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I had my eyes set on Nihi Sumba, formerly known as Nihiwatu, since it opened its doors as a full-fledged luxury resort. It further climbed up my bucket list when the marketing materials and videos started to flood the luxury hotel publications and more of its beauty became apparent through the photos and images of guests and the resort’s staff.
It is fair to say that this has to be one of the most widely covered luxury hotel openings of the decade, together with Polynesian, The Brando. I could not wait to review Nihi Sumba for myself on my annual birthday splurge (remember when I spent it at the underwater room of Manta Resort? Check out the video here and review here).
How does Travel + Leisure’s best hotel in the world look like? And, is Nihi Sumba really worth the very high price tag? All fine questions I asked myself too. Let me take you on a virtual tour and share my Nihi Sumba Hotel review. But first, a video of my stay!
Disclaimer: I was not hosted by Nihi Sumba, I paid for this stay in full from my own pocket.
The story of Nihi Sumba and how it all started
Nihi Sumba started off as a home and basic surf camp in the 80s when Claude Graves bought land and opened a simple accommodation. Graves had experience running hospitality businesses in Kenya where he started off in the big game hunting industry.
Before selling it to travel the world with his wife in search of the best surf break, he was running the most successful club in East Africa located in Malindi, in the Kenyan coast.
Claude and his wife eventually ended up in Sumba, at the end of the decade, where they settled to live like the locals, off the land, and later on bought a property to build a small surf hotel by the beach. It is with the locals that they developed the close relationship that is so paramount in Nihi Sumba’s success.
Graves built Nihi Sumba into a rustic chic resort made with local elements and as self-sufficient as possible. Newspaper articles claim the hotel used copra, a local coconut fiber, as fuel. The hotel first opened in 2005 with that Robinson Crusoe feel and a decided focus on surfing.
Burch and McBride built on Graves’ dream and catapulted the small but special resort into stardom. They refurbished it to provide the ultimate in barefoot luxury and put emphasis on marketing and PR.
As a result, Nihi Sumba started to prominently feature in luxury travel publications as the next “IT destination”, the coveted holiday of the rich and famous, the exclusive resort only available to the few wealthy guests who could afford the minimum US$7,500 bill in the peak season.
The efforts culminated when Travel + Leisure picked it as The Best Hotel in the world in 2016 and then again in 2017, joining the ranks of stunning properties like The Oberoi Udaivilas (2015), Triple Creek Ranch (2014) or Mombo Camp in Botswana (2013).
Despite Graves no longer at the helm, his approach still lives on, even if the resort lost its rustic authentic feel of its beginnings. It helps that he is around often, with his no bullshit approach and genuine commitment to the land he came to call home, and that he continues to head the Sumba Foundation.
Getting to Sumba Island
My Nihi Sumba hotel review cannot start without mentioning the resort’s location because this lies at the soul of the place. I have stayed at a lot of hard to reach resorts.
I have slept in private tented camps in Amboseli park, reached only by private planes from Nairobi. I have slept at the Manta Resort’s underwater room, located off the coast of Pemba Island, an island reached via tiny planes from Zanzibar. I have slept in the only resort on an island in the middle of Lake Malawi that can only be reached by private plane from Malawi’s capitals.
I spent a couple of nights at Bwindi National Park, waiting to trek in search of gorillas, a park which, at that time, could only be reached through a 12h drive from Kampala, Uganda’s capital, on a very potholed road, or by private two-seated charters. And I have traveled the remote islands of the Pacific, most of which very few can locate on a map.
Is Nihi Sumba as remote as its slogan, “On the edge of Wilderness”, claims? In my opinion, I would not classify Nihi Sumba as a hard to reach destination. The resort is 90 minutes drive on a paved road from an airport with one hour long, direct, daily and affordable commercial flights to Bali, which is in turn a very well connected island.
There are plenty of countries that are truly hard to reach and which nobody visits. At Nihi Sumba the remoteness comes from the fact that there are virtually no other accommodation options in an island twice the size of Bali. I would go as far as to say that, for the vast majority of Sumbanese, Indonesia is Sumba, and they will most likely never leave its shores.
