By: Verne Maree
What is Sumba? About an hour by plane from Bali, Sumba island is a number of things: one of Indonesia’s biggest, most sparsely populated and least developed islands; a haven of exquisite surfing beaches and seas that teem with life; an archaic culture with unique and fascinating traditions.
Is it “the new Bali”, as has been tentatively suggested? One sincerely hopes not. In the words of Nihiwatu founders Paul and Petra Graves: “One only needs to observe Bali to see how quickly tourism can degrade a once-pristine area.”
I’ve packed a selection of sandals, as I do, but here it’s literally impossible to wear anything but flip-flops. Beyond the villa, it’s all beach sand underfoot. That includes the floor of the open-sided dining room; level and smoothly raked each day, but sand nonetheless.
The food here is outstanding. Each morning at breakfast, you make your selection for lunch and dinner from the menu provided; if you want something else, the skilled chefs are glad to oblige. Emphasising freshly caught fish and local fruit and vegetables, Nihiwatu’s creatively healthy cuisine could form the basis of a detox getaway, especially if you also sweated it out with a daily hour of yoga from a highly experienced instructor. But it would be a shame to miss out on the stunning cocktails whipped up at the bar each evening at sunset.
Wandering around our family villa, it’s hard to believe all this space is ours. It comprises three free-standing buildings: two huge bedrooms with en suite bathrooms, flanking an enormous living room. They share the swimming pool, bar and alfresco lounging and dining area below, ideal for two luxury-loving couples.
“Eco-luxury” is the buzzword all over the world, but Nihiwatu’s approach is really something special. When the Graves first arrived here in 1988, eco-tourism was in its infancy, and they undertook the entire project in consultation with the people of the district. More than 95 percent of the 120-strong staff are Sumbanese. English language and hospitality industry teachers have been brought in to train them.
Aussie builder Clayton, who headed up the recent redevelopment of Nihiwatu, has in the process been teaching basic engineering and construction skills to the local community. His team of Javanese artisans has been specifically tasked with imparting their skills to the Sumbanese, he tells us.
All buildings are designed with an authentic Sumbanese feel – massive roofs with soaring chimneys being the most distinctive feature – and constructed from locally sourced bamboo, teak, stone and alang-alang grass. The soaring poles supporting sky-high ceilings were recycled from traditional buildings, we’re told; the Javanese added the totemic carving. In the villas, wardrobes and cabinets are exquisitely finished with hand-cut coconut shells, and just up the hill is a coconut bio-diesel plant that helps power the resort.
On-site eco-friendly technology includes recycled water systems, on-demand gas water-heaters, and LED lighting powered by compressed air, batteries and inverters. Cunningly, an air-conditioner set into a lower ceiling above the mosquito-net-swathed bed area cools just that space, so you sleep in bliss.
No surprise, then, that Nihiwatu was chosen as one of Five Best Eco-Hotels in the World by Tatler Travel Guide UK (2006) and continues to win awards such as the British Travel Award for Responsible Tourism (2007) and Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Award (2010).