It may be only an hour’s hop from Bali, but Sumba Island feels like the last frontier in Indonesia. With white-sand beaches, turquoise seas, rich culture and some stylish new resorts in the mix, this raw destination is the antithesis to Southeast Asia’s most frenetic beach towns.
YOU’VE NEVER SEEN A SUNSET until you’ve been to Sumba. At dusk, it’s as if space slaps you in the face; halos of copper, neon pink and purple engulf the sky in a dazzle of colour. Located in Indonesia’s Lesser Sunda Islands, south of Flores, this wild slice of Southeast Asia is an undiscovered paradise with a piercing, near-pristine coastline dominated by white-sand beaches, undulating hills and jewel-blue seas that lap at the sand in lagoons of turquoise, aquamarine and topaz. It’s twice the size of Bali. But the comparisons stop there. Sumba bears little semblance to Indonesia’s most popular destination, and that’s it’s drawcard. While it’s tempting to want to crown Sumba ‘the new Bali,’ doing so would be to dismiss its potential as slower, more sustainable destination.
An antithesis to Bali’s neon-bright Seminyak, Canggu and even Ubud, Sumba Island offers genuine rejuvenation. It’s the type of place you go when you need a holiday after your holiday. I first visited Sumba six years ago and fell in love with its natural attractions, culture and Sandalwood ponies, which are native to the island and were the main mode of transport before motorbikes were introduced. Sumbanese identify with Marapu culture, the traditional animist religion of the island and an ancestral faith that believes in animal sacrifice. In 2017, my mum and I had timed our visit to coincide with the Pasola Festival, a traditional ‘war game’ in West Sumba that’s carried out between tribes on horseback and held every February or March to celebrate the rice-planting season. A whir of action, drama and suspense, it was a thrilling, fascinating introduction to this destination.
Sumba’s west coast, where most of the tourism is centred and a small handful of new luxe stays have emerged including The Sanubari, is serviced by Tambolaka Airport. Numerous daily flights arrive from Bali within up to 1.5 hours, depending on the airline (my advice is NAM or Citilink). The landscape on this side of the island is all hypnotic coastline and silhouetted hills that are sparsely scattered with traditional villages characterised by their tapered alang-alang thatched dwellings. Sumba Island is renowned for its crafts, particularly ikat textiles, which you can buy directly from the villages that welcome tourists, such as Kodi, Ratenggoro and Tarung. It was at Tarung in 2017 that I met Yuliana, a renowned tour guide and someone who had come highly recommended to me.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I was chatting to my 22-year-old Sumbanese driver Ardi during my recent visit to the island only to discover that he was Yuliana’s little brother, and following in her footsteps. I had—reluctantly—just reluctantly checked out of beachside Cap Karoso, one of the most exciting new resorts in the region. The 47-suite resort is French-owned and part of the Design Hotels portfolio, and it lies just an hour from the airport near the village of Kodi. A short bike ride will have you at bright blue Weikuri Lagoon and idyllic Mandaloka Beach. Owners Eva and Fabrice, along with down-to-earth couple management team Marc and Laura (who previously managed a property in the Maldives), have impeccable taste, which is felt in everything from the music to the cocktails. The cultural curation that has gone into this hotel is quite a feat.
With Eva having worked in marketing for LVMH and Fabrice one of Paris’ original food bloggers, you know you’re being steered in the right direction. Together the four have created a hideaway with a strong focus on programming, bringing together like-minded people across art, music, food and wellness. The cocktail menu has been designed by star mixologist Nick de Soto, who is behind a couple of the bars in the World’s 50 Best. Fabrice has also enlisted Michelin-starred and James Beard-awarded chefs to take up residency every six weeks at tasting menu restaurant Julang, with chef Katsu Okiyama of Paris’ Abri next in the slot. The interiors are phenomenal, with reception featuring a custom back panel by Sumbanese ikat master Kornelis Ndapakamang. It hangs above a stone Italian travertine slab from Siena, which has been hand-cracked into three rough pieces.
High-end stays on Sumba Island are, at the moment, still a niche. There’s not a lot here, but what is here is worth coming for. Nihi, one of the region’s most awarded surf and spa resorts, set the calibre high many years ago when it first opened, pioneering tourism on Sumba. Since then, those that have popped up as competition seem to have a common ethos: thoughtful approaches to sustainability, community and the environment. With many villages having no access to water and no recycling on the island, tourism is a lifeline for many. Let’s hope it evolves in a way that puts the spectacular island and its culture first.
Images courtesy of Cap Karoso, unless otherwise noted.