If you want to visit Sumba, there are very few ways to make it possible. Naturally, the island is well off the tourist radar, even well off the offbeat parts of Indonesia.
Despite the Indonesian Tourism Office’s solid efforts to promote tourism in the last three years, Sumba is still firmly unknown to most. Even to hardcore travellers. Yes, it is remote, but in the sense of being untouched by tourism or development and having remained pure, not in the sense of being hard to reach. Sumba still is today, what it has always been. Many say it is still what Bali once was.
They both arrive and depart at similar times in the mornings so the flights are quite inefficient in terms of making the most of your time, you will arrive in the late afternoon and depart in the early morning. Wings Air has slightly better times (departing 10am-ish from Bali) but fly at your own risk, they are known for recurrent aviation accidents that thankfully never end in fatality.
Also, delays on Wings Air are the norm and your luggage may get lost, like it happened to us. Additionally, Wings Air’s flights are longer (1.5h) as they fly propeller planes whereas Garuda flies jet planes that reach Sumba within the hour.
Nihi Sumba can organise the international and domestic flights from Bali for you or you can book your own directly on the airlines’ websites. If you avail of Nihi’s service, you will get access to the lounges in Bali and Sumba.
Their booking also comes with extra baggage allowance, something worth noting since Wings Air allows only 10kg so you will have to pay extra luggage at a dollar a kilo. Bring Indonesia Rupiah for the payment in Sumba as they do not take any other form of payment.
When you arrive at Bali Domestic airport you will be instructed to find the Nihi Sumba staff who will be holding your boarding passes and will help you check in. The same happens on Sumba for your return. In our case, that was quite chaotic.
The staff in Bali were busy sorting out other guests who had been overbooked on Garuda so we could not find them. Not a big issue as you don’t actually need help to check in but they had our boarding passes so we had to call and find them. In Sumba, the Nihi Sumba liaison was not there either and we only found him after checking in.
Arrival and check-in
Once you land in Sumba, the Nihi Sumba staff will welcome you with a fresh coconut and some pieces of banana cake wrapped in banana leaves to entertain hunger until you reach the resort. The car ride passes through villages and narrow roads where you are unlikely to see any other cars. You will cross scooters and dozens of waving children who run to the road every time they see a car.
They have ear to ear smiles and are genuinely happy to see visitors, as if it was the day’s entertainment. The drive is beautiful, climbing through mountain passes and thick jungle until you finally spot the bay below and understand the wild beauty of Nihi Sumba. The car may have WiFi, but it is unlikely to work as the jungle has no telecom signal.
When you reach the hotel, you will be escorted to your villa. Check in documents will be signed there and you will get your butler’s phone number to communicate with him or her via whatsapp, the common form of communication within the resort. WiFi signal is strong throughout so you can get in touch anytime.
The arrival procedures all seemed personalised but in fact were quite chaotic. I mentioned that we couldn’t located the staff in both airports. I did not mention that despite the person in Bali told us he was making sure our luggage was loaded on the plane, our bags were nowhere to be seen when we landed in Sumba and had been left behind in Bali.
That resulted in a big disappointment because we could not do much dressed as we were on an island, and when the luggage arrived, on the evening of our second day, we had lost a day and a half of possible activities. I would have packed carry on clothes but with my camera, GoPro, lenses and drone, I had no space for extra clothes and only carried a bikini with me.
Despite this was beyond the hotel’s control, I found it unacceptable that Nihi Sumba was so unprepared for such situations. Faced with no luggage or personal belongings, they had nothing to give us beyond toothbrushes.
The clothes they could lend us were the branded Nihi Sumba cotton t-shirts from the store and, for my partner, a pair of male surf board shorts that were not very useful to me. I got a sarong which is all I could use until my clothes arrived. They didn’t even have a hairbrush or comb to lend me. This was incredibly amateurish of a luxurious property, and unexplainable of a resort relying on notoriously unreliable Wings Air, who apparently loses bags regularly, we later found.
