After checking all the boxes on a car rental form that I couldn’t read, we squeezed into an older blue van that had a slightly moldy pong. Ten years of wet swimming shorts draining into the seats, I surmised. Well, it was the cheapest rental we could find (at US$120/day!) and Japan just isn’t set up for a family of seven. So we take what we can get.
Ishigaki is the second-largest island in the Yaeyamas, but it’s still only 45 km north-to-south. The drive to Kabira Bay took just 30 minutes, much shorter than I had imagined. First, we cut west across the island, passing sugar cane plantations, before joining coastal Highway 79. The drive along wide Nagura Bay was beautiful; we could see the high, dark-green mountains of Iriomote Island in the distance. Here two thick, hilly peninsulas projected west and north from the main body of Ishigaki.
Kabira Bay, defined by the northern peninsula, is one of Ishigaki’s most famous tourist attractions. While the boys sprinted ahead, Nori and I strolled along the paved path. There were several areas where the trees had been cleared to permit beautiful views over the shallow, light blue water and a cluster of low islands cloaked in green. It was undeniably picturesque, but perhaps we had spoiled by the beaches on Hateruma and Kuro Islands.
Just before the beach, there was a viewpoint that I recognized immediately: 80% of the photos of Kabira Bay were taken from there – the white sand, the serried glass-bottomed boats pulled up on shore and a knot of tourists crossing the beach. I would have liked to snorkel out to the islands with the boys but there were signs everywhere warning that swimming was prohibited because of ‘dangerous currents’. It looked safe enough to me. Admittedly, the inlet was narrow for such a large bay, so I’m sure the water really moves when the tide shifts.
We turned left out of the little village, following the road out along the peninsula. When we passed the sign for Club Med Kabira Bay, Nori regarded me quizzically. The resort was our destination, after all. But I was a following a tip from a very well-informed British blogger who had lived on the island for years. Soon we could see the ocean and I knew we were getting to the tip of the peninsula. The road dead-ended. I was sure that we were in the right place but I couldn’t see a trail. So I parked the car in the grassy shoulder and explored the road until I found an overgrown path.
After just a few seconds of bushwhacking, the trail opened up to an incredible view. Ahead was a gumdrop knoll with an obvious path up its side. As I climbed, a perfectly empty beach punctuated with large boulders came into view on my left. My jaw plummeted; I stopped breathing to let my eyes suck it all in. And when I reached the top of the wind-swept knoll, I had a religious moment. Oh my Lord, what a view!
Absolutely sublime. An expanse of coral and light blue water extending out to waves crashing on the fringing reef. An untouched beach and a rugged little island offshore where the peninsula curved to the east. The wind howling up the cliffs below. And the limitless ocean beyond. I sprinted back to the car to get Nori. But all the boys except Logan (a very rare pass) wanted to come also.
“Wow!!!” they all yelled as they summited the knoll and the wind and the vista hit them. Nori couldn’t believe it. “It’s just ridiculous that there is no one here.”
To the right, we could actually see the rooftops of the Club Med. It was that close! And still, not a soul on either of these beaches; no one snorkelling in the shallows. I am constantly amazed by the lack of adventurous spirit in most people. If they walked along the beach and over a few boulders, they’d be here!
The resort is in a perfect location at the tip of the peninsula: far enough from Kabira Bay and the main beaches that few people wander down to Club Med’s beach – which is technically public. The coral reef in front, while not quite “Hateruma Blue”, wasn’t far behind. And a heavy green drape of what looked like natural vegetation buffered the rooms from the beach.
Once we had checked-in, the receptionist encouraged us to race to the trapeze course. We had just enough time for all four boys to have one go. Logan, of course, was the most fearless, leaping straight into the void and attempting a backflip.
Allyn, a senior hotel G.O (Gentils Organisateurs), was a big, chubby and jolly American who had worked at various Club Med properties around the world. While Grandma Joan watched the boys in the pool, Allyn gave us a tour of the resort.
The hotel was laid out in a classic style: a center block consisting of the lobby, pool, gift shop and restaurants and then two wings of 4-5 blocks each for the rooms. But they had adopted the Ryukyu architectural vernacular in terms of stone walls and red tiled roofs.
“I still remember the first lesson I got as a new GM. My boss said ‘It’s quite simple. If the kids are happy, then the parents are happy, and we’re happy too.’ and eleven years later that’s still our goal.”
A resort with a tradition of family-friendliness in a nation that isn’t always so understanding of kids? Now that is something special. While the resort was full of Chinese and Koreans on that holiday weekend, Allyn said that the majority of their guests were Japanese. Can you imagine what that is like for Japanese parents? A place where your kids are taken care of, even spoiled, and you have time to properly relax with your partner?
In fact, everything at the resort was engineered to keep kids entertained and (if desired) out of sight: the pirate-ship themed nursery, complete with pool; the teens club; the kids-only sessions at the tennis courts and the frequent outdoor excursions with enthusiastic GOs (Gentil Organisateur). In the pool, I launched the boys a few times and the lifeguard didn’t even blink. A group of GOs was preparing a banquet room for a kids’ performance. It takes a special kind of person (friendly, enthusiastic, patient, nurturing) to be a GO. And GOs are the pillars of the entire Club Med experience.
Feeding the boys had so far been a struggle: it was difficult to find much that they would eat except for ramen, katsu and pizza. So when they saw the buffet at the Club Med, the reaction was euphoric.
“Now this is what I call lunch!” Tai shouted, piling his plate high with pizza, spaghetti Bolognese, french fries, chicken nuggets and white pasta.
The buffet restaurant overlooked the incredible blues of the coral-studded bay. While the boys devoured lunch, a Taiwanese GO asked if she could join us at our table. She had recognized our family from Hateruma (we are hard to miss in a country with a 1.5 child birth rate). Grandma Joan had a wonderful time speaking Taiwanese with her and telling our story.
The sun was already dropping as we made our way down to the beach. Since we had our own snorkels and fins, we were allowed to venture “outside the lines”. As on Hateruma and Kuro, I massively enjoyed swimming with them, loving their excitement as they spotted flamboyant Picasso Triggerfish or shy little boxfish.
With just a half-hour before our day pass came to an end, we wrapped the shivering boys in thick towels and made a beeline for the bar. While Nori I enjoyed a few cocktails (they were on the small side), another GO from China was chatting with Grandma Joan. Meanwhile, Drake and Kiva had snuck up to the bar, where the French bartender had served them virgin (I hope) mojitos.
The irony is that Club Med is now owned by the Fosun Group, a Chinese investment house with interests ranging from pharmaceuticals to travel (Thomas Cook) to entertainment (Cirque du Soleil). Will Club Med’s ‘all-inclusive’ mantra become less inclusive? Will the amazing diversity and enthusiasm of its GOs decline? The truth is that the Club Med concept could never have originated in China.
“This is my favorite view in the whole resort,” Allyn said, his chest heaving from the climb to the fourth floor. I could see the knoll we had climbed earlier and the rocky island off the tip of the peninsula. “Sometimes manta rays get trapped in the lagoon when the tide goes out. From up here you can see them gliding around between the coral heads.” What a magical sight that must be.