When I bid on an "Eco Resort Experience" last March at the Christie's Green Auction, I thought we were probably headed to a typically exotic deluxe vacation spot on the other side of the world. It turns out that I was in store for one of the most memorable experiences of my life, reminiscent of Marty McFLy traveling in his "Back To The Future" DeLorean. A visit to Nihiwatu in Sumba, Indonesia is truly a trip back in time.
Nihiwatu is an exclusive resort but not in the traditional sense. It is built into the raw, previously uninhabited beach of West Sumba. This ain't Bali, folks. Far from it. Bali is New York City compared to Sumba, which is located about 400 miles east of Bali. Sumba is truly a time warp, one of the last animist societies remaining in the world. It was discovered by one of Magellan's companions, in the 16th century on a spice gathering voyage. Overall, not much has changed on this island of 600,000 natives since those days, with the exception of the Nihiwatu compound brought to you by visionaries Claude and Petra Graves. Intimate and personal, the resort holds about 32 guests maximum in a series of tastefully outfitted villas and bungalows.
In case you're wondering, yes, the Sumbanese still hunt heads. While this is illegal according to the Indonesian government, there were four beheadings in the past few months. It's not dangerous for tourists, however, as this type of island justice is strictly reserved for tribal disputes. Apparently, centuries of headhunting is a hard habit to break. Each village used to feature a "skull tree" at its gate, with examples of recent battle victories for all to see.
"When I arrived, there was really nothing here," recalled Claude Graves, a New Jersey native who with his elegant German wife, Petra, founded and began building out Nihiwatu in 1989. "As a surfer, we looked out at perfect 20 foot waves on an absolutely pristine beach, and after a lengthy search, we knew we'd found our piece of paradise." As Petra described it, "We didn't even say a word, we just started setting up camp".
From an environmental standpoint, the Graves were committed to remaining true to the three-pronged agenda of sustainability: economy, environment and social equity. This made things even more difficult, as the environment is raw, breathtakingly beautiful, but equally harsh and unforgiving. Winds, torrential rains, blazing sun, dangerous ocean currents, lack of any infrastructure or built environment, much less availability of building materials on the island, all conspired to make the construction of Nihiwatu a multi-year project filled with challenges and disappointments.
Despite these obstacles, locally sourced sustainable woods were used throughout the facility. Locals sell coconuts to the resort, which has an on-site processing capability to turn the coconut oil into biodiesel fuel, which powers all vehicles, generators, air conditioners, boats, jet skis and the kitchen. A large composting pile absorbs all food waste -- and miraculously, does not give off any foul fumes, unlike my home composter.
Most of the food is locally sourced, organically grown, harvested and prepared. Fruits are predicably exotic and wonderful, as in mangosteens, dragonfruit, lycee, mangoes and coconuts, all right off the stem. Coffees and teas give Starbucks a run for their money, which is good since Sumba is one of few places on earth that will never qualify for Starbucks-ization. Best are the Sumbanese, Sumatran and Balinese beans which made my morning Joe especially memorable. It's probably best to bring your own wines, as Nihiwatu's cellar is not geared for the connoisseur. It's a little tricky getting your own bottles through customs in Bali, so, be prepared for a "discussion" with the agents as a bit of "negotiation" may be required.
Nihiwatu could double as a training ground for the Survivor or The Great Race television series -- its athletic offerings will especially be appreciated by amateur adventure athletes. To that end, Nihiwatu offers the best athletic equipment we have used at any resort. Dive gear is first-rate (bring your own mask, that's all you need), the mountain bikes are pricey and well maintained, surfboards are properly waxed, the list goes on.
The mountain biking offers plenty of climbs and downhills. Overall the terrain is rugged but scenic; the hiking is literally bushwhacking, crossing narrow, muddy trails and creaky bamboo bridges in driving rains to reach thundering 100-foot waterfalls. (How I wish I had thought to put my camera in a Ziplock bag!) The surfing and standup paddle boarding are great but not for the inexperienced as strong currents and riptides are found all along the beach; horseback riding is best reserved for accomplished cowboys and cowgirls as the small, super-cute but untamed Sumbanese Sandalwood horses are exciting to ride but tend to be unruly.