Needless to say that left a sour taste in my mouth as I was quite upset at not being able to enjoy the resort and being stressed out making sure the bags did indeed arrive the next day. I had to continuously call and message the resort’s staff in order to check on the status and they did nothing to proactively communicate on the status, Eventually, the bags arrived at our room at 4,30pm on the next day. It is in such situations when a luxury hotel should excel in service and Nihi Sumba let us down.
Source: Nihi Sumba website
When you search for accommodation on the website, you get very confused about the types of villas available. This is because there are many types and configurations, so it is hard to understand what options you have and the website does not compare them all side by side so you have to click on each to read their descriptions.
It is then not clear who each of the villas is good for or what the trade offs are. You don’t know what the view is, or the facilities, or even their location. The descriptions are all very generic and the photos do not help either.
I resorted to emailing the resort and asking for help, something which was anyway necessary as booking needs to be made via email. I had to exchange a few emails to fully understand the differences between the only two options I was given, starting off with what was available for my dates and a party of two.
Nihi Sumba could improve the clarity with which they communicate the different accommodation options, but it is also true that there is an inherent difficulty in trying to convey a sense of place that one can only experience when visiting. Even when presented with the descriptions on paper, it is hard to decide which villa you would enjoy the most.
Update November 2018: Bookings can now be one through Booking.com. Visit the site here to make your reservation, see more images of the suites and check availability.
Nihi Sumba has eleven types of villas that make 27 residences with 38 bedrooms. The residences go from one to five bedrooms and are themed. Each residence has a number of villas which can be booked for groups or individually and a shared pool. All villas are scattered at different levels above the shore so all of them have sea views. The resort faces the sunset which can be seen from anywhere on the property.
All the villas are designed following the Sumbanese style, with thatched roofs made of ayang-ayang in the conical shape that is iconic of Sumba island and not found anywhere else. The roof is where the Sumbanese believe their ancestor’s spirits live.
I booked the Marangga suite, which the hotel terms their honeymoon villa. I thought we were booking the only one of its kind, but realised there are four of them next to each other. The Marangga suites are at the lowest level just above the sea and have direct access to the beach down a set of stone steps.
What makes these villas special is the fact that their close proximity to the wild ocean carries the sound of the waves right to your villa, despite being quite far in from the shore itself. However, being so low down means that you have less of a panoramic view. They are also private and have their own plunge pool that is not shared with other villas.
The Marangga Suite is made of a large bedroom opening onto the pool and lawn and a bathroom that is equally big and has a large, round, free standing bathtub in the middle. There are two showers, one indoor and one outdoor, and a closet area enough to hang all your clothes.
All rooms have mosquito nets as Sumba is prone to malaria. We killed a couple of cockroaches and heard plenty of geckos, which I love, everywhere, but the room was largely bug free. It is almost unavoidable to have some given its location in the middle of the jungle.
The outdoor area has two bale (which is a sort of Indonesian pavilion), one by the pool and one lower down, closer to the ocean, which has a daybed and two sun loungers just above the water. The views from down below are beautiful as you are literally on the shore.
In the peak season, the rate for the one bedroom villas starts at US$1,350 per day per room and goes up to US$2,250 for the Marangga Suites. To those rates you need to add service and tax, so an additional 20%, but they are inclusive of three meals a day, in-villa alcoholic drinks and some group activities like daily yoga.
Alcoholic drinks enjoyed during meals need to be paid separately, something which I did not expect as it is commonly included in similar remote, all-inclusive places like safari lodges. What you do get is half a liter of three liquors (whiskey, vodka, gin) in your room, unlimited supply of ice and a minibar filled with sodas and replenished daily to make your own drinks in the privacy of your villa.
If you are looking for more affordable rates, you could consider the low season when they drop to almost half, but I would not recommend anyone going at any other time than the high season, no matter how appealing the low season rates are, they still are very high ($750 a night) to be sitting in your room reading a book when it is pouring outside.
