By: Wendy Chan
My husband and I have often chosen Japan as a short-haul destination, but I wasn’t sure if Tokyo or Kyoto were family-friendly enough now we have two young kids in tow. Away from these popular city destinations, though, we found a little gem of an island called Ishigaki.
Ishigaki is the main island of the Yaeyama Islands, about 450 km southwest of the more well-known Okinawa Prefecture. It’s also, surprisingly, home to beautiful beaches and coral reefs, and famed for its crystal blue water. As Okinawa is located along a similar latitude as Hawaii, Miami, and Cancun, its 160 islands share the same subtropical climate as these popular world resort areas. A sun and sea holiday in late July sounded perfect, and after finding out about Club Med’s resort at Kabira Beach, the term ‘family-friendly vacation’ might as well have been spelled out in the sand.
We flew the HK Express direct flight to Ishigaki for our family holiday, so we could arrive well before noon and have plenty of time to start exploring all the facilities of Club Med Kabira. For the uninitiated, Club Med is the epitome of family-friendly accommodation: an all-inclusive concept, kid’s clubs, and a multitude of activities and facilities dotted around the resort.
Club Med Kabira Beach offers 181 rooms in 3-storey bungalows facing the sea, and with families making up a large proportion of their guests, a number of the rooms are connected, a feature that I love for a family holiday. While our girls excitedly claimed their beds in the bright adjoining room, we skimmed the general information brochure for activity times.
Spread around the resort was a host of offerings, and as only a handful required a day’s advance notice, everything seemed so accessible. Indoor sports were readily available with tennis and squash courts open 24 hours a day, while the yoga and fitness center offered yoga, beginner step, Pilates, Zumba, and dance. For those looking for something outdoors, mountain biking was just a reservation away, while the imposing flying trapeze and an archery range presented an exciting opportunity to try something new. As the resort runs on an all-inclusive basis, pretty much all of the activities require no extra charge, and guests can literally just show up and participate.
Situated a stone’s throw from the beach also means Club Med guests are spoilt for choice when it comes to water sports, and exploration of the beautifully pristine water is definitely not to be missed. One of the greatest attractions of Okinawa is the sea, and it’s not difficult to see why even professional divers aspire to visit. Standing on the beach ankle deep in water, an expanse of translucent turquoise water stretches fully across the horizon to greet the sky. The water is clear and calm enough that it’s easy to spot the dark, irregular patches of coral reef not far from the shore. The Beach Shack at Club Med provides all you need to make the most of the time in the water including snorkeling (with beginner lessons, a snorkeling boat trip, or free practice available), wind surfing, kayaking (go for the clear bottomed one!), and stand up paddleboard.
One of the biggest draws of Club Med is the kid’s facilities, as those are essentially what determine a family friendly vacation. The chain has individual clubs based on age, and it really is this childcare that affords parents some time to enjoy the other activities. Dropping off our daughters at the Petit Club and Mini Club, I was certainly impressed with the team, who are all fondly referred to as GOs, a historical Club Med moniker, standing for Gentil Organisateur. After carefully checking the registration information for our younger one, our warm GO helped ease her into the hour-long slot which included painting seashells and playing outside on the sprawling ship-shaped outdoor apparatus. With a ratio of 1 adult to 2 youngsters, the GOs were able to gently and playfully occupy the little ones though, and I actually felt at ease.
The Mini Club is tailored for the slightly older, and starting from 8:30am, parents can sign their children in for up to the full day with the GOs managing activities and even meals. What made the concept unique for me is the clubs are like a vacation for the kids; jam-packed with varied activities along the beach or resort grounds, and not merely a babysitting service. Perhaps an hour is all that’s needed for a quick dive or a full day to take a side trip outside the resort, and the clubs are the ultimate solution for making that option completely realistic and guilt free.
As part of the all-inclusive concept, all buffet meals (and a “light snacking” slot) are available at the restaurant at no extra charge. Although there is only one restaurant, care is taken to vary daily food choices. We appreciated the quality of the food and how featured dishes were individually plated akin to a gourmet meal. We also enjoyed some time in the quaint streets of the city, located about 35 minutes away, and sampled some delicious local treats.
Make a point of trying out Ishigaki beef while you are there. While I was not familiar with Ishigaki beef and am generally not a big meat eater, I definitely developed a carnivorous appetite when I tasted it! Look for a reputable establishment, and for the more adventurous, there’s also Ishigaki beef sushi!
