Nihi Sumba Island hails itself as the destination for “Luxury on the Edge of Wildness,” but seeing is really the only way to believe. After landing on the island, the hour and a half trek from the airport through one of Indonesia’s most beautiful, untouched islands certainly feels desolate, but lush rice fields and green jungles eventually open to rocky bluffs and a 1.5-mile crescent of private beach occupying the small island hideaway renovated beyond paradise by entrepreneur billionaire Chris Burch.
Resorts around the world boast luxury, but within Burch’s exclusive “wildness” resort lies something special – the legendary beach Nihiwatu (meaning “mortar stone”) that captivates Nihi Sumba’s guests is home to a rare swell that, by most standards is Indonesia’s best surf, and according to other insiders, the best wave in the world. While destinations like Bali boast beautiful beaches and excellent surf, Sumba is like taking a trip back in time. These days, almost every wave in Indonesia is scoured by locals and hungry world-travelling surfers alike, but on Nihi Sumba, there’s not another surfer on this elite break – not for another 100+ miles in any direction.
The tranquility of Nihi Sumba is enveloped in a rich history. The Marapu people landed on the white sandy beaches of Sumba centuries ago, and the island has remained quietly, culturally conventional since. While rumors of epic surf in the 80s attracted a few visitors, the surfer’s paradise was officially “discovered” and inhabited by a wander-lusting couple from New Jersey – Claude and Petra Graves. While scouring the globe looking for the perfect wave, the couple stumbled on their big break – the now-famed left-hand reef break that swells with an almost automated regularity, named “Occy’s Left” for Australian surfer Mark Occhilupo, whose surfing on Sumba for the movie Green Iguana cemented the wave’s reputation.
Word of Occy’s perfect swell spread, and the destination on the southwest tip of the small island lead way for the Graves’ hostel to become a surfer’s retreat. In 2012, Chris Burch, billionaire entrepreneur and co-founder of the international brand Tory Burch LLC took the whole of the Graves’ vision – a retreat that remains exclusive for surfers while working to help the Sumbanese community – and turned it on its head. Along with hotelier partner James McBride, Burch purchased Nihiwatu and spent the next three years and $30 million renovating the cult surf destination into luxury 5-star resort Nihi Sumba, which has since been hailed as one of the world’s five best eco-hotels and twice awarded the “World’s Best Hotel” from Travel + Leisure. The contrast of luxury and exclusivity blending with the poverty of Sumba seems it could be a problematic disparity, but the philanthropic and ecological work being done by Chris Burch and partners has brought vast improvement to the island.
Setup in 2001 by Claude Graves, the nonprofit Sumba Foundation was the obvious next step for the couple who came to the island in the 80s and fell in love with its people, culture and waves. The mission was built to find healthcare solutions and help fund projects for clean drinking water and education for the Sumbanese people. Chris Burch ran with this model of sustainable tourism, covering administrative costs of the foundation and allowing 100% of donations to directly fund its projects. Nihi Sumba is the largest employer on the entire island and champions both its ecological conservation as well as the social livelihoods of its people.
Breathtaking aerial view of Nihu Sumba
-Chris Burch, @jChrisburch
Part of conserving the island’s integrity was in hosting one of the world’s most exclusive waves. In order for the island to remain a magical hideaway for guests, the waters have been carefully protected and maintained by Nihi Sumba. For those lucky enough to secure a spot – Nihi Sumba only allows ten registered surfers on the left per day – the reward is a 200-300m ride down the line through large rippling walls and heaving barrels of a perfect wave. The resort even provides lessons on Occy’s with “Watermen” and surf instructors, depending on the swell. The resort website lists classes for all skill levels, from Baru (introductory) all the way to Ahli (advanced) with differing rates.
Nihi Sumba may now be a five-star resort bearing a five-star price tag, but the “best hotel in the world” is nowhere near the pompous snobbery of others lucky enough to be in its company. There’s no spectacle or formality. There’s sand on the floor of the Sumba-chic restaurants, with its thatched rooftops and open-air ambience. The left break that captured the imagination of a young couple from New Jersey in 1988 is still available as it once was, in all its glory, perfectly secured and maintained as it was meant to be. Chris Burch’s vision of immersive culture and luxury in the heart of the Sumbanese wilderness saved Occy’s Left and cemented its place as a world-class surfing destination. And if you’re ever lucky enough to visit the small island of Sumba, the famed swell promises to deliver what other world-class waves can’t: its undivided attention.
Brody Jenner surfing Occy’s Left in June 2018 before his wedding ceremony at Nihi Sumba
-Linda Thompson, @ltlindathompson