Anything but blue skies is a waste of money. The sea will be too rough for diving, snorkelling or surfing, the waterfalls will not be accessible as they will be flooded, and the rains will put a damper on your holiday.
This is a place that needs to be enjoyed with sunny blue skies. I learned my lesson when I visited the Six Senses Laamu in Maldives at the end of the low season to catch the surfing waves, and regret having spent a day inside hiding from the winds and the storm while paying $1,500, to this day.
Was the Marangga Suite worth the premium? After having been, I am not sure the higher price was justified and, if I returned, I would choose any of the other one bedroom villas that are significantly more affordable and command views of the bay from higher up or try one of the treehouses, despite they did not seem to have sea views.
After all, we spent every sunset by the main pool with views over the beach anyway so did not make the most of the villa’s beach level location, and the private pool is nice but it only overlooked the horizon, and you can have an infinity pool in many resorts, I would have enjoyed a villa higher up and with views more. Of course bare in mind that the Marangga Suites are the only ones with a private pool for skinny dipping.
All meals at Nihi Sumba are included in the rate and given that there is no other option than eating at the resort, I was hoping the food would be something to look forward to, but was also aware that the remoteness of the island might make options limited.
So how was the food at Nihi Sumba? It was perfect. Fresh, delicious and inventive and we never got bored of the many options and the daily specials. This is where the resort truly excelled and I am sure that the F&B Director and the Manager had something to do with it as they were the best of all the management members we interacted with.
The portions were large and you could always order as many dishes from the menu as you wanted. The chefs prepared what was available from the sea and the land and local Indonesian dishes blended with international, Italian and Japanese recipes, all of which were great. We never tried anything that was not perfect for the occasion.
Nihi Sumba has three dining outlets. Breakfast is served at Ombak, the outdoor restaurant with proper sit down tables and a bar. Nio Beach Club and Pool offers lunch, toes dipped into the sand under shaded cover and in front of the water. The Boat House Bar serves sunset Happy hour drinks and is a socialising spot for surfers and watersport enthusiasts alike.
So there is only one dining option for each meal, but that was never an issue. For lunch, the menu was the same for the duration of our stay but every day there were different special dishes: one pasta dish, one fish, one meat, one salad, one soup and one dessert. We repeated some of the delicious dishes and we tried lots of different ones every day. Nio Beach also had a pizza oven where they churned fresh pizzas.
The breakfast menu was the only one that did not change. However, there were a few options for international, healthy and local options so there was something for everyone. Eggs were available any way you liked them with all sorts of sides, there was fruit in season, juices of all kinds, fresh pastries, muesli, granola, yogurt, pancakes, waffles and crepes.
You could indulge as much or as little as you wanted and pretty much any breakfast dish was made to order, even the salmon was smoked in house. I enjoyed daily fresh coconuts and fluffy flaky pastries paired with fruits and juices. Breakfast at Nihi Sumba was a great way to kick start the day and something we looked forward to every morning.
One morning we also ordered breakfast in bed and enjoyed it by the pool. Strangely, when requesting room service, there is a US$15 charge, something as symbolic as it was odd for such an expensive resort.
For dinner, there was a different menu every night with three options for international recipes and three local Indonesian dishes to try from. Additionally, there were themed evenings like Sumba Foundation BBQs, beach horse racing sunset drinks and a forest fire party with slow roasted chicken, South African braai style. On those nights, the menus were uniquely built for the occasion. It was hard to find the menu repetitive or boring.
It is obvious that dining is a very special affair at Nihi Sumba. But the true magic was unleashed on the private dinner settings, be it in your private villa or elsewhere around the property. As we were celebrating a special occasion, my partner had got in touch with the hotel and asked that they prepare something every night, and so we enjoyed dinner at a different spot every evening, all by ourselves.
