Mary Gostelow heads to the best hotel in the world
Most images you see of Nihi Sumba Island show crashing surf… but there is more. Sumba is a 11153-square-kilometre island in the Lesser Sunda Islands archipelago south of Bali, with a total population of about three-quarters of a million. Nihiwatu, the resort‘s 2.4-kilometre private beach, is renowned among surfers the world over (Nihi only allows 10 surfers a day and getting a slot is on a par with golfers playing St Andrew’s Old Course in Scotland). Those who are not into surfing are bowled over by a myriad other aspects of Nihi: the lovely people, the landscapes, the array of things to do, and so much more. The fact that it is all-inclusive, other than alcohol, spa treatments and some activities, makes for unusual camaraderie.
Nihi has been put together, as it is now, by James McBride, newly-restyled CEO, and his business pal, entrepreneur Chris Burch, who bought what had been a tired, nine-room Nihiwatu resort. The pair have taken it up to ultimate luxury with the essential edge of wilderness, which is what the true top-end traveller wants today. Getting here can be something of a trek, but you are taken in hand by Nihi staff as soon as you arrive at Bali’s Denpasar airport, and when Garuda touches down 50 minutes later at Sumba Island’s Tambolaka airport, you are amazed to discover that the waiting 4×4 has Wi-Fi. Over mountains and through rainforest you go, and 90 minutes later you arrive, to find your villa personalised.
Individual compounds, bordered by plants and banana-tree fences, have outer double doors which are number-free, and on more than one occasion I wandered into the wrong areas, as others did to me. This is a lock-free environment (I hid my key under my doormat until I left). Many trek for 90 minutes, that magical 90, through jungle and undergrowth to Nihi’s own spa sibling, Nihi Oka, which does have one letting villa where you can overnight, complete with treetop dining if you want. This is the place for stress-relieving massages, in the open air, perhaps with brunch to follow.
Nihi has a knack of attracting one-off personalities. Which other luxury hotel has a Glaswegian head of sales and marketing who spent years selling Specsavers eyewear in Spain, and more years busking as a magician on various streets worldwide? Mary Tilson, who heads spa and wellness, is another unusual person, who will customise yoga to whatever level and discipline you want: wearing many hats, she also organises retreats, say in Nicaragua, and designs her own brand of yoga wear. And Nihi, by the way, not only attracts such leading players, they interact with guests so you are sometimes not sure who is star and who is chorus.
One night I was dining with of the GMs, Jason Trollip (Mrs Trollip, Loraine, who, like her husband, moved here from Singita, is babysitting their kids tonight). So there we were, 10 of us – of whom probably eight were Goldman Sachs bond traders – around a long table set in the sand, showing again that this luxury resort confounds the norm. That night was a seven-course pop-up dinner cooked on a grill he had built himself that very afternoon, by Panama’s charismatic culinarian Andres Morataya. James McBride had discovered this guy when travelling through Central America scouting for the next Nihi property. Most of the other diners had been initially attracted by the surfing on Nihiwatu beach here (the waves come, unhindered, all the way from Antarctica, and the biggest, the Sumba Sunset, a left-hander for the advanced surfer, is up to 15 feet – surfers talk feet rather than metres).
There are 320 people making this resort work, 95% of them local. Nihi’s culture has been immersed in Sumba Island life since before McBride and his business partner Burch first came here – the Sumba Foundation, set up in 2001, has eradicated over 85% of malaria on the island, set up four health clinics and trained over 300 nurses and lab technicians. More than 25,000 now have potable water. A recent initiative is to help kids as young as four with computer skills. All this makes for a lovely interchange between hotel guests and staff.
The team includes some formidable equestrian talent. On 27 October 2017, Nihi Sumba hosted its third annual British Polo Day tournament, in aid of the Foundation. Over 60 players and camp-followers descended from all over for what turned out to be a four-day jamboree, which included a 90-minute pre-breakfast hike with James McBride to Nihi Oka and, of course, surfing, sundown beach riding as well as the tournament itself. Fortunately Nihi Sumba has its own horses, mostly Sumba Sandalwoods, named because they were traded for sandalwood in years past. Nihi entered its own team, sponsored by RJI Capital, whose CEO Ben Vestey is also a co-founder of the self-described eccentric British Polo Day. This year’s winning team was Mashomack, from New York, captained by Bruce Colley.
But there are always plenty of times and places to escape the crowd. Yes, Nihi Sumba is about community, making new friends, joining up with others. Villas, with their natural boundaries and pools and lawns and outside salas, here called bales, allow contemplation, and there is an excellent library, in a space shared with the 24/7 gym. I loved my breakfasts, both at Ombak restaurant facing down to the sea, and also at home by my pool; I ordered the healthy green goddess drink that became an instant signifier while I was here. It is easy to see, looking back, why Sumba quickly becomes a way of life.
Mary Gostelow travels over 300 days a year, doing one-night stands in top hotels around the world. Read her daily travelogue, www.girlahead.com