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A PEOPLE Producer's Indonesian Adventure
New York Times best-selling author (Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident) and filmmaker Donnie Eichar, his wife, model Julia Ortiz, and their five-year-old son, Dashiel, traveled deep into the jungles of Sumba, Indonesia, to the Nihiwatu Resort, to unwind and explore the untouched wilderness of the West Sumbanese coast. Here, the PEOPLE contributor shares what captured his imagination about this one-of-a-kind location.
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Getting to know Nihiwatu
We’ve wanted to go to Niawatu for over 10 years and I had just finished producing a TV show called People Magazine Investigates, when we decided it was time.
My wife and I have been fortunate to be able to travel to many amazing places because of our careers, but we were wonderstruck with what we encountered on the "forgotten island” of Sumba: Rocky headlands covered in emerald green jungles, golden rice fields and empty white sand beaches. We stayed at Nihiwatu Resort — a perfect combination of Sumbanese culture, isolation and understated luxury, set in 1,400 acres of forested coastline.
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A Destination 30 years in the Making
The story of Nihiwatu began in 1988, when an American surfer named Claude Graves and his wife, Petra, came to the island in search of perfect, uncrowded surf. What they discovered was not only a perfect left-hand wave — now known as “Occy’s Left” — but a piece of tropical paradise and a love for the island and its people. It would take over a decade to secure the land rights: the couple endured local clan wars, earthquakes and financial meltdowns, before they were able to build.
In 2012, American entrepreneur Chris Burch and hotelier James McBride bought the property and expanded it into one of the most exclusive resorts on earth. (Travel + Leisure readers voted Nihiwatu one of best hotels in the world in 2016.)
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The Breaking Point
For the last 20 years, I’ve been on a search to find a perfect, uncrowded wave and Occy’s Left, which breaks directly in front of Nihiwatu, didn’t disappoint. I surfed the wave pretty much by myself the entire trip. My hats off to the waterman at the Nihiwatu Boathouse, whether you wanted to surf, fish, charter a boat, dive, kayak, spearfish, snorkel, jet ski or SUP, they had everything dialed in to give you an unforgettable experience.
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A fishing trip in the turquoise water off the coast of Western Sumba delivered a bounty of fish for our son: He caught mahi-mahi, yellow fin tuna and rainbow runners.
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Sea to Table
The yellow fin tuna quickly became our lunch and the mahi-mahi our dinner. Sea-to-table dining at its best.
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At Nihi Oka, Nihiwatu’s dedicated destination spa, we had a BBQ lunch in a treehouse, explored the secluded, pristine beach below and then finished with alfresco massages in a bamboo pavilion overlooking the ocean. While we were enjoying our half-day Nihi Oka spa experience, our son was busy learning how to make chocolate at Nihiwatu’s Chris and Charlie’s Chocolate Factory.
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Giving Back and Moving Forward
The beating heart of Nihiwatu is its relationship to the Sumbanese community. Shortly after opening the hotel, Graves set up the nonprofit Sumba Foundation to bring healthcare, clean water, employment and education to the locals. Nihiwatu is responsible for much of the island’s preservation and donates the majority its profits to the Sumba Foundation, which has established medical clinics and a malaria-training center, which has helped reduce infection rates by 85%.
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The Heart of Sumba
Our time spent volunteering with the Sumba Foundation, visiting a local school to serve hot lunches and touring a malaria clinic, were some of the highlights of our trip and an unforgettable, unique philanthropic experience for my family and me.
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Friends on the River
While Stand-up paddle boarding on the Wanukaka River in Western Sumba, which took us from lush jungle to the Indian Ocean, it was impossible to shake off the Sumbanese children who rushed out from their village to greet us. The young pirates eventually won the battle of Wanukaka River and capsized our SUP.
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Learning the Island
Dotting the countryside are hilltop villages with traditional, tall, thatched-roof houses, bunched around megalithic tombs, where villagers pay respect to the dead. We finished our day with a trip to the local market, where women with scarlet-stained gums from chewing betel nuts (a natural stimulant), tried to sell us everything from fish bones to snake fruit.
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A Lasting Impression
Nihiwatu's philanthropic and ecological initiatives, as well as their ivory-white beaches, tropical rainforests, perfect, uncrowded surf and ancient villages will no doubt lure us back to the category-defying resort, to to continue unraveling the magical island. Thanks to all the Nihiwatu staff who worked to make our experience truly unforgettable.
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