Half French, half Chinese, and with Indonesian roots, the sisters have at, one time or another, lived in Hong Kong, France, Japan, the UK, Canada, and Indonesia, with shorter-term rambles through Central America and Australia also on the graph. So the question of cultural identity is familiar baggage for the duo who now find themselves returning to the home of their grandfather and the heritage of their past through their first endeavor together—Somewhere Lombok.
“It’s very difficult to identify with one people or culture,” says Valia, who, as a passionate photographer and surfer, is never without her camera or far from the ocean. “When we are in Hong Kong, we don’t feel like we are ‘of’ that culture, while in France we feel very international. I think a lot of people who have grown up with mixed parents can understand that feeling of being a ‘child of the world.’” Claire, who has worked in finance in Hong Kong and London, and who was also a big surfer until her two children recently came along, agrees with her younger sister. “A lot of our friends are of mixed race and have moved around a lot. So if you put us in a group that is 100 percent Chinese, French, or what have you, we don’t feel like we belong.” Happily, this sense of truly belonging, of being among likeminded global nomads, free-spirited surfers, and creative thinkers has made Lombok the final dot—so far—on the pair’s life journey.
Claire Gontard: I always knew Valia had a strong creative side to her, and it really came through while working on this project. She traveled the world by herself for two years after school, which is something I would struggle to do on my own; it’s so brave! When I phoned her to say that we had a week to decide whether we should buy the plot and start this project together, she dropped everything to come work with me on Somewhere. I had my first child around the same time we broke ground and I’m so thankful that she moved to Lombok on her own to oversee the construction when I wasn’t able to.
Valia Gontard: A year later, Claire moved her entire life at six months pregnant, with a toddler, to join me in Lombok. She was working until the very end; she would wobble on the construction site at nine months pregnant and came back to work within a couple weeks of giving birth. I don’t know how she managed to do it all, such a boss lady.
CG [laughs]: Well, we complement each other and have been very much on the same page from the start. There are things that Valia sees as a photographer and artist that I would have missed and it’s been great having each other. Our friends were concerned about us going into business together. They had heard disastrous stories about what can happen to family members who do that, but our story is turning out great. I knew we’d get along, but I didn’t think it would work this well!
VG: I feel very at home, more comfortable here than any place I’ve lived. I think that’s because it’s a small town with a really tight community. Also, a lot of people moved here from far-off places, so we share the same values—keeping life simple, enjoying the small things, living by the ocean.
CG: Plus, our grandfather was born and raised on Lombok. So we have a natural connection to the land. He left the country when he was 18. We were the ones who brought him back.
VG: Yes, we reunited him with his sister whom he hadn’t seen in something like 25 years. By the time they reconnected, he had lost most of his Indonesian and she had forgotten most of her Chinese, so they couldn’t really speak to each other. Still, they ran into each other’s arms. It was very emotional.
CG: But getting back to the island and our philosophy, we are very much about showcasing the destination as a place where people live and not as a place where tourists simply bring their own culture with them. This is why we try to work as much as we can with the local community. There is a real opportunity to understand how they live, and to learn ways that we can help them and vice versa. One of the things we are working on is teaching local women to crochet and make jewelry that we would help them sell at the hotel. We are also connecting with craftspeople, fishermen, and the like, who can take our guests into their worlds, rather than just letting visitors stay in a cocooned, resort environment.
VG: Let’s disregard the last three months when we were opening the hotel! That was crazy. But in a perfect world, my routine is to wake up, go for a sunrise surf, have a nice breakfast, work at the hotel, go somewhere for a skateboard or sauna/ice bath session, and go watch the sunset with my friends—then repeat!
CG: Ask me that question in 12 months. I arrived here less than a year ago in the middle of chaos, while pregnant, and I’ve been going nonstop. Right now, it’s wake up, work, feed the kids, work, put kids to bed, work, sleep...start again. But Valia and I are finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel. I am really looking forward to having time for my hobbies again: surfing, salsa dancing, and leathercraft, which I haven’t done since moving here.
VG: There is one Chinese restaurant in town, and whenever we are able to take a break, we like to go there together. It’s really good.
CG: In fact, recently we made over 1,500 dumplings for Chinese New Year. We did it to keep our family tradition going, but it was also a way to honor our maternal grandparents who have recently passed. I’m so thankful that my grandmother was able to teach me all of her recipes and we were overwhelmed by the community’s support. They would have been thrilled.
VG: We first tried it in Australia, in 2004 or 2005. It wasn’t the best first experience, but we liked it enough to try it again and take lessons when we would spend our summers in the Southwest of France. Still, it wasn’t until we came to Lombok that we realized how great it could be. In fact, once we experienced the waves in Indonesia, we didn’t want to surf in France anymore!
CG: Valia is definitely the more active surfer now. Because of my two kids—Atila, who’s two-and-a-half-years-old and Olive, who is six months—I haven’t had much opportunity. But I love it. And we also have a younger brother who is even more passionate about surfing. He is in Bali.
VG: Surfing also ties into the local community and the appeal of Lombok that you were asking about. To be honest, if you live in this area and don’t surf, there isn’t much to do. For a week or two, it’s great as there’s a lot to see in terms of nature. But surfing is what keeps you here.
CG: My husband Jordan doesn’t surf, but he loves it here. He’s from Canada, a real nature boy. He does a lot of trail-running, and he likes to hike Mount Rinjani, a massive volcano that towers over the island—it’s quite stunning. He is currently training for the Mount Rinjani race, a grueling 100+ km challenge that takes place every year.
VG: Oh yes, we have very, very big shoes to fill. Along with our mother Bellce, he founded Espoir, a nonprofit school in the Philippines that gives underprivileged children the opportunity to get an education.
CG: While we admire all of his projects, what our parents have built in Siargao is nothing short of extraordinary. The first time we visited the Espoir school, we were holding back our tears. We are so proud of what they have created and the joy that they bring into these families’ lives, and ours.
VG: Well, it’s a hobby, but I love sharing my surf photography with others. After a devastating typhoon hit the island of Siargao, where our parent’s school is located, we were fundraising to rebuild Espoir and support the local community. In exchange for photos, I asked the surfers to donate money to the cause. It was really cool to be able to use this hobby to help others.
CG: We plan to open more Somewhere hotels. And since we are definitely not in-and-out with our projects, we have agreed that they will be in places where we both want to live. With us, every little detail is considered. In fact, until we hired a general manager at Somewhere Lombok, Valia and I did everything, from furniture design to menu creation, even deciding the location of the plugs and light switches. The architects had a love/hate relationship with us. They loved our passion but wished we weren’t so picky about every little detail. That said, we think the results are worth it. The hotel is just us! It feels very relaxed. It’s simple, minimalistic, not overcrowded. Everything has a reason.
VG: Claire’s right—our next hotel will be in a place where we both want to live. And to be clear, my bucket list of places to visit is getting longer, not shorter. I am not done exploring the world!