On the western edge of the Savu Sea, a few islands east of Bali, there is a place apart – where wild horses still roam on palm-fringed beaches and stretches of road see more buffaloes than cars. An island of shadow-draped natural pools and mythical surf breaks, but also dry swathes of limestone hills that feel almost like African savannah. The most defining aspect of Sumba – around twice the size of Bali, but with barely a sixth of its population – is its indigenous Marapu belief system, in which locals worship the spirits of their ancestors, whom they believe live all around them, though some are buried in imposing megalithic tombs. In kampung villages of thatched, pointy-roofed homes, betel-nut-chewing women spin some of Indonesia’s most elaborate ikat fabrics – geometric patterns of seashells and animals – on fabric hand-dyed with indigo leaves, root bark and pounded turmeric.
This is a near-pristine island of shamanic priests but no shopping malls; where children still call out ‘Hey, mister!’; where encounters with poverty, tribalism and sacrificial rituals can be confronting. So far, it hasn’t experienced anything like the overdevelopment seen in Bali. Incoming hoteliers have tended to fuse hospitality with philanthropy – figures such as Claude Graves, who started the Sumba Foundation to support community projects at the same time as he built a resort beside the island’s most famous surf break in 1989. The hotel is now Nihi Sumba, and under the ownership of American financier Chris Burch and South African hotelier James McBride (ex-The Carlyle in New York). The big arrival later this year will be tropical-modern Cap Karoso on the island’s wild western edge. First-time hoteliers Fabrice and Eve Ivara will put an emphasis on food from a rotating roll call of chefs, with ingredients grown on the resort’s organic farm. Here, the Ivaras and others who have fallen for the island explain why this delicately poised place deserves only the gentlest, most sustainable steps.
Most visitors stay in the west of the island, where it’s a 90-minute drive along quiet, dusty roads from little Tambolaka Airport to resorts such as Nihi Sumba to the south and Cap Karoso to the west. There are magical beaches around here, from the limestone stacks of Bwanna in the south-west to the semi-lagoon of Mandorak in the far west and the Pero estuary, where the fishermen’s wooden outrigger canoes congregate in limpid waters. At the Weekuri Lagoon near Mandorak, locals rent rubber rings and float serenely as the Indian Ocean bursts through blowholes at one end. It’s worth exploring the drier east of the island, too, with its sandal trees and cashew plantations. Natural highlights on the way include the tiered Lapopu waterfall, the Waikelo Sawah falls and caves, and the Waimarang swimming hole, which recalls Mexican cenotes. Traditional kampung villages are dotted across the island, such as Ratenggaro in the west, where the thatched houses and megalithic tombs look over a beautiful estuary of white sand and calm turquoise water.
Where to stay in Sumba, Indonesia
Nihi Sumba (doubles from about £1,215) is still the island’s most famous stay – 28 thatched villas among the frangipani trees, with infinity plunge pools and private butlers to organise sunset horse rides on the beach.
Also on the south-west coast, Alamayah (doubles from about £155) is a surf-facing boutique hotel with six suites, rooftop yoga and a plant-based restaurant.
Later in the year, Cap Karoso (doubles from about £185) launches with 47 clean-lined bedrooms and 20 villas, including beachfront homes with lagoon pools.
Closer to the airport and gorgeous Mananga Aba beach in the north, Maringi Sumba (doubles from about £105) is the lush bamboo eco-resort of the Sumba Hospitality Foundation, with newly trained local staff, nine bedrooms and villas and excellent Sumbanese food from the foundation’s permaculture farm.
The insiders’ guide to Sumba, Indonesia