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What It’s Like Staying at the #1 Resort in the World

It didn’t take long after landing in Bali for the first time in 2017 to realize that “the island of the gods” had more than captured my heart. I founded Foray in part motivated by the possibility to spend more and more time working from and living in Bali, and just returned for the fourth time over the holidays last year. As incredible as Bali is for me, I’ve remained keenly aware that Indonesia is a wonderfully diverse nation with over 17,000 islands comprising the archipelago, 6,000 of which are inhabited. Six thousand! They say that the world only becomes bigger the more you travel, and it’s absolutely true.

My intrigue surrounding one particular island, Sumba, had grown ever since I’d read about this mystical sounding resort called Nihi Sumba that was awarded the #1 best hotel in the world by Travel & Leisure magazine for two years in a row, in 2016 and 2017. While all-inclusive style resorts aren’t what I typically gravitate towards, there was something about the adventure of traveling to a remote island in the Indian Ocean and the rugged nature highlighted in all of the photos that I captured my attention. So this time around, I made sure to plan to escape to Nihi for a few days within my Bali itinerary.

Knowing the power of a great PR team and a healthy marketing budget, I remain slightly skeptical of the numerous travel awards and “best of” lists that the media churns out each year until I’m able to vet the destination for myself. It took no more than one hour at Nihi Sumba for me to comprehend fully that this was indeed a very special place, beyond what I could have imagined. It’s not everyday that you get this feeling that you’ve just stumbled across something this exceptional. Yes, you can visit some incredible resorts and island destinations in the Caribbean, Thailand, Greece, etc. but when are you ever one of just about 50 visitors on a remote island of 700,000 people who still live much as they have for the last centuries?

The sense of place is what sets Sumba apart into a league of its own amongst island resorts. In a nutshell, this is not just another all-inclusive beach holiday… although you will most definitely still benefit from the same sense of rejuvenation! Gone was the heavy traffic and pollution that plagues Bali, replaced by the lull of the thunderous waves, the feeling of the fresh sea spray, and the scent of the wild jungle flowers.

Travel Plan: Two flights per day depart Bali for the one hour flight to Sumba, and vice versa. Making bookings with the Indonesian airlines isn’t as obvious as you might be used to so this is best left to your travel advisor. From the moment you arrive at the domestic terminal at Bali’s DPS airport you are well taken care of by Nihi Sumba staff members, who provide VIP check-in service with a welcome packet and escort you through to the gate. Upon landing in Sumba you are once again escorted by staff members to the cars waiting outside while your luggage is collected separately, to magically appear in your room later on! From the airport it’s a 90 minute scenic drive through local villages and forests until you reach the hotel.

Connections to Bali are widely available from all corners of the world, usually stopping through hubs like Singapore, Taipei, or Hong Kong. A trip to Nihi is great as a standalone vacation, but I obviously recommend making time to spend a few nights in Bali on either end!

Where I Stayed:

Nihi boasts 28 standalone villas built in the traditional Sumbanese style architecture. As travel advisors our job is to get to know the ins and outs of each hotel and destination we visit, which means that I was accompanied by a Nihi staff member for an official site inspection, or tour of the property in order to see as many different villas as possible. Wow – I had no idea that they could all be so different! Each and every villa has its own layout, design and character. If you decide to book a trip to Nihi I highly recommend booking through a travel advisor who has personally visited so that they can advise you on which villa is best for you! For example, some are one story versus two, some feature an outdoor bathtub on the balcony while others have indoor bathtubs, private entrance paths versus shared, etc. It’s all in the details!

My villa was called Mandaka, and I have to say that after seeing so many others I think it was one of the best choices for me! On the lower level it featured a plunge pool, a beautiful sitting area with mini bar and bluetooth speakers, a separate small lounge room that can be converted to a children’s sleeping area, an indoor bathroom and an outdoor garden shower. Upstairs is the main bedroom, fully exposed outdoor bathroom, and balcony with the most epic bathtub.

You certainly can’t go wrong with your choice of villas at Nihi, but I recommend making a quick list of characteristics that are important to you and then consulting your travel advisor on what the best choice will be. Think about whether you’d like to be next to the beach versus on a hill with a view; one story or two; indoor versus outdoor bathroom; if bringing kids with you, how many bedrooms and what kind of layout; center of the resort close to pool and restaurants, versus more secluded; etc.

