Japan’s prefecture of Okinawa has a personality all of its own thanks to the island vibes and tropical fare. We dip a toe in the area’s famously crystal clear waters.
Lay of the land: Most first-time travelers to Okinawa will want to explore the main island, as well as the surrounding archipelago. The airport is just outside the capital of Naha, where the main ferries connect with picturesque beaches. The city makes a good base, though we’d recommend renting your own wheels from a company such as Europcar so you have the option to travel to the northern side of the island, home to craggy cliffs and gorgeous stretches of sand.
About the beaches: If you only have a week in Okinawa, then the first thing you’ll want to do is hit the water. Travelers can plop down on one of the many Kerama Islands, which are between 30-50 minutes by ferry from Naha. The islands form a sprawling national park that’s home to barely touched beaches. Choose your adventure, ranging from a straight-up Robinson Crusoe experience on Aka Island to more tourist-friendly Tokashiki.
We opted for something in the middle: Zamami (US$50 roundtrip, 50 minutes each way), which is home to some of the area’s best snorkeling and scuba diving. You can hang by the pristine beach all day, rent snorkeling gear from the snack shop and swim out to the reefs in minutes. If you’re visiting between January and March, you can also go whale watching for the best chance to see breaching humpback whales. Island hop from Naha for a couple of days, or spend the night in one of the many cozy gusuku, aka guesthouses, like Kawai.
The northern part of Okinawa main island is also home to some pretty plots of sand, especially around Nago. Take a scenic drive out to Kouri Island where you can spread out on an empty beach all your own, or hop on a ferry to the crescent-shaped Minna-jima Island ($108 roundtrip, one hour each way). The area is also home to the memorable Churaumi Aquarium (oki-churaumi.jp). One of the most celebrated aquariums in the world, the enormous center is particularly famous for its 7,500-square-meter tank, which plays host to whale sharks and manta rays, as well as the sprawling Emerald Beach.
Where to stay: It’s slim pickings in Naha but we had a pleasant stay at the Naha Terrace hotel(From US$207, 2-14-1 Omoromachi, Naha, Okinawa, (+81) 98-864-1111, www.terrace.co.jp). The rooms are disappointing but the ambience is classy, with live piano floating from the lobby at night and excellent service from start to finish.
If you want the tip-top experience on the island, though, we’d recommend the Ritz-Carlton Okinawa (from US$272. 1343-1 Kise, Nago, Okinawa, (+81) 980-43-5555, www.ritzcarlton.com), which is the only five-star resort here. It sits on top of a hill overlooking the ocean, and the breezy walkways and in-room terraces lend a tropical feel. As you’d expect from a Ritz-Carlton, the spa here is excellent—try the ESPA ocean shell body treatment (120 minutes, $2,133) for something traditionally Okinawan—as is the food, particularly at Italian restaurant Kise, where all of the dishes have been infused with the region’s flavors. If total relaxation is your game plan, then this is a no-brainer. The only drawback is that it’s perhaps a little too family-friendly for couples.