On our first night, the setting was on the beach, right above the waves, under the swimming pool. We were surrounded by the Nihi Sumba signature hanging leaves and red hibiscus flowers in a specially set up table facing the crashing waves. This decoration has made the resort famous all over social media and is a beautifully simple tribute to the island and to romance. The evening was magical and, best of all, we did not see any other guest for the duration of our meal.
On our second night, there was a forest fire party, which the resort was experimenting with for the first time. Candles were set on a beach path leading to a mangrove forest on the sand under the stables which had been decorated with dozens of flowers and lanterns.
On the third night we had a private dinner at one of the treehouses which was not occupied so I got a sneak peak into the treehouse residence, every child’s dream. Our fourth night was enjoyed with the Sumba Foundation team as they shared the foundation’s mission and accomplishments with the guests and we enjoyed a BBQ with a side of Graves’ speech and no-nonsense philosophy.
My birthday evening, the last night, was enjoyed at the Boat House, where we were alone, under the thatched roof, and right above the waves.
For the ultimate romanticism, the resort can also organise a private dinner at the tree house of the Nihi Oka Spa, about 15-20min drive away. We had lunch there, as we enjoyed a half day spa trek, and I am sure a dinner would have been the most special celebration, but we decided not to spend more money as, while all the other private setups were not charged, the Nihi Oka treehouse dinner would have been US$200.
The extra fee is understandable, given that the food is cooked on site, in the open, and a few members of the staff are necessary to make it happen while the private dinners at the resort just require the food being fetched back and forth from the kitchen.
The facilities and activities at the resort
My Nihi Sumba Hotel review could not be complete without talking about the facilities, extensively. This is, after all, what makes Nihi Sumba so special and unique, at least to me. The resort sits on a 2,5km crescent shaped beach that is as pure and untouched as it gets.
The beach is hard to get to and, although it is not owned by the resort, the staff told us that there is an implicit agreement for the locals not to frequent it so it is almost always empty except for early morning jogging guests going for the perfect 5km run.
The deep blue sea at Nihi Sumba is one of the most hypnotising I have ever seen. The waves that made it the perfect place to set up a surf camp in the 80s are still crashing today and the current is so strong that even on the shore, knee deep, the sea will take you in.
When the tides are low, you can go fishing with the locals, who look for fish and crabs that got stuck in the tidal pools. At high tide, the waves crash on the protective concrete wall the resort built under the Marangga villas with such fury that you are reminded nature is the ultimate owner of this land.
Nihi Sumba has a common lap pool above the beach, a gym, a yoga pavilion up in the hills above the resort, a watersport center from where you can book surfing, snorkeling, sailing, fishing or diving, horse stables and a local boutique where you can buy handicrafts and locally produced items that the locals make by hand. You can sit down and learn from the ladies making the baskets or weaving right next to the reception.
The star of Nihi Sumba facilities is the Nihi Oka Spa, located about 15min by car away, or 1.5h trek through the local rice paddies and jungle, on its own private cliff jutting above the ocean waves. This has to be the most incredible location for a spa. But more on Nihi Oka later.
At the resort, Nihi Sumba has managed to combine two of the wildest sports there are: riding horses and riding waves. And these are not just the sports of the rich but actually two activities that are native to Sumba. The Sumbanese are known for owning and riding horses so the ones that live at Nihi Sumba’s stables are local to the island. Surfing is also an inherently natural sport to the island, not so much because the locals participate in it, but because the famous Occy’s.
Left wave that made the location so appealing to founder Graves in the late 80s, still draws surf aficionados from all over the world. At Nihi Sumba it is all about riding, be it at sea or on the land. Even if you have never ridden either, this is a great place to learn either or both, especially for children. The resort offers classes for beginners and also advanced slots for those looking to surf the famous wave.
Exclusivity at Nihi Sumba extends to the number of surfers it allows in the water at any time. Every day, depending on the tides, there are two slots of a maximum of ten surfers, so you are definitively not going to share the wave with a lot of other people. Each surfer will have to pay $100 on top of the room rate to access the waves every day and the resort provides professional lifeguards on standby aboard Zodiacs to fetch surfers to and from the waves that are just off the shore and ensure everyone’s safety.