The Best Thing I Ate: Nihi Sumba has several dining options including the main restaurant Ombak, the poolside restaurant, an exclusive  Japanese dining experience, and themed dinners throughout the week. Food is always fresh with a very wide variety offered on every menu so that whether you want to try to local Indonesian fare, stick to a healthy plant-based diet, or seek out the comfort foods from home, there is really something for everyone. Unlike many other resorts I’ve visited, you won’t tire of the food over the course of a weeklong stay here! In a typical day I ordered fresh tropical fruit with coconut yogurt and a smoothie for breakfast, a salad with shrimp or fish for lunch, and a variety of small plates for dinner.

Pro tip: When considering different dates for your stay, inquire whether there area any guest chefs planning to be at the resort. Throughout the year they mix up the menu sometimes by bringing in well-known chefs from around the world – this would certainly be a fun time to visit!

Trip Highlight: This is a no-brainer! As you might imagine the spa at Nihi is a very special place, but it’s the full experience that brings it over the top. Nihi offers a Spa Safari to make either a half or full day out of the experience. Your day begins at 7:30 AM with a three mile hike from the resort through local paths, rice fields and villages, accompanied by a local guide. The area surrounding Nihi is dotted with authentic local Sumbanese villages, untouched by tourism and you will have the unique chance to observe people working in the rice fields, water buffalos grazing, kids walking to school, and the fascinating Sumba style of architecture. All the while you’ll be in the safe hands of your local guide who more than likely will know many of the people you’ll encounter and will be more than happy to chat with you about local life and customs.

After about an hour you’ll arrive at your personal paradise for the day. The spa, called NihiOka, is located on another beach separate from the resort and from the moment you spot the Welcome to NihiOka sign in the midst of the lush palm tree filled landscape you’ll know that you’re in for a treat. I was greeted with a cold towel and fresh coconut to drink, and then escorted to a sitting area where the spa manager gave me the full rundown on all of the available treatments. “How long do I have?” I asked. “How many treatments can I pick?” “As many as you like! Three, four, even five!” He said. Unlimited spa treatments?! Indeed, whether you opt for the half or full day experience you are allotted a certain number of hours for your treatments, and they’ve figured out ways to combine them all within the timeframe. So no need to choose between a massage, body scrub, head massage, or hair treatment, you can have them all! And trust me, you definitely should.

Once you’ve decided on your treatments it’s time for breakfast, cooked by your personal chef on the cliff just above NihiOka beach. After all, you’ve just hiked three miles first thing in the morning! While the chef is cooking you can enjoy the infinity pool just above the crashing waves. Pure, utter bliss. One of the beautiful things about this experience for me is how laid back it is. Once you depart the resort in the morning, there’s no schedule. You can take your time enjoying the hike, and upon arrival at NihiOka they tell you to simply enjoy the pool and your meal at your leisure and return to the reception when you’re ready for your treatment. This day is truly all about you, and I can attest that I have rarely in my life felt like I stumbled across such a unique and utterly drop dead gorgeous place and overall experience.

Without hesitation, if you’re limited on time or money and are only able to visit Nihi for a few quick nights, I would make the trip just for the Spa Safari. I don’t make this recommendation lightly!

Favorite Activities: 

Nihi offers a nice mix of included activities and optional ones that you can sign up for separately with your personal butler who checks in on you throughout the day and reminds you of your schedule. I took advantage of the included yoga classes, which take place twice a day in the mornings and late afternoons. The yoga shala is built high up on a hill with the best view in the entire resort. If there’s anywhere in the world to leave it all behind and be in the moment practicing meditation and yoga, it’s in this very spot. I promise you.

I also tried my hand at a sunset horseback ride on Nihi’s beach. They offer horseback riding experiences for all levels, and this was a fun way to explore the entire span of the beach. Fun fact: Nihi is known as the “cowboy island” of Indonesia, as horses play a big role in local life and their customs and celebrations. Most of Nihi’s horses are former race horses from the island.

Another favorite: going on the Sumba Foundation tour. When the owners of Nihi Sumba founded the resort they didn’t do so in a vacuum. To the contrary, they involved the local communities from day one, pledging to support them through employment with job training and fair wages, and through the founding of the Sumba Foundation. A full 90 percent of the employees at Nihi Sumba are not only Indonesian but Sumbanese. Sumba is one of the poorest islands in Indonesia with many people suffering from malnutrition and lack of access to adequate healthcare. It’s incredible to see the Sumbanese employees at the resort thrive and benefit from the opportunities they’ve been offered.

