stilted houses to wave and shout “Daa!” (hello) as you go past. When you visit their villages you will be met with smiles and perhaps even welcomed into one of their homes. There is an unmistakeable warmth and kindness to the people of Sumba, and nowhere is this more evident than amongst the staff of Nihiwatu themselves. A hotel is just bricks and mortar after all, but it is its people who make it come alive. And at Nihiwatu, it is precisely these people who are responsible for so many of those “best day” moments.
And they, too, have benefitted from the magic of Nihiwatu. The hotel is the biggest employer on the island, and many of its staff members are now able to build themselves better homes, and support more family members, on what has traditionally been a very poor island. The Sumba Foundation too spreads the blessings beyond the hotel’s immediate staff, and now runs several malaria clinics and school feeding schemes in the community.
It is this special combination of caring people, outstanding natural beauty, and an ethos that nourishes both the environment and its guests which makes Nihiwatu such a magical place to visit. It’s not often that you get to say, “This was the best day of my life.” So be sure to stay for at least a week, and you’ll get to say it seven times over!
For more information, visit www.nihiwatu.com.
Text: Nicky Furniss | Images © Nihiwatu