Local touches show up everywhere: bathroom sinks are hewn from slabs of roughly carved stone; wardrobes are fashioned from coconut wood. The space is natural where you want it to be, sleek where you need it—as in the seamless glide of sliding glass doors; the light switches that glow in the unfamiliar dark; or the straw paddle fan that swirls inside, not outside, your monumental canopy bed. Most striking of the new villas: the Kanatar Sumba Houses, where an outdoor shower is magically cantilevered off the second floor. All the other outdoor showers went home and cried.
Ninety-eight percent of the staff are from Sumba. Like most guests, I was assigned a butler, a jovial Sumbanese man named Simson, who arrived at 7 a.m. every morning bearing breakfast—papaya, rambutan, watermelon juice, house-made yogurt, Sumba coffee. (The food here is terrific, highlighting the bright, fresh flavors you crave in the tropics.) One morning Simson was limping because a scorpion had bitten him on the toe back home. “I didn’t check before putting on my sandals!” he said, as if it were his fault, not the scorpion’s. He quickly added that one seldom encounters them at Nihiwatu.
Scorpions or no, I can’t remember a resort on any island that I’ve liked more than Nihiwatu. And while it is clearly not for everyone, I can’t imagine what sort of crank wouldn’t fall for the place.
As they reach out to a broader clientele, Burch and McBride are determined to honor Nihiwatu’s commitment to the island. All profits from the resort go to the Sumba Foundation. They’ve even added an on-site “Guru Village,” where doctors stay for free in exchange for volunteer work. During my visit, a team of Australian eye specialists was in residence; they spent their mornings surfing and afternoons performing cataract surgeries in local clinics.
Of course there’s an inevitable dissonance between Sumba’s privation and Nihiwatu’s privilege, between a subsistence-level economy and a butler-staffed resort. Perhaps that’s why so many guests are compelled to support the foundation and to visit villages. To do so is to understand the unique and symbiotic relationship between Nihiwatu and the island it calls home.
Sumba is overwhelmingly rural, given over to old-growth forests, rice and maize fields, banana trees and coconut palms, and undulating hills carpeted in tall green grass. Chickens, cows, goats, dogs and ponies wander along the roadsides. Pigs roast on front-yard spits; water-buffalo hides are stretched on bamboo frames to dry in the sun.
One morning I joined Dato Daku, a veteran Nihiwatu staffer, to visit his village. The twisting path into Waihola squeezes between boulders, thwarting easy access. Sentries used to perch atop the rocks, armed with spears to hurl at intruders.
Waihola itself is an otherworldly flashback to the Iron Age, and a reminder that Sumba is in, but not entirely of, Indonesia. Most islanders identify as Christian, not Muslim, though many still practice an ancient form of animism known as Marapu. At the center of the village are the enormous stone graves of clan ancestors. Sumbanese are traditionally entombed with their wealth, like pharaohs, which explains why the tombs are covered with slabs that weigh up to five tonnes. Elaborate funerals involve the sacrifice of dozens of animals—pigs, buffalo, cows, even horses. A family can easily go bankrupt staging an appropriately lavish ceremony.