If you are into horse riding, Nihi Sumba has a few horses at the stable. The horses roam freely around the area close to the stables and you can go visit and pat them anytime. I have bad memories associated with horses as the only ever injury I have comes from when I fell off a horse in South Africa and broke my arm, ending up needing surgery and a month of medical leave.
I still managed to spend some time with them and the caretakers and they were majestic and beautiful. There were even two small ones that were happy to play with you and be stroked. If you want to go horse riding, you can do so at the beach or through the paddies and jungle of Sumba with an experienced member of the staff. Even the Nihi Oka Spa can be reached on a horse rather than trekking the island on foot or taking an open Jeep.
Every day, Nihi Sumba offers complimentary early morning and sunset yoga at the yoga pavilion up in the hills. The pavilion is up a very steep path you can reach walking or on one of their buggies (which are actually motorbikes and not golf buggies).
From there, the views over the entire bay and the beach below are spectacular. There are one, sometimes two, yoga teachers on site for private payable lessons as well. If you are looking for something more active, there are private trainers for TRX or other hard core exercise routines, but those are chargeable.
For cultural immersions, Nihi Sumba can organise Bahasa language lessons, a cooking class or all sorts of cultural experiences at the resort.
Excursions and activities in Sumba Island
Besides the many activities available at the resort, Nihi Sumba offers a very wide range of activities off-resort including excursions to waterfalls, treks, lagoons and beaches as well as cultural visits to the villages, the Sumba Foundation projects or the markets.
There is such a range of options available that you could easily spend a couple of weeks and never get bored. Except for the Foundation visit, all the other activities are chargeable and may be quite expensive (i.e. we paid upwards of $400 for a trip to the waterfall with cake and fruit as snacks for two).
If you like nature, there are several treks that you can book. We went to the Blue waterfall, which can be reached via an hour drive followed by a 90 minute trek through very steep jungle foliage. Once you get there, the thundering water is audible from afar and you will surely be the only one.
Locals rarely frequent the area due to its hard to reach location and there are indeed no other tourists on this side of the island so you will have the waterfall for your own exclusive use. The Blue waterfall is beautiful and cascades through eroded rocks and trees. During the rainy season, it is not accessible as it carries too much water but in the peak summer months you can jump in the cool water and enjoy a picnic on one of the bamboo platforms Nihi Sumba placed.
We brought the drone with us and have some very interesting shots from above, although the sheltered location limited the height at which the drone could fly. Inside, the water was pretty cold but it was fun to swim around and, after the long trek through the damp jungle, we very much appreciated a cold water shower!
The Wishing Hand
Nihi Sumba will arrange lunch by the waterfall for you. In our case, they must have got confused because all we got was banana cake and brownies despite it was lunch time. The whole excursion will take a day as you depart after breakfast and need 5h to get there and back.
Make sure to go early as the sun will quickly hide behind the wall and you will be in the shade by noon. If you do not fancy the tough trek, there is another waterfall that can be accessed more easily and is more family friendly.
If you want to exercise in a different way, we also explored the idea of joining a two hour paddleboard river excursion through mangroves with a guide. You can also go cycling around the island, through rice paddies and paths.
For those looking to explore the marine life, snorkeling can be done off the beach provided the tides allow you to. During our stay, the tide was too strong and current too rough for us to do any snorkeling and there was no dive master or boat available so we could not go diving either, a shame given that this is a completely unexplored part of the world and the marine life must be teeming with fish.
The staff told us that they used to have three boats but two sank so all marine and water excursions are limited by the only remaining boat available which we often saw taking care of the surfers. Fishing is also possible, but probably constrained by the same boating situation. A disappointment for an island resort where it should all be about the ocean.
Sumba’s culturally rich heritage is available to all guests who want to find out more. Through the founder’s strong link with the community and the world of the Sumba Foundation, guests at Nihi Sumba have the chance to really get under the skin of the island and learn more about their traditions and ways of life. You can visit a market, a local village, talk to the people or simply stop by and have a chat.
