A-listers can't resist Nihi Sumba retreat and its dose of Indonesian bliss, says Charlotte Johnstone
I was remarkably calm given my proximity to the edge of the clifftop as the waves crashed against the rocks far below. It helped that I was laying face down on a comfy bed as a masseuse wove her soothing magic along the knots in my back. This relaxing start to the day had begun just a few hours earlier when Tiger, my charming guide, had collected me for a trek through the jungle to Nihioka, the hotel's clifftop spa.
Shortly after departing Nihi Sumba, a remote and exclusive Indian Ocean retreat, which has played host to celebrities including the entire Beckham family, the 5km "spa safari" had me huffing and puffing as we trekked uphill through dense jungle.
I was soon rewarded though with far-reaching views along the coast of pristine golden beaches lapped by a sparkling blue ocean. I also caught a glimpse of the hotel's traditional menara-style villas peeking through the canopy, with their rooftops shaped like large, pointy hats to keep the Marapu (spirits of the ancestors) happy.
Far below, a flurry of exotic birds screeched as horses from the resort's stables galloped across the beach. Best of all though, I now had a bird's-eye view of Occy's Left, a wave legendary among surfers which, owing to its length and power, has helped put this largely untouched island, a one-hour flight southeast of Bali, on the map.
Claude and Petra Graves, enthusiastic surfers from New Jersey, had set out in the early 80s on a worldwide search for the perfect wave, and they found it here at Nihiwatu Beach. Bedazzled by the setting, they set up a surf shack, which later morphed into a beachside hostel, and set about eradicating malaria from the island through their work with The Sumba Foundation, a non-profit organisation that also aims to tackle poverty on the island.
In 2012, the Graves, who still live on the grounds of the hotel, sold the property to Chris Burch, an entrepreneur, and James McBride, who formerly held senior positions at Grosvenor House in London and the Carlyle in New York. The pair then set about transforming the property into an ultra-exclusive resort with 27 Sumbanese-inspired villas, each with its own infinity pool and fabulous views of the Indian Ocean. The level of privacy and the remote location has made the hotel a hit with celebrities, including Heidi Klum and the Obamas.
We carried on through a colourful patchwork of rice paddies bordered by leafy bamboo and trees dripping with cashew nuts before we arrived at the spa, high above the ocean, to be met by Wiwin, the delightful manager.
Open-air rooms, thatched-roof villas and tribal artworks lent a tropical-luxe vibe, while an Instagrammable infinity pool overlooked the beach below. Wiwin led me to a shady pergola on a small cliff-edged promontory for a massage, my reward for the climb.
Ester, my masseuse, started with the Nihioka Signature Massage, a combination of Shiatsu (dry massage) and Balinese techniques; and Lomi Lomi, a Hawaiian healing method using long, continuous massage strokes along the arms. I soon felt deeply relaxed and in tune with my surroundings. A slumber-inducing Sumbanese head massage left me feeling transported.
Afterwards, I tucked into a healthy breakfast of granola, yoghurt and gluten-free banana bread at the nearby clifftop restaurant. Unlike the resort's on-site restaurants Ombak (which serves a mix of Indonesian and western-style dishes) and less-formal Nio Beach Club (fresh fish, tacos and pizza), the menu at Nihioka is mostly vegetarian with a focus on clean eating.
I spent the rest of the morning within the cool confines of my villa where teak furniture, a refreshing plunge pool and a butler, just a WhatsApp message away, added to the sense of barefoot luxury.
Late morning, I headed to the calm shores of nearby Coconut Cove, the hotel's surf school for beginners (like me) on Rua Beach and a short drive from the hotel. A lunch of fish tacos was barbecued for me on the beach as I swigged from a coconut.
After lunch, Grant, my South African Tropicsurf instructor, immediately set about teaching me the basic movements for standing upright on the board before we headed out into the waves, which were thankfully moderate. The surfers riding Occy had made it all seem so easy, but I struggled to stay upright and was embarrassed at my lack of skill on even the tiniest of waves.
Grant was encouraging as I repeatedly splashed unceremoniously into the water. I soon got the hang of things, however, and felt immense pride at riding a succession of waves (albeit very small). A few hours later, I was back on the beach exhausted but also exhilarated.
Back at Nihi, I set up camp at Boat, a wooden beach hut overlooking the infinity pool, and ordered a fragrant lychee cocktail and octopus ceviche. From my front-row seat at the bar I marvelled at the sight of surfers slicing through Occy's Left and made a promise to myself that one day I would return to Sumba to ride this incredible wave.
In the late afternoon, I headed to the hotel's Sandalwood Stables where I met Elvis, a small but sturdy Sumbawa pony with beautiful, big, brown eyes and, as I would soon find out, a feisty character. With a guide leading the way on foot, we headed out on to the wide stretch of beach to trot along the shoreline. Elvis was soon champing at the bit. As I am an experienced rider, we broke free of the group to canter through the surf as the setting sun cast an orange glow across the ocean. I had never felt more alive. It was the perfect end to a blissful day in paradise.
Book a minimum of five nights with Nihi Sumba's "Almost Summer" offer and receive return flights from Bali and Sumba airport transfers. Package includes all meals, all non-alcoholic beverages, Wi-Fi, tour of the Sumba Foundation Projects, mountain biking, yoga and water-based activities. Offer valid for stays until July 31. nihi.com
To learn more about The Sumba Foundation, see: sumbafoundation.org.