1343-1 Kise, Nago; 81-980-43-5555; ritzcarlton.com/okinawa; 97 rooms from $512 a night (¥41,000), including buffet breakfast.
People in Japan have been jetting down to Okinawa for years to sit in the sun, swim in the sea and soak up the culture of this former kingdom, now famous for its long-living population. The tropical archipelago, once known as the Ryukyu Islands, is made up of about 160 islands that are essentially outcroppings of coral surrounded by blue and turquoise waters. Recently, visitors from China and other countries have been discovering Okinawa's distinctive food and flair, and new hotels have emerged. The Ritz-Carlton Okinawa is one of the best.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
The luxury resort is located on the northern end of the main island, a 75-minute drive from Naha International Airport. The hilltop hotel offers calming views of the East China Sea and its jagged coastline. The area is a draw for snorkellers and scuba divers. Visitors also hop in rental cars to tour nearby sites, including Ocean Expo Park, home to Japan's top aquarium, the ruins of the Nakijin Castle, and Manzamo Point, famous for its elephant-shaped cliffs .
The Ritz-Carlton Okinawa aims to be an elegant, modern spin on the castles and royal residences of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Distinctive red-clay roof tiles cover pavilions, which, along with stone paths, hover over water. Interiors mix wood and coral, while grand sliding-glass doors let sea breezes flow through lobby-level walkways. Part of the hotel is perched over the pool, a peaceful spot surrounded by greenery that adjoins an airy library.
Sport and spa tie in the category for best amenity. The neighbouring Kise Country Club's 18-hole, championship course is a draw for golfers. Players drive and putt their way through the Ocean Course (named for its views) and the Woods Course (named for its foliage, not after you-know-who). The fairways are long. The sand traps sinister. The water hazards, however, are only slightly hazardous. Aches and pains from a morning on the links can be chased away at the spa, a secluded refuge designed to make visitors feel as though they're in a forest, with plenty of wood and lights that throw off leaf-shaped shadows. Treatments include foot rubs with Okinawan salt, skin-smoothing exfoliation, gooey body wraps and massages with heated tiger-striped clam shells.
IF I COULD CHANGE ONE THING
What the property lacks is beach access. Hotel staff schlepp guests to and from a sandy spot that's about a five-minute drive away. They've made some efforts to put on the Ritz there – building a pathway from the parking lot to the beach, laying out a handful of loungers – but it just feels makeshift and not befitting a luxury resort. Time is better spent poolside.
RESTAURANT OR ROOM SERVICE?
The Ritz-Carlton Okinawa may be a top hotel, but it falls victim to standard industry slip-ups when it comes to room service. One order of Caesar salad was watery. A side of fries wasn't completely cooked. Staff needed 40 minutes to deliver a bottle of sparkling water and accompanying cheesecake. You're better off at one of the property's three eateries. Kise is a teppanyaki restaurant run by Yutaka Miyasato, considered the best chef of his ilk in Okinawa. He uses his metal flippers and knives with the precision of a surgeon to slice and grill up seafood, marbled Japanese beef and local vegetables (such as the bitter goya) right in front of you. The food, lightly drizzled with sauces or topped with loonie-size pieces of garlic, is splendid. The presentation has an authentic quality you can only find in Japan. The experience should not be missed.