I would also recommend you visit a local pineapple plantation and sample freshly cut pieces of the fruit. Salt is popular in this region, and it’s quite the norm to sprinkle dashes of salt on ice cream. Look for local salt shops serving soft serve ice cream, and experiment with different salts flavored with pepper, wasabi, black sesame, or cocoa.
The Yaeyama Islands have much natural beauty to offer the visitor, and it’s a worth a day trip to see why some of the islands of Okinawa have been selected as a prospective UNESCO World Natural Heritage site. After Ishigaki, Iriomote Island is the second largest island and about a 45 minute high-speed ferry ride away.
About 90 percent of Iriomote Island is covered with subtropical jungle, and as the natural environment is relatively untouched, tours are typically more experiential through activities like river kayaking, trekking, and exploring caves. There is something surreal about kayaking across tranquil waters, beneath a cloud-flecked sky, and surrounded with lush plantation. It’s a quiet, but rejuvenating, stillness of connecting with nature. A hike away (not for the faint of heart!) takes you to the waterfall with a 55m drop, and the basin underneath it where visitors are free to swim.
On the northern part of the island lies the Star Sand beach, aptly named for the star shaped grains sprinkled in the sand. Enjoying the island’s natural beauty can continue at night with a star gazing experience as the Yaeyama islands are impeccably suited in terms of location and conditions to view constellations. Unlike Hong Kong, it’s easy to have a dark sky free from city lights and pollution. We joined a tour one clear night, and after driving uphill from the Ishigaki port through narrow, empty roads in the dark, we arrived at what felt like an isolated field dimly lit with only two small lamps and an illuminated path of fairy lights on the grass. Once the tour started, the lights were switched off, leaving us with the moonlit sky and sounds of chirping crickets. Reclining in our seats, it was easy to be swept away by the beauty of the starry night sky – to feel small yet not insignificant. With telescopes set up, binoculars on hand, and my daughter on my lap, we peeked at the moon, marvelled at the rings of Saturn, and traced out the summer triangle. After a soothing hour, we started to head back, and heads heavy on our shoulders, our little ones drifted to sleep, dreaming of what I can only guess, the beauty of the island.
Tips for Club Med Kabira
- Check out the daily activity timetable posted around the resort each morning to get an idea of what’s planned for the day, especially the Mini Club events, as these vary daily
- If your children are too young to try out the water sports, make use of the Petit and Mini Clubs, if even only for an hour or two so you can experience the beach yourself
- With the sheer number of options available, try to be flexible! There’s a timetable for lessons and classes, but don’t let it completely dictate your day. Classes are offered so frequently and if you miss one, there’s probably something else coming up in an hour. Who knows, you may try out something completely new and end up loving it! Without having to pay per class, it’s a perfect opportunity to have a go at that flying trapeze or bow and arrow
- If you’re new to Club Med, it can be a little overwhelming trying to fit in all the activities (so much to do in so little time!), so remember to also just relax! A good spot is the Tingara Bar right by the pool. An inclusive drink list is available, some of which include alcohol, while the little ones can enjoy juice. Light snacks are provided three times during the day – indispensable for when the kids (or the adults) start to get peckish. It’s a family friendly atmosphere, and there is often some activity underway. We were lucky to be there sipping cool drinks after a swim when we noticed a chef was setting up a worktable lined with small bowls of chocolate chips, raisins, pumpkin seeds and other goodies. He was running a bread making session, and as anyone could casually join, we each grabbed a small chunk of sticky dough and began adding our own toppings. The chef had no qualms about letting even my three year old join, and we all happily got to pick up our baked creation later that evening. Another day saw us spinning plates, bouncing diablos, and twirling hula hoops with the circus school
Tips for HK Express travellers
- HK Express offers a direct flight of about two hours to Ishigaki. With regular flights departing by 8am and the airline’s focus on on-time performance, you can get there by 11am (Japan time) to make the most of the day
- Opt for the upfront seats in rows one to five. One of HK Express’s priority is low fare travel, so the extra cost of HK$110 or so is a small addition and worth it as you’ll get to deplane first. The Ishigaki airport is not big, so you’ll save some time passing through immigration before the main flow of passengers arrive
Looking for family-friendly activities in Hong Kong, too? Check out these parks, playgrounds and outdoor centres for kids