Living Soul: Review Of Nihiwatu, Sumba Island

Nihiwatu isn’t about ticks and crosses, marks out of 10. It’s not mathematical, nothing that could be created or understood using an algorithm. The product of pure passion, there’s a unique spirit to this place.

Nihiwatu on Sumba Island is a secluded Indonesian resort that delivers barefoot luxury with a whole lot of soul.

“Your job? Computers will be able to do that soon,” Chris Burch tells me as we chat over after-dinner drinks at his resort, Nihiwatu. “Yeah, they’ll just search for all the relevant information, put the questions together, put the text together. Done. There’s no reason computers won’t be able to write an interview or a story.”

You can’t help but take a savvy entrepreneur of Burch’s pedigree seriously. Here’s a guy who, by age 40, had built from scratch and sold a US$60 million apparel business. Who subsequently did very nicely indeed with investments in an array of successful businesses, including Voss, Bauble Bar and Jawbone — not to mention Tory Burch, the affordable luxury label he built with his ex-wife, his exit from which a few years back secured Burch’s membership in the ‘three commas club’. (As in, he’s comfortably shot beyond billionaire. Not that this status is something Burch shouts from the rooftops. In fact he’s keen to distance himself from the moniker and says with great candour — one of his defining characteristics — that he finds the name of this publication a little off-putting.) Clearly, the man has foresight, an eye for the way things are going and an ability to spot future business opportunities. Like a market for robot journalists, maybe.

Still, I’m sceptical of the claim that my wordsmith skills are set to become redundant — not simply as a result of self-preservational wishful thinking, but in light of the surrounds I find myself in. Could an app sum all this up? Not likely. Nihiwatu, Burch’s resort on the Indonesian island of Sumba, isn’t the sort of place that could be adequately described using data and keywords ‘scraped’ from the cloud by some unfeeling machine, a lifeless collection of chips and blips. Artificial intelligences may be growing ever cleverer (although the results of putting a question to Siri generally suggest otherwise). But they continue to lack that essential something — soul. A quality Nihiwatu possesses in spades.

“You gotta come,” Nihi’s managing partner and co-owner James McBride, a dashing South African polo player, ex-GM of New York’s Carlyle, kept telling me over and over whenever we’d cross paths in Singapore. “It’s a special place, it’s just… special. You can’t explain it, you just have to see it, experience it.” He’s right. Although experience it I did, and attempt to explain it, I shall — in a way I think no computer ever could.

See, Nihiwatu isn’t about ticks and crosses, marks out of 10. It’s not mathematical, nothing that could be created or understood using an algorithm. The product of pure passion, there’s a unique spirit to this place, situated, as the Nihi slogan goes, ‘on the edge of wildness’ amid nearly 600 acres of Burch-owned land, a tiny fraction of which will ever be developed. “Never, ever,” Burch assures me, will the resort’s pristine 2.5km beach, surrounded by untouched jungle and a scattering of villagers’ thatched huts, ever be allowed to develop into yet another crass, commercial ‘Gold Coast’. “People have said Sumba’s the next Bali. No it’s not! We don’t want it to be,” Burch states emphatically. This, of course, does not compute, running counter to the natural entrepreneurial urge to build up, grow the business, maximise ROI, ‘create value’. Burch keenly understands that the true value here lies in maintaining its unspoilt state — not paving paradise to put up a parking lot, as it were.

Although there will soon be 32 villas (in a collection of styles, from older haciendas, through contemporary resort chic, to what McBride terms “the most amazing three-bedroom treehouse in the world”) the scale of the property is being kept intentionally intimate, a beautiful contrast with the vast swathes of nature and ocean that surround it. Speaking of the ocean, every villa I toured here boasted awesome panoramic views of the sea, with a focus on Nihi’s legendary left-hand surf break — the wave that led founders Petra and Claude Graves to establish a basic surfers’ retreat here in the 1980s, and which continues to lure board riders from around the world to this remote spot. During our stay, there were pilgrims from far-off California, South Africa and France, drawn to this exclusive reef where — unlike most surf beaches — tussles, overcrowding and ‘drop-ins’ are unknown. With ‘board caddies’ in Zodiacs to ferry riders out, just 10 people are allowed on the break at any one time, making Nihiwatu a true surfer’s paradise.

The sense of camaraderie among surfers on the wave extends throughout the property. More so than anywhere I’ve ever vacationed, staff and guests socialise easily, enjoying sundown drinks together by the beach, communal meals at the restaurants (followed by the occasional bout of dancing atop the bar), and when the bosses are in residence, guests are invited over for dinner parties at the villas occupied by Burch and McBride, who really come across more as hosts than management. It’s a fascinating crowd you’ll rub shoulders with too, Burch’s social circle plus the pure appeal of Nihi and its wave combining to create a cool mix of the jet set and the surf set, figures from the arts, fashion, cinema, finance and business mingling with fanatical surfers pursuing tubular nirvana.

It’s a social vibe, yes, but strolling down the beach at sunrise, chances are you’ll experience blissful solitude, not a soul to be seen. You do sense the soul here, though. The feel-good factor is only increased by the knowledge that the lion’s share of revenue generated during your stay at Nihiwatu is channelled into the charity established by the founders, which provides medicine, education and generally uplifts the Sumbanese people — who are among the most disadvantaged in Indonesia. There’s also the fact that, as the island’s largest employer, the resort provides an enormous number of jobs in the community, creating an exponential impact that reaches far beyond each individual employee.

Nihiwatu is a little bit of a challenge to get to — a computerised reviewer might mark it down for that. You jet into Bali, and unless you’re fortunate enough to be flying private from there, take an hour-long Garuda domestic flight to Sumba airport, then board a 4x4 for the 90-minute drive to the resort. A great deal more convoluted than simply staying in Bali’s Seminyak, yes — but the extra effort yields huge rewards. Not long into the transfer to Nihi from Sumba airport you notice, something’s missing. Noise of every sort is fading. There’s little traffic. No commercial eyesores; brash billboards, soda-pop signs and convenience store neon — banished. You’re surrounded by nature, and the unique corrugated iron and thatch-roofed homes of the Sumbanese, people living simple existences little different to those of their forebears (well, apart from the occasional satellite dish). Village children wave welcomingly as you pass by. Calm begins to descend.

You emerge from the tree cover, crest a hill, spot the ocean, the jungle, and little else. You’re truly ‘on the edge of wildness’. Paradise. A computer wouldn’t understand it. To fathom heaven, you’ve got to have a soul.

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Nihiwatu isn’t about ticks and crosses, marks out of 10. It’s not mathematical, nothing that could be created or understood using an algorithm. The product of pure passion, there’s a unique spirit to this place.