Panoramas are blue and nature is untamed on Sumba island, where tech billionaires and football stars are cossetted in the world’s top resort.
This is a gorgeously hidden world – though barely an hour’s flight east of Bali – where indulgence meets adventure.
So when I paddle on the open sea, I keep an eye on the thrilling Occy’s Left, beloved of surfers, as its waves swirl relentlessly towards our private beach.
Near midnight, cocooned in my villa, I hear a kind of pounding, like the thunder of the monstrous Occy’s Left.
My fancy canopy bed – or perhaps it is the ceiling – sways so subtly for two, three seconds that it may all be imaginary. I Google later and discover that a magnitude 4 quake has struck 115km from our remote Indonesian island.
Such moments, when life feels heightened, abound at the Nihi Sumba Island resort (www.nihihotels.com), twice-named by global readers of Travel + Leisure magazine as the world’s best hotel in July and last year.
“The Edge of Wilderness” is the catchphrase for the hotel, signifying, as I figure from my four-day stay here, a love of exploration amid five-star luxury.
Two long-time friends, American fashion mogul Christopher Burch and South Africa-born hotelier James McBride, reimagined and reopened the resort in 2015 after buying it from American surfer Claude Graves.
In 1988, the bohemian had discovered the cult wave, Occy’s Left, and planted a surfer’s resort named Nihiwatu.
The free spirit of the original outpost has been retained, even as the new entrepreneurs added sumptuous elements and services.
So I see dressed-down guests – little ostentation in sight – and hovering butlers who craft bespoke menus of activities.
I ask for a sunset horse ride on the beach, stand-up paddle-boarding on a river and chocolate-making, while my butler Hendra suggests a day-long “spa safari” that combines a morning trek and unlimited pampering treatments.
Among these jaunts, it is the seaside ride on a small, strong Sumba horse that still glows in memory – and I do not even fancy the equestrian life.
“Connect with your horse first,” counsels Carlos, the assistant manager at Sandlewood Stables, as the horse-whisperer-in-training gets me to calmly lead Elvis around a little arena. “They are sensitive and feel the energy of the rider.”
I am supposed to bond with my horse, yet be boss – so I play with terms of endearment and authority, saying “sayang” and “stop”. Elvis is unimpressed.
But all is bliss when we canter on the resort’s isolated beach, a 2.5km-long crescent of sand framed by long waves.
Feathery-fine raindrops pelt the beach gently and the pink sand starts to look crystalline, a tableau I have not seen elsewhere – but perhaps I have not stopped often enough to smell roses and oceans.
The young man sprints alongside my horse, then around it, snapping photo after photo on my smartphone.
Scrolling through the images later, I am moved by his artistry in conveying the romance and seclusion of Sumba.
A new adventure awaits when I try stand-up paddle-boarding – a spin-off of surfing – on a river for the first time. There is a board to stand, sit or kneel on, while I use a paddle to navigate the Wanukaka River.
It is a novel way to enjoy rustic Sumba. Villagers wash their motorbikes in the river and horses drink from it. We spy fishing nets.
We drift along, and the river is by turns somnolent and not, for unseen currents will lurk in bodies of water.
It is a scary oversight, but it has slipped my mind to ask for a life jacket for our half-hour excursion.
Then it happens. Slow to steer out of an insidious current, I topple when my board gets jammed in the reeds sprouting from the river bank.
Alarmed, I contemplate whether to escape the menacing current, just like my paddle that has now freely floated away. Or is it safer to cling to the reeds and keep my head above water till a rescuer shows up?
It is an eternity before I see my indispensable guides powering against the current to reach me.
Back at the resort, one of the guides, in her wisdom, asks if I want to paddle again, on the open water this time. To get over my fear, I say yes.
It proves to be simpler to paddle on the unconfined Indian Ocean, where I have more mobility, unlike the river where I constantly steer away from the river banks.
Atop the sea, there is more stability when I stand, and I am snug inside my life jacket. It feels like a little feat to navigate safely past the force of nature that is Occy’s Left, as surfers hurtle through it.
The ocean is vital and restless as I paddle and, in that moment, it is deeply humbling to know that travellers here are a speck of humanity on a far shore.
When I step off my board, I relax from an eventful day with an icy lime-and-mint drink at the boathouse and a fresh samosa.
The world is serene again when I set off on a spa safari another day.
This begins with a 90-minute morning trek followed by several hours of spa treatments at Nihi Oka, a cluster of cliffside pavilions nestled between two beaches.
