Lying northwest of Australia, across the Timor Sea, on the little-visited island of Sumba – once known as Sandalwood Island – Nihiwatu has seven luxury one-bedroom bungalows, two family villas, and the extralarge Villa Haweri.
Happily, that doesn’t make for a lot of guests to spend time with in this remote luxury destination, where the menu is written daily on a blackboard and you eat on part of the resort’s 2-km beach, backed by 175 hectares of forest.
In the vicinity are Stone Age sites and traditional villages, where the striking houses have distinctive peaked palm-leaf-thatched roofs. Sumba’s inhabitants follow ancient traditions, from the funerary rites to the weaving of tradition ‘ikat’ blankets, and include old-time horse battles that are “not considered successful without a proper amount of bloodletting.” So if you are an animal lover and pacifist, perhaps it’s best to avoid those ceremonies, which take place in March and April.
Sumba, which is the size of Massachusetts, is one of the poorest islands in the Indonesian archipelago. When they set out to create Nihiwatu in 1988, American-born owner Claude Graves and his wife Petra set themselves an almost impossible goal of trying to, among other things, ease poverty in the area, provide locals with basic needs like running water, employ 95 percent of locals as staff, create income opportunities for locals, and be stewards of the land and nearby ocean and educate locals in conservation. They estimate that today 20,000 people in 400 villages benefit off of Nihiwatu.
“Our guests are responsible for a large part of the positive change that is going on. We have set the stage for them to get involved, in raising hope and goodwill in a very remote corner of the world.”
The tasks were so immense that by 1997 the owners saw the need to create the Sumba Foundation, which is based in America and tries to encourage donations so that it can carry on with projects that focus on the original ideals, as well as malaria eradication and healthcare. There are five clinics staffed by 14 nurses and based within walking distance of numerous villages.
Partly as a result of these efforts, says Nihiwatu, “hundreds of villages have clean water nearby, there are far less children dying from preventable disease, school enrollments are double what they used to be, malaria infection rates are down by 85 percent, and there are hundreds of people making real income from our organic farming and bio-diesel projects.”
The foundation supports agro-business efforts and works with environmental bodies to train bird trappers to become tour guides for birders instead.
A coffee table book about Sumba and with a foreword by Rolling Stones‘ Jann Wenner benefits the island’s people, and the foundation itself raised more than $145,000 at a benefit in Sag Harbor, N.Y., in late 2011.
“For far too long tourism has primarily benefited travelers and the developers of the tourist destinations they went to. … In 1988 we set out on a journey to find a site at which we could develop an environmentally and socially friendly business, one that would be a valuable tool for conserving bio-diversity and culture in a responsible and sustainable manner, a venture that would strive to give more than it takes.”