The Sumba Foundation operates dozens of projects around the island, currently focusing on childhood nutrition with a school lunch program, providing access to potable water, teaching English, and establishing local medical clinics. Since beginning their work they’re reduced malaria by 70% island wide, and are on track to eradicate malaria from Sumba in the next five years. This is huge! (Note that many precautions are taken to eliminate malaria from the resort area and no recent cases have been reported by guests.) Through the Sumba Foundation tour offered by the resort several days a week, guests are able to visit firsthand the nearest clinic and school supported by the foundation. Although it was brief, the chance to personally interact with the community made an impact on me as it has on thousands of other guests who continue to donate to the foundation long after their holidays have ended.

There are a dozen other activities I absolutely would have loved to try, but didn’t have time to during my short stay. These include surfing, jet skiing, snorkeling, trekking to waterfalls, cooking classes, stand-up paddleboarding, and so much more. The resort sits on one of the world’s most famous surf waves, so if surfing is on your bucket list then Nihi should absolutely be too!

Time of Year: Nihi offers three different rates for each room category according to the time of year that you visit. Green season (also known as rainy season!) runs from Jan 7 – Mar 31 and Nov 1 – Dec 15. During this time rates are at their lowest, and there’s a high possibility of storms and periods of heavy rain. I experienced a quite heavy storm during my stay and I have to say that it offered the perfect excuse to spend quality time enjoying the beauty of the villa itself, reading, and even relaxing in the plunge pool and bathtub as the rain poured over me. That said, it did cancel most of my planned activities for the day. If you plan to have a very active outdoor schedule at Nihi, consider going during high or shoulder season. If spa time and getting through a stack of books on your vacation is more your style, green season may be a good choice for you.

High season, when the whether is at its best to take advantage of all of the outdoor activities on offer, runs from June 1 – September 6 in 2020. I recommend booking far in advance if you’d like to go during this time!

Trip Duration: Nihi is somewhat unique in that it offers so many incredible activities that you’ll want to take part in, but it also inspires a deep sense of relaxation. Don’t be surprised if you feel pulled between the two, which is why I suggest booking a long enough stay that you can enjoy a nice balance of being active and lazing the day away in your villa without feeling like you’re missing out. My three night stay flew by way too quickly and I didn’t get to do at least two or three of the half-day activities that I would have liked to. For this reason I suggest staying a minimum of five days and planning out your activity schedule in advance so that you don’t miss out. If you decide to visit during the rainy season I would highly suggest staying for at least a week since you’ll need to be flexible with your schedule according to the weather, and a longer trip offers more chances to reschedule any rained out activities.

Travel Tip: Go with the flow. I recommend booking some activities in advance (hello, Spa Safari!) but also leaving time open for relaxation and spontaneity. This is the not a Four Seasons or Ritz Carlton, nor does it try to be. Remember that you’ve chosen this resort to experience “The Edge of Wildness” and everything that it encompasses – this could be a little critter in your room from time to time, or maybe the service takes just a tad bit longer to go fetch a coconut fresh just for you. Embrace the sense of place and let yourself become fully immersed in all that it has to offer!

I Wish I Had: Next time I will make sure to sign up for a surf lesson. This is after all one of the most famous surf waves in the world!

Ready to experience “The Edge of Wildness” for yourself?

Curious if Nihi Sumba would be a great fit for your next family getaway, corporate retreat, or wedding? Send us a note and we’ll provide our honest opinion along with advice on the best villas to stay in and activities to plan. Plus, we’re able to offer the following complimentary amenities, just for booking with Foray! Contact us here.

  • Upgrade on arrival, subject to availability
  • Full breakfast, for two guests per bedroom, served in restaurant
  • A complimentary 50-minute massage for up to two people, once during stay
  • $50 USD donation paid to Sumba Foundation on behalf of the resort
  • Early check-in/late check-out, subject to availability
  • Complimentary Wi-Fi

Sarah left her 9-5 in 2017 to pursue her dream to travel around the world indefinitely. Thirteen months later her passion for experiencing new people, places and cultures had only grown, and Foray Travel + Event Design was born.

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