Do you long for the days when the word “vacation” was synonymous with “down time”? I get you, parents. For caregivers, it is challenging uprooting little ones and getting them to enjoy being on the same schedule as you. What was supposed to be time off ends up being even more work. I recently found a spot that keeps the whole family happy… and you won’t even need half a day to get there. Introducing: Ishigaki Island, in Japan’s southernmost prefecture of Okinawa.
I found out about our hotel, Club Med Kabira Ishigaki, from my husband’s friend and fellow parent. It’s an all-inclusive system, meaning most meals and activities are included in the price of the room. I liked what I saw, including outdoor and indoor activities for everyone. Breakfast, lunch and dinner buffets looked fine. The off-season discounts on their website seemed like a good deal. There was even a direct flight to the island from Haneda Airport — bonus points. But the decisive factor for us was a program for kids which operated similarly to a day camp. “It comes with babysitting?” My husband said, “Let’s do it.”
A few weeks later, on a cold winter morning, we found ourselves boarding a half-full plane. The flight down was a manageable three hours. We had pre-booked a rental car with plans to drive around upon arrival, but because it was hot and sunny, we opted for early check-in to have access to the pool. It turned out to be the right thing to do. A few hours later at our original check-in time, rain dumped over the island as only tropical rain can, and the other days were too chilly to go for a swim.
Once we dried off, we looked into “the babysitting service”: Mini Club for my five-year old and Petit Club, available at an additional cost, for my two-year old. As we enquired about these services, we ran into the man in charge of the clubs who enthusiastically told us about an upcoming dance performance. Did anyone want to get dressed up and dance on stage? He got a shy but firm “yes please” from my eldest. They high-fived.
The staff here are different from those at other hotels. If Mini Club was a day camp, GOs (Gentil Organisateur, or Kind Organizer) are the camp counselors. Some lead activities for children, others lead them for adults and some are just there to make sure you’re having a good time. A couple of them even joined us for dinner one night. It wasn’t intrusive, just friendly, and even helpful as they offered to get us things. All of them spoke English, which seemed like the common language of the hotel.
The next morning we put both kids in the clubs, and my husband and I enjoyed a rare few hours driving around and enjoying lunch, just the two of us. In the afternoon we picked up two happy kids and the, after a nap and dinner, it was performance time. From the MC and the music to the dance routine, the GOs and the kids put on a real show — it had flair and excitement, like something out of the Disney Channel. The show was followed by Casino Night, children welcome, at the bar across from the theater. The atmosphere was cosmopolitan and lively throughout our stay.
While there were numerous activities available to us at the hotel (windsurfing and yoga, for example, are available year-round) we wanted to explore the island. A highlight for the kids was a sprawling outdoor playground at Banna Park. There were multiple giant slides, structures to climb, a rock climbing wall and even a playground for the wee ones. We also noticed a BMX bike track and Segway tours.
An exciting spot to visit with my eldest was Oganzaki, a lighthouse and a partially walkable cliff overlooking crashing waves. The westernmost point on the island, Oganzaki draws many people for the sunsets, but the view is breathtaking any time of day. Bring a jacket and sturdy shoes, as it’s often windy and the terrain is rocky.
For lunch one day, we stumbled upon authentic Okinawan noodles, fresh juice and warm island hospitality at Kaalaya Shokudou. We slurped down delicious yaeyama soba and feasted on a juicy Ishigaki beef hamburger steak in a renovated kominka home. Kaalaya is a popular spot, so we had to wait, but once we were seated, the service was fast. It’s family-friendly and offers an English menu.
On the island, you’ll also find many beaches to walk on and at least a few fruit farms serving frozen summer fruit or fresh juice, even in the winter. Ishigaki is a prime destination during the summer, but off-season, it offered our family a relaxing vacation. Each one of us got some proper R&R.
961-15 Ishigaki, Ishigaki-shi, Okinawa
The playground is called Fureai Kodomo Hiroba
Sakieda, Ishigaki-shi, Okinawa
231-2 Ibaruma, Ishigaki-shi, Okinawa
11:30 – 15:00, closed Thurs, Fri,
and the 14th of the month