The children of Sumba are incredibly happy to see visitors and will run from wherever they are to the road to greet you when you drive through the island. I have never seen locals as friendly as Sumba. You can learn about ikat weaving, a traditional practice of the Sumbanese, or visit one of the Sumbanese megalithic burial sites. Sumba is so disconnected from the rest of Indonesia, locals are self-sufficient and food is grown on the island. A visit to the market is always an eye opening experience and a way to learn more about a culture.
Excursions to learn more about the Sumba Foundation are always welcome and can easily be arranged. The tour will take you to visit the clinics, the schools and the various projects that the foundation manages while you learn more about the Sumbanese and the challenges the island faces.
Nihi Oka Spa Safari
The most unique activity at Nihi Sumba is Nihi Oka Spa Safari, an experience in itself. Nihi Oka is located on its own cliff side, in the middle of two bays with the crashing waves below. You can book a half or a full day spa trek and have unlimited treatments during that time.
That usually equates to three 3h treatments for the half day at around $400 and six treatments at $700 for the full day. If you go for the half day that is usually a morning session and starts with a 1.5h trek through the jungle, villages and rice paddies. On your way, you will be able to spot the locals washing their clothes in the stream, the horses and goats grazing and the rice paddies growing. You will also be able to stop at the Wishing Hand, a hand-shaped lookout point above Nihi Oka.
Breakfast will be served when you arrive and enjoyed at the treehouse, one of the most beautiful spots in Nihi Sumba. If you go for a full day, you will enjoy lunch at the spa.
Nihi Oka has three bales where you can spend the day and where the massages take place. The bales are located on the cliff side and you can hear the waves as you relax. We completely fell asleep in our massages. The spa menu included massages, reflexology, scrubs, wraps and facials, each of them lasting an hour.
The spa area is very large and is surrounded by rice paddies on one side and the sea and beach on the other. The locals go about their day, planting rice or taking their animals to graze. There are hanging egg-shaped swings, an open air reception and a lawn shaded by tall coconut trees.
Nihi Oka is as wild as it gets and, most likely, you will have it all to yourself like we did. We had early breakfast at the resort then trekked to the spa, enjoyed the treatments and ended with lunch. As we were the only ones there that day, the entire crew was at our disposal, including the Spa Manager.
There were a total of eight staff members taking care of us, including two lifeguards for when we wanted to take a dip in the ocean, the two masseuses, the waitress and the chef, plus the Manager. The word pampered had a new meaning at Nihi Oka.
To make it extra special, you can also spend the night there at the only hilltop pool villa, possibly the most unforgettable place to spend a night, completely alone in one of the most magical spots in the world. We heard that two more villas would be built in the future.
Nihi Sumba and the Sumba Foundation
Although the resort changed a lot since its humble and simple beginnings, at the core lies the Sumba Foundation, started by the original owner, Claude Graves, who still helms the foundation, and stays at the resort regularly. With close to 400 staff members, Nihi Sumba and The Sumba Foundation are the largest employer at the otherwise poor and neglected island of Sumba. The 750,000 Sumbanese are some of the poorest in Indonesia and receive little to no support from the government.
The foundation has worked on projects related to water supply, education and malaria among other things, managing to reduce the mosquito-transmitted disease by 85%. It is this passion for social and sustainable development that permeates everything around Nihi Sumba and the reason why, even if your personal butler does not speak good English and you struggle to get what you want, you do not care much, despite the US$2,600 a night rate.
The foundation is financed by private donations from guests as well as by the resort. On the Sumba Foundation night, you will learn more about the project and be able to make a donation. There is also jewelry for sale whose profits go into the foundation.
Nihi Sumba made me think deep about the meaning of service and luxury. I am a huge fan of Aman Resorts and their mind-reading invisible hand approach to service. I like to be pampered when I’m on holidays and I like it when someone spoils me. I expected Nihi Sumba service to be top notch, on par with the incredibly high nightly rate, but then the reality of an island this remote and the hotel’s commitment to local development sank in.
