Luxury is taking root on a tiny island in Eastern Indonesia, positioning it as a more thoughtful alternative to Bali. CHLOE SACHDEV explores Sumba.
Sep 27, 2023 5:56am
The sun is setting and the bossa-nova beats are rising. Surfers are riding their last barrels into shore as bartenders shake ice-cold Jackfruit Coladas and Papaya Spritzes. Around me, young couples in techno-black swimwear are casting dancing shadows and sun-drunk families are squealing in the pool. It’s a familiar snapshot seen every few years. The kind of mythical beach town – Sayulita, Taghazout, Canggu – where the surf is steady and time drips like honey. This year, it’s Sumba in Indonesia. An off-grid island with a raw energy and knotted jungles, rock pools and reliable waves in the Indian Ocean on the edge of the Savu Sea, only 50 minutes from Bali by turboprop plane, but double the size.
People might say it’s the new Gili or Komodo Island with its staggering natural beauty and light-touch tourism where days wax and wane. A fair comparison, but one which risks overlooking its deep-running Indigenous Marapu culture of ancestor worship and sacrificial rituals. Every year, during the riotous Pasola festival, tournaments take place between spear-wielding horsemen on prized Sandalwood ponies. It’s more than just a spectator sport. The human blood of duelling fighters is often spilled and considered a good omen to honour ancestors and sow a good harvest. Dotted around the island are slabs of megalithic tombs used for burial rituals. Myths and legends, represented in geometric patterns, are passed on through generations in the form of intricate dyed and woven ikat fabrics handmade in kampung villages. On the side of the road, knee-height barefoot children walk to school, their shoes strung over their shoulders to keep them clean. It’s an island of sharp contrasts that casts a soul-stirring light, and as I sip my Sandalwood Negroni at the stylish hotel Cap Karoso, this scrappy island feels like a new-wave hotspot.
Built as a tropical brutalist open-air beach club, this sprawling property with 47 rooms and 20 villas is full of life and light, with acres of concrete and terrazzo and furnished with neutral-coloured day beds, sofas, and sun loungers. Slabs of rose gold sun streak through timber and bamboo slats and guests hop between beach, bar, pools and restaurants. Those who take the pleasure of leisure seriously turn shades of terracotta at the supersized adults-only pool zone with views across the jungle to the sea. Food here is good across both the pool and beach restaurants, but where it’s taken seriously is at Julang, where Michelin chefs are flown in for residencies and fine dining takes a convivial turn stoked by the communal chef’s table. My first dinner is by chef Katsuaki Okiyama of Michelin-starred Japanese-French restaurant Abri in Paris, a restaurant I was unable to book years back, but now get to experience in Sumba with ingredients plucked from the sea and the organic garden down the road.
The hotel is the brainchild of first-time hoteliers, French couple Fabrice and Evguenia Ivara, who decided to put down roots after first visiting in 2017. “We were drawn by the wild beauty of the hills and beaches, the strong and unique local Marapu culture, and the crafts developed around their rituals, and, of course, the Sumba people, with their warm smiles, sincerity, and pride of traditions,” says Evguenia.
Sumba is one of the last living megalithic cultures in the world, where giant hand-carved stone graves are still built as living monuments. It’s a place where pre-history is still strikingly present. So, if you feel like a high-spec hotel might be out of sync on this unplugged island, you might be right. “Our design approach as European owners was never simply to copy and paste elements of traditional Sumbanese culture into the resort. In Marapu culture the symbols still have a strong ritual meaning and placing them into a foreign space would be stripping them of their sense,” explains Evguenia. Outsiders must request ancestral approval before planting their flags and ceremonies must be conducted on sacred land.
Instead, hints of local elements are subtly disseminated throughout the hotel. There are carved wood panels with textures and symbols reminiscent of local ikat fabrics, wooden statues made by neighbouring villagers, and betel-nut boxes by a local artisan in east Sumba. A striking artwork of coloured threads is draped on the back wall of the reception, loomed by one of the most well-known ikat weavers on Sumba, Kornelis Ndapakamang. His village hand-dyed 65 kilograms of Indonesian cotton threads with natural ingredients like indigo leaves and pounded turmeric to create the 20-square-metre art installation.
Two hours on spindly roads southwest of Cap Karoso, a more lo-fi hotel has plopped itself into the landscape. The Sanubari is a low-slung, go-slow kind of place, with a mellow, softly tuned vibe. It is surrounded by coconut and palm trees backed by limestone cliffs and jungle and fronted by a near-empty 2.5-kilometre stretch of blonde-sand beach with regular swells that surfers froth over. The Sanubari was opened by two brothers Alan and Roger Thomas from Cornwall, who lived in Indonesia for nearly 30 years, with the help of partners Rowan and Micha Burn executing and designing the project on the ground. Simple sand-coloured villas with pebble-wash terrazzo pools and wide access to the beachfront.
The open-air thatched roof restaurant serves crowd-pleasing Indonesian favourites. It feels like you’ve stumbled across an untouched paradise worth keeping to yourself. At sunset, sunburnt guests migrate towards the beach bar to swap stories over frosty beers. It’s a place of simple pleasures where the elasticity of island time takes over and days are spent reading, swimming, riding ponies on the beach and blissing out to the sound of the sea. “We want guests to feel they’re in luxury but it’s subtle. Luxury for the soul,” explains Rowan. More plans are underway for the property, including a soon-to-be-built cultural creative space powered by locals teaching everything from ikat weaving to permaculture, painting and cooking.
But, before these design-edged digs, there was Nihi Sumba, a grande dame hotel amid a 270-hectare jungle estate on the southwestern coast on Sumba’s most famous surf break. A kingpin resort that got this island stirring more than 20 years ago. The estate is dotted with bamboo and teak villas of various sizes, with Sumbanese thatch roofs, private pools and gardens, all tucked between twisted banyan trees on a hilltop that trickles towards a swathe of beach where conker-coloured ponies gallop at sunset.
A few months ago at Nihi Sumba, Sting broke out in an impromptu birthday ballad and rumour has it Oprah is visiting soon. But there is no razzamatazz or silver service. It feels more like a hunky-dory school camp for mid-life surfers and one-percenters to dig their barefoot soles into the landscape – surfing, swimming, riding horses or just drinking coconuts as big as your head. Then there’s the spa. Reached by horseback, jeep or an hour-long trek through rice paddies, it’s an open-air retreat overlooking the frothy ocean where you are kneaded, crunched, brushed and scrubbed in indulgent half- or full-day treatments. Back at the hotel, cocktail hour is signalled by the sweet aroma of char-grilled satay choreographed to the last blasts of sunshine.
Beyond these obvious luxuries, the real heart of the hotel is felt through its philanthropic vein. A few years after opening Nihi, its founder Claude Graves, an American surfer, started the Sumba Foundation in 2001 to support local community projects. Graves was a visionary who set the blueprint for sustainability before it was a buzz word, setting up water, health, education, and economic initiatives like malaria clinics, school lunches for local kids, English language and computer courses for children, and scholarships. Although ownership changed hands in 2012 to ex-financier Chris Burch and seasoned hotelier James McBride, its DNA to do good remains and sets the tone for incoming hoteliers to push from the heart as this introverted island no doubt gets louder.