On Indonesia’s Sumba Island, the former surfer’s retreat of Nihiwatu is reborn as something wholly original: a world-class beach resort with an unmistakably local soul.
“It sort of endorses your lunacy, in a funny way.” In his pink shirt and straw fedora, McBride was hopping over rice paddies like a giddy schoolboy. Every 50 meters we paused to take in another improbable view: rippling fields of emerald green, pandanus palms teetering on a clifftop, a rocky headland pummeled by surf.
We’d made the 20-minute drive out from Nihiwatu that morning to reach this 100-hectare swath of undeveloped Sumba beachfront, which McBride and his partners had acquired only a few weeks before. But the veteran hotelier—who once ran New York’s Carlyle hotel—already had clear plans for how this new property, which they’d christened Nihi Oka, would enhance the original 15-year-old resort.
“We’ll bring Nihiwatu guests out here for the day,” McBride said, “to give them a whole new experience.” Those guests will have the entirety of Nihi Oka to themselves: eating breakfast in a tree house above the surf, swimming off the soft white beach, enjoying alfresco massages in a bamboo pavilion over the rice fields.
For now, the terrain was still rough-and-tumble; we had to bushwhack our way in spots. It was 8 a.m. and we were already sweating. All the while, McBride kept tweaking details. “We’ll put some stairs in here, so people can reach the beach easier,” he said, scribbling on his map, like Harold with his Purple Crayon. That’s what McBride loves about his role at Nihiwatu: the blank canvas, and the unbridled creativity it inspires. “You feel like you’re in Kauai sixty years ago,” McBride said. “Or Rockefeller, doing his thing in the Caribbean. We’ve got such a start.”
Asia’s dreamiest and unlikeliest beach resort sits on an obscure corner of an obscure Indonesian island with hardly any tourism development. Sumba is 400 kilometers southeast of Bali (and twice its size); travelers must fly there first to catch an hour-long flight to Sumba’s tiny Tambolaka airport. Nihiwatu is still the island’s only proper resort.
Its story begins in the spring of 1988, when an American surfer named Claude Graves and his German wife, Petra, hiked across West Sumba, pitched a tent on the shore, and decided this must be the place. A decade would pass as they secured land rights, built the first bungalows and hired local staff. In 2000, the Graveses finally opened their 10-room surf retreat, and called it Nihiwatu.