Our trek is a series of agrarian Sumba moments – a horse rolling in a tiny field, black buffalo following us with inquisitive eyes, prancing goats.
I peer at low-branched cashew trees and see how each nut dangles under its own spongy, pendulous “cashew apple”. It seems extravagant that just one nut is harvested from each apple.
We arrive at Nihi Oka for a late breakfast that includes grilled paleo bread, fresh fruit and a trio of juices, notably a shot of brilliant turmeric.
Then the full pampering begins in an airy pavilion, or bale, that is open on four sides.
My masseuse Ruth, an islander, combines Swedish deep-tissue kneading with long therapeutic Sumbanese strokes, and my back benefits from extra time and care. A green tea scrub and aloe vera wrap follow.
Truly a head-to-toe treat, hair and scalp are hydrated with a coconut water rinse and a “smoothie” of avocado and cocoa butter, while the feet tingle with a reflexology session.
A mirror positioned under the massage bed reflects the sky and the glistening turquoise of the Indian Ocean. Fused with the sound of ceaseless waves and the flowing movements of Ruth’s hands, it is a multi-sensory experience of nearly three hours in a soul-soothing South-east Asian nook marvellously off the map.
After a late lunch, alone in my bale, Ruth restores my hurting left hand with many layers of exquisite pressure, while I sit on a day bed, watching the hypnotic sea turn a moodier grey-green that elevates the solitude here.
Before I leave, Bali-trained spa manager Ketut declares the beauty of Sumba, which has a reputation among surfers as a second Hawaii.
Spanish footballers have spent time here, he mentions, while Sports Illustrated models have cavorted on the beach for photo-shoots.
And so Sumba has pleasures aplenty.
I also join a Singaporean family at the onsite Chris and Charly’s Chocolate Factory, a whimsical conical hut, to make my own bar.
I choose a dark chocolate with tropical tinges: spicy cashews, palm sugar of a deliciously deep flavour and Balinese cocoa beans.
A couple of years ago, 2,800 cacao saplings were planted across the resort grounds and the first harvest will be in a year or two.
There are a dozen steps in chocolate-making, from cooling the molten confection on a marble surface to pouring it into a mould. It is like playing chemist.
I also try my hand – inexpertly – at weaving an ikat bracelet. I much prefer watching two Sumbanese women who are weaving sarongs of royal purple and burgundy and smaller items such as place mats.
They can finish a bracelet in 15 minutes, while tourists take two hours.
There are more activities, but the timing is not right for me to surf or forage for sea urchin.
The resort continues to add experiences and has recently introduced a chocolate spa treatment, free-diving lesson and saltwater pool excursion.
Staff constantly roam Sumba, twice the size of Bali, to discover new waterfalls, private beaches and other secrets.
LUXURY AND LIMITS
Beyond adventure and indulgence, guests are invited to volunteer or sponsor worthy local causes. Philanthropy is at the core of the resort’s business model, with a portion of profits channelled to the Sumba Foundation (www.sumbafoundation.org).
The foundation is intent on building wells, ending malaria and preparing nutritious school lunches, among many projects to uplift the people, who are majority Christians who also mix in Marapu animist beliefs.
One morning, alongside Indonesian guests staying at the resort, I ladle protein-rich green bean soup for school children, who are waiting with bowls and spoons.
“This might be their best meal of the week,” says Ms Rainy Octora, who runs the school lunch and malnourishment project for the foundation.
I still remember the solemn boy grasping a soiled plastic bag – it is his school bag. Some children use one exercise book for all subjects. I have brought pens as gifts but realise that immensely more resources are needed.
On the way back to our plush resort, we are quiet, wondering how the kids walk barefoot for kilometres on pebbly sun-baked roads.
How do we delicately negotiate a day of poverty and privilege?
Mr Hasta Putra, 26, an event planner working in Bali, reflects: “I was a little ashamed of myself. Young people like me have so many crazy dreams – to buy a fancy car or an iPhone.
“These kids, maybe their dream is to have a good night’s sleep and a full stomach before school.”
And so life is heightened for the traveller in Sumba, with its pure panoramas and pleasures and also its privation.
Like the momentary earthquake and the perpetual Occy’s Left wave, Sumba symbolises life beyond idyllic beaches.
It is time spent on the wild side with purpose – and a journey writ large.
•The writer was hosted by Nihi Sumba Island resort.
