“Sumba is the most beautiful place in the world to me,” declares Christopher Burch, owner of Nihi Sumba wellness resort, in an interview with Chris Hanrahan. “It’s a place where all humans can be revitalised”
Christopher Burch’s favourite place in the world is Nihi Sumba in eastern Indonesia. It’s a lavish beachfront hotel on Sumba Island offering luxury villas, “unparalleled service”, “the ultimate in luxury comforts” and a bespoke wellness itinerary. The last embraces everything from yoga at dawn “with breathtaking views” to surf lessons with world-class instructors, hikes into local villages and sunset massages overlooking miles of Nihiwatu Beach on the Indian Ocean coastline. Then there are the horse whispering sessions – of which more later.
Burch, the 66-year-old billionaire founder and CEO of Burch Creative Capital, a firm based in New York City that manages venture investments and brand development, and co-founder of Tory Burch LLC (he and fashion designer Tory (Robinson) Burch were married from 1996 until their divorce in 2007), was so impressed by his first visit to Nihi Sumba (then called Nihiwatu) that he decided to buy the place.
“Sumba is the most beautiful place in the world to me,” he declares in an exclusive interview with Prestige. “It’s a place where all humans can be revitalised. Nihi is a beautiful resort that embraces the island and the community. Wellness is a very large piece of what we do. The activities are the number one way to experience that. For example, the wonderful spa safari – a full day or half-day of immersive wellness.”
What has Burch learned from the islanders he has met over the years? “Though at times their life is challenging, both economically and environmentally, they get up every day with smiles on their faces,” he replies. Burch hopes his guests, or indeed anyone who visits Sumba, which is one of the Lesser Sunda Islands in the province of East Nusa Tenggara, a 50-minute flight from Bali, will also have smiles on their faces when they experience the island.
“We believe in responsible luxury and for our guests to partake in an experience sustainably, ethically and healthily,” he says. The resort was founded on the trust and cooperation of the local community, “and today they remain the heart and soul of the experience.” Some 90 percent of the staff, including those in senior positions, come from the local area.
Sumba is no paradise, to be sure. It’s one of the poorer islands of Indonesia. Access to water is a major challenge. During the dry season, many streams dry up and villagers depend on wells for scarce supplies of water. Many villagers have to travel several kilometres each day to fetch water. Burch generously takes care of all administrative costs of the Sumba Foundation, allowing 100 percent of donations to directly fund projects, such as drilling wells in villages.
The aim of the foundation is to provide humanitarian aid through village-based projects that measurably impact local health by establishing access to clean water, creating educational programmes and reducing the effects of malaria. “While these are our top priorities,” Burch says, “so too is preserving and respecting the culture and traditions of the Sumbanese people.”
Just getting to the hotel is an important part of the experience. “Your immersion into Sumba life starts with the one-and-a-half hour (car) journey from Tambolaka airport, leaving the bustling streets of Bali behind for a more Africa-meets-Asia experience,” the resort states on its website. “The journey starts at sea level and climbs to the Rijewa mountain ranges at 500 metres. The spectacular scenery from peak to sky is framed by teak and mahogany plantations and thick Sumba deciduous forests.”
Guests in a hurry or repeat visitors might opt for a private helicopter flight, which may be chartered directly from Bali to Sumba Island, or from Sumba Tambolaka airport to the resort. A private plane may also be chartered from Bali to Sumba.
However you choose to get there, the resort will expect you to immerse yourself in the island’s ancient culture, imbibe the local traditions and flavours and “enjoy the rich symphony of Sumba daily life.” Guests can witness the wild and vibrant island culture through a visit to the local villages and markets to see local arts and crafts or monumental megalithic burial sites and exquisite ikat weavings.
Every February and March, colourful ritual displays known as pasola are held to herald a good harvest. Riding on horseback, the villagers engage one another armed with blunted spears. The pasola is deemed successful when blood is shed to make the spirits happy. In the Wanukaka region, close to the resort, as part of the ritual, early in the morning Marapu (animist) priests and their entourages go the beach to perform a prayer. They sacrifice a black cock to the gods and collect colourful sea worms as part of the ritual.
The same beach attracted Claude and Petra Graves in 1988, in search of the perfect wave. From this adventure emerged a vision to create a resort that would share the beauty of Sumba with those who would truly appreciate it.
By 2012, stories of the unregulated freedom and beauty of Nihi reached the ears of brand-builder Burch, who was told Claude was looking for help to expand the resort. Burch asked a friend from New York’s The Carlyle Hotel – South African-born hotelier James McBride, who was President of YTL Hotels in Singapore at the time – to visit Sumba.
Later that year, Burch’s trip with his three sons proved to be a milestone, as he acquired Nihi in partnership with McBride. The acquisition enabled substantial investment, with the priority to evolve Nihi into one of the best resorts in the world, an example of a sustainable operation in harmony with the environment and the Sumbanese people.
“My family is my pride and joy, and they are also the ones who led me to Sumba,” Burch recalls. “My sons are big surfers, which was a major reason why I wanted to start Nihi in the first place. I’m fortunate enough to have my partner James, who was ready to take on this challenge.
“Our guests are the most extraordinary people and come from a variety of backgrounds. We have CEOs, honeymooners, surfers, family people. The best part of owning a resort is being able to meet them. Thirty percent are repeat guests and come almost every year. Their feedback always includes the experience of meeting the beautiful, warm people of the island, the beauty of the environment and the activities.”
For many guests, the resort’s most enticing attractions are its horses and the “equine connective experiences” these splendid animals provide. Guests find the experience to be quite unique and profound. Nihi’s “horse whisperer” Carol Sharpe boasts over 30 years of experience with horses and 10 years of personal development mentoring. Her private sessions create meaningful bonding experiences with horses and the natural world.
As Carole explained to DestinAsian in an interview a few years ago: “Our horse whisperer sessions teach guests to observe how horses communicate with each other and in turn practice this behavioral language to connect with them. Horses are very receptive to the emotional energy and atmosphere we emit. The best interactions occur when you’re in a more open, less distracted state of mind.”
Guests engage with their “highly sensitive and intuitive horse friends in “exploring the unspoken language of the equine. Horses are naturally gifted metaphoric teachers who can uncover an unconscious language that lies within us. As a prey animal, a horse’s survival relies on being grounded in the present moment; they are highly attuned to all that is in their environment to elude predators.
Although it’s against their nature, horses have learned to trust humans. The intention is to create an opportunity where the “wisdom of the horse” can be demonstrated “and their message is experienced allowing a deeper connection to our own clarity, trust, presences and authenticity.” During their sessions, guests experience elements of horse whispering, horse meditation and Reiki (energy healing).
Finally, we ask Burch how much time he spends on Sumba himself. “I visit three times a year for approximately two weeks,” he tells us. “I stay in my house, Mandaka, which is a peaceful building in the middle of the resort. Most days I usually take a long hike, have a massage and take a swim. I always think 14 days is a good amount of time to stay for a visit. It’s just enough time to reenergise myself.”