Every villa gets an assigned Kaptain who serves as the butler and main point of contact for anything, from organising an activity to booking a special meal. All the Kaptains are local, 100% born and raised in Sumba. That is, before they started working for Nihi Sumba, they had never interacted with a foreigner and spoke no English.
Ours had gone from being a gardener to a butler in three years. The Foundation taught him English and he slowly climbed the ladder from gardener to cleaner, to working in the kitchen and finally tending to guests. His English was not perfect, in fact we struggled to communicate on a couple of occasions, but we did not care much. He was kind, he was friendly, he tried, and he definitely made us feel like he was hosting us.
Service was not smooth. I mentioned the lost luggage and the lack of a plan B for guests who don’t have any of the basic necessities. But those were not the only hiccups.
We were spending $2,600 a night and having to constantly call to get ice, to get our daily snacks and drinks replenished, to get towel replacements when the dirty ones were taken by housekeeping, or reminding them of private dinner set-ups that had been forgotten.
We missed lunch at the waterfall because nobody thought we needed proper food on a 9,30am to 5pm excursion and not just banana cake. And one morning, we got the wrong breakfast order delivered to the room. I even got a Happy Birthday message on our bed on the wrong evening, despite they had a copy of my passport.
Was the service bad? No. It was thoughtful and it was doing good to the community. All the local staff we talked to had gone through the same process as our butler, starting off at the bottom of the chain and working their way up.
Their children were getting an education, and they would go off to Bali to proper school. The retribution for Nihi Sumba’s high rates was found beyond the service, the stunning villas or the location, it was not even on the food. The feel-good of the place was found on the opportunities it created to truly uplift a society. So I did not mind the extra back and forth and reminders.
I did find the interactions with the husband and wife General Manager and the Managing Director slightly odd. After we met the General Manager on our arrival day without our luggage, we never saw her again, until the morning of our departure.
After five nights, she did not know our names or that we were just about to leave the resort. She came to say hi and made a lot of comments about how they did not want the airlines to add more flights so that the island would be kept remote and exclusive.
Her tone and expressions gave away a slight sense of arrogance and uptightness which was in stark contrast with the rest of the team members we interacted with, who were all very relaxed and casual. The Managing Director we only saw once when he came to shake hands, without introducing himself, one evening. Later on we realised it was him.
The best member of the Management team was the Reception Manager, who was genuinely concerned and looking for ways to ease our luggage issue. And the Turkish-Japanese F&B Director who was an excellent host, personally taking care of us and making us feel as if we were the only guests, even inviting us to a glass of premium Tuscan wine he was opening one evening.
His diplomatic upbringing was obvious in the way he interacted with guests and made them feel comfortable. He knew when to interact with us, and when to leave us alone. Something I have only ever observed in children of diplomats, of which I have a few as friends.
Nihi Sumba Hotel review – The verdict
“Oh we don’t want it to be easy to get to Sumba, we don’t want everyone to come”, asserted the General Manager as we chatted on our last morning. This sense of exclusivity, of “feeling fortunate” to be there, is the spirit with which one visits Nihi Sumba: feeling lucky to be able to enjoy one of the last untouched frontiers for luxury travelers, “On the Edge of Wilderness”.
The General Manager sounded slightly pretentious when she spoke, something which came across in stark contrast with the interactions that we had with every single one of her staff, from Tiger, the guide who walked us to Nihi Oka, to the F&B Director. I did not feel “special” or “important” to be able to afford Nihi Sumba.
I felt fortunate that the Sumbanese so warmly welcomed us to their island and that, through the resort’s Foundation, we were able to make a difference in the their lives and contribute to keeping the area clear of destructive development.
Nihi Sumba is an experience that will stay with you. I still harvest this small question mark in my mind about whether the price tag is justified. But you have to look at it in an all-encompassing and holistic manner, including the resort, its mission and the beauty of the place where it is located.
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