•Follow Lee Siew Hua on Twitter @STsiewhua
Elegance without excess
Adrenaline-seekers and urban escapists alike have a place at the Nihi Sumba Island resort.
In that spirit, after land-and-sea jaunts, I luxuriate in my villa with its private garden, library and infinity pool facing the Indian Ocean.
My butler opens a hidden door that pops me on a path lined with giant yam fronds.
The trail leads to a boathouse where water sports and sunset cocktails await.
I pass a turtle hatchery with eggs buried in sand.
I do not see American brand-building entrepreneur and resort owner Christopher Burch, ex-husband of fashion designer Tory Burch, but my abode is a piece of his five-villa Mendaka Estate extravaganza.
This enclave is designed with a series of terraces that roll down to the ocean. It is lushly botanical with bamboo filaments, cascades of creepers and vivid hibiscus.
From Singapore, my morning flight to Bali’s Denpasar International Airport on Garuda Indonesia (www.garuda-indonesia.com) is under three hours. A domestic flight, also on Garuda, connects me to Tambolaka Airport on Sumba island in an hour, so I arrive the same day.
The Nihi Sumba Island resort picks up guests at the airport in a safari-style jeep and the transfer is about 90 minutes, depending on road conditions. With misty mountains and village scenes – including above-ground megalithic tombs – the road trip on the western flank of hilly Sumba is a mini-adventure.
Rates for an all-inclusive stay start at US$750 (S$1,015) a night for a one-bedroom villa, based on double occupancy. The price includes accommodation, meals, non-alcoholic drinks, local excursions, Wi-Fi and many sea activities.
•Sumba island entwines adventure and indulgence, so it may appeal to travellers who love active holidays and pampering spa treatments. It also rewards curious souls who seek cultural immersion in local experiences. Those who desire only idyllic beaches will like the Maldives better.
•Although celebrities live it up here, there is no need to overdress. Apparel is resort chic; it is fine to go more casual than that. At restaurants, guests can go barefooted.
•Sumba is a place of wilderness. Waves may be thunderous and, like me, you may experience an earthquake in this Pacific Ring of Fire domain. Stay safe in the water with a life jacket and pack an adventurous spirit.
The resort is dotted with 26 villas housing 33 rooms. The collection, inspired by Sumbanese architecture, includes a trio of treehouse villas with plunge pools and decks for entertaining.
One evening, guests sip mojitos as the sun sets against the silhouetted trees around us.
Freshly caught fish is always on the menu. I also like the Sumba omelette cooked with egg noodles and French beans served with a sambal of tomatoes, shrimp paste, basil and chilli. I ask for strong Sumba coffee for breakfast.
I travel solo, but it is easy to mingle with guests. Surfers, honeymooners, multi-generational families, expatriates from Singapore and celebrities make up the clientele and a significant proportion are repeat guests.
While guests have praise for the resort – it has been voted the world’s best by global readers of New York-based Travel + Leisure magazine, using criteria such as location and value – it is less simple for anyone to pin down its appeal.
Part of the consensus is that there is elegance without excess here and the resort has a philanthropic heart.
It uplifts the islanders – Sumba has a population of 650,000 – through its foundation. Also, the hotel employs and trains Sumbanese.
“The energy behind this is love,” says guest Adrian Reed, 37, who owns restaurants in Bali.
Mr Paul Wuwono, 49, a consultant at a Bali arts foundation, notes that “business and giving money go hand-in-hand” and guests feel good connecting to something larger than themselves.
Mr James McBride, 53, chief executive and partner at Nihi Hotels, is unequivocal about why the resort is a gem, of course. “Nihi Sumba Island is a new type of luxury experience – one that is rooted in cultural immersion,” he says.
“Where else can you partake in yoga on a rock cantilevered over fields of rice paddies during the annual harvest, or surf one of the world’s only private waves as water buffalo wade into the ocean, or visit nearby villages on horseback and sit with generations of ikat weavers and sword fighters?”
Nihi Hotels, which owns the resort, has identified Costa Rica, Nicaragua and the Philippines as possible locations for future properties.
They will have the edge-of-wilderness feel and luxurious privacy of the current resort, which covers 180ha, of which 130ha are left undeveloped as “green” buffers.
I, too, prize the privacy. Alone in my villa – no one shares my wooden deck with a round table that seats a dozen – I make a gin and tonic. By the pool, I lounge in a book nook and admire my private sunset.