Scuba diving is decent but don't expect the crystal clear waters and visual delights of Grand Cayman or Belize. The coral in particular is varied and vibrant, but currents even below 60 feet can be strong. The jet-ski is Yamaha's newest high horsepower model, don't twist the throttle unless you are ready for instant-on acceleration from this heavyweight, blazingly fast craft. Even the three-mile out-and-back run along one of the world's most scenic beaches, while not to be missed, isn't just a casual jog. The sand, wind and high humidity made this inspiring route feel longer and more difficult than expected. I encountered not one human, only water buffalo that had grazed down from the foothills. In the morning, the sand is less soft and running barefoot was especially satisfying.
Mosquitoes can be a problem at Nihiwatu. You're in a true jungle, and malaria is a common ailment. We bathed in Off spray twice a day, which was an effective deterrant for the most part. We also took anti-malaria medicine, which is recommended. One pill a day for 12 days and you're good to go.
Another must-do activity is seeing the work of the Sumba Foundation, which has provided schools, water wells, medical and anti-malaria clinics and other critical services to over 20,000 villagers in West Sumba. The Graves have made this their life's work, sacrificing profits from Nihiwatu to fund these projects for the impoverished natives. The Graves were in Bali in the '70s, and could have devoted their resources to building hotels and restaurants there, enjoying the benefits that would have undoubtedly followed. So why would a young, attractive, successful couple give up such opportunity, all to go to a primitive island and help people living as they did 1,000 years ago?
"We employ these people, we have taught them English, how to hold a job, how to fish and cook with modern equipment, how to take better care of their families and showed them why they need running water and cleaner conditions. Many of them still don't really get it, but some of them do, and that has been very rewarding to us," Claude Graves explained. "The mortality rate of their children has decreased nearly 50 percent since we brought the malaria and medical clinics on stream. And our better local employees have gone on to purchase land, build improved houses and take care of their entire extended families through what they have learned at Nihiwatu. This is the work of the Sumba Foundation, and we have a lot more to do."
One thing I didn't get to see was the Pasola, a traditional contest among tribes that features warriors atop the miniature sandalwood horses, armed with spears (the Indonesian government has required the spear tips to be dulled). It is basically organized chaos, very colorful and exciting, and inevitably, there are deaths. In fact, the Pasola is not considered successful unless there is bloodshed, the more the better as blood on the earth symbolizes a bountiful harvest in the coming year.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Sumba is seeing the Graves work with the natives. They have mastered the art of transitioning people out of poverty, without infringing on their cultural values. Governments could learn a lot from studying the Sumba Foundation. Be sure to view the Sumba Foundation video and tour one of the Sumbanese villages; it's a trip back in time that is not to be missed. Be prepared, however, for the primitive conditions, which can be a little disarming. People, dogs, cats, swine, horses, monkeys and other family "possessions" share the same living quarters.
You will also meet some interesting people, as Nihiwatu attracts the cultural and physical elite. Film producers and directors, philanthropists, designers, CEOs -- most of whom appear to be in great athletic shape -- populate the place on a regular basis.
Oh, one more thing. Not much nightlife on Sumba, but Sumba tends to attract eco-conscious movers and shakers from all over the world as its guests. Thus we managed to make our own New Year's Eve party, and as the saying goes, what happens in Nihiwatu, stays in Nihiwatu.
Getting there: Fly out of LAX or JFK to Denpasar, Bali, usually via Taipei or Singapore. Overnight in Denpasar, then catch a surprisingly large jet for the 50-minute flight to Sumba. SUVs from Nihiwatu will be waiting to take you on the 90-minute drive across the island to reach the resort, located at the extreme edge of West Sumba.
Cost and availability: Variable according to season. Most packages include room, three meals per day, welcome massage, all non-alcoholic beverages and other extras; they end up at between $730 and $3,500 per night, depending upon accommodation. Surfers should pay special attention to timing, as during prime surfing season management only allows 10 surfing guests. You won't have to compete for the best waves here.