Between Los Angeles and San Diego is the city of Dana Point (population 34,000), a beautiful and relaxing surfing destination in Orange County, California. In this small, sparkling community, mansions in modern or palatial-meets-mission styles line the coasts and nestle among the hills, competing to outdo each other with spectacular outdoor showers and sheer square footage. Range Rovers, Mercedes, and BMW’s are as common as the grains of sand, and the population is toned and tanned. Lodging options for travelers range from luxury resorts to bed and breakfasts, but the big daddy of them all, the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel, offers a prime location with the best view, the best bar, and a phenomenal restaurant, with ready access to the long, clear stretch of Salt Creek Beach. Here are some ways to enjoy a couple of days in this sunny, moneyed surf mecca.
Day 1: Surf’s Up
In any season, Dana Point is first and foremost a surfing destination.
The town’s rich surfing history includes being the home of surf publications Surfer’s Journal and Surfer Magazine, and surfing product companies such as Hobie Surf Shop. Part of the 1966 documentary film Endless Summer was filmed here, which many credit for inspiring the global “surf-and-travel” culture and lifestyle.
The surfers in Dana Point are still mourning the demise of Killer Dana, an iconic wave that was destroyed by the construction of the Dana Point Harbor in the 1960s. You can hear all about the monster wave at the aptly named KillerDana surf shop, where the staff will enthusiastically show you black and white pictures of the Killer Dana wave—before and after its destruction. They will gladly recommend and debate among themselves the merits of various local beaches: Doheny is recommended for beginners, Salt Creek is a unanimous favorite, and Huntington Beach is a subject of some argument. You can stock up on surf gear and souvenirs at KillerDana, including surfboards, wetsuits, bikinis, flip-flops, flat-brimmed hats and unique socks. If you know your way around a wave, you can also rent surfboards and boogie boards for your personal surf adventure.
If you’re new to surfing, there are plenty of opportunities to learn. The Ritz-Carlton offers customized surf lessons for guests of all skill levels, and lessons can also be found at small local businesses such as Girl in the Curl which sells surfboards, beachwear, accessories, and whimsical décor items for women and girls, in addition to offering surf lessons and camps.
Amazing Sunset and a Meal You Won’t Forget
After a day of surfing or just surfer-gazing, you’re ready to enjoy an evening of great views, food and drink. The best spot to view the sunset in Dana Point is at 180blu, the bar at Ritz-Carlton that presides over a tall bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, with a clear view of Catalina Island. Arrive early to snag a good vantage point, and unwind with the soothing sounds of the surf, soft lounge music, and gorgeous views as you sip your cocktail (try the spicy-sweet Tamarind Togarashi Margarita) and enjoy the freshest, most delicious oysters on the half shell with chipotle-honey sauce and lime. Once you’ve snapped your selfie in front of the pink and orange sky, and watched the sun disappear in a blaze of glory, head indoors for an unforgettable meal at Raya.
Raya’s Chef de Cuisine, Steve Wan, hails from Los Angeles and has worked in various culinary capacities at the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel for more than a decade. Mr. Wan has masterfully designed a coastal pan-Latin menu with an Asian flair that encompasses the tastes of Brazil, Peru, Mexico, and Spain, yet feels quintessentially southern Californian. The menu changes three times per year and is based on seasonal ingredients. The indoor restaurant has large windows to show off the same fabulous ocean view as the outside bar, but you won’t notice that anymore once you begin your meal. Start with the tender, savory Brazilian cheese rolls with herbed butter, but save room for the rest. While Raya features a melt-in-your-mouth NY strip steak, and a delicious wild mushroom and truffle-oil flatbread made with a corn masa crust, the real star of the show is the seafood. For starters, try the raw salmon over a sushi rice cake, served with a dramatic sizzle in a miniature cast iron pan. The sushi-style salmon is seared on the outside by the hot skillet, and the more you mix it, the more it cooks. Another good choice of appetizer is the ceviche tasting duo. On one side is sea bass flavored with coconut milk and a pop of thai basil, balanced with bites of vibrant, sweet mango. On the other side is savory ahi tuna with soy sauce and crunchy rice noodles, served with crispy fried yucca and plantain chips for dipping. Moving on to the main course, the seafood risotto brings together all the tastes of the sea—crab, prawns, mussels, and calamari—over saffron-scented, al-dente risotto with an unexpected, smoky burst of chorizo. Raya’s wine list is spectacular, and you would be wise to allow the expert staff there to choose wine pairings for each course—from a floral Sancerre to a spicy and rich Cabernet Sauvignon. For dessert, a light and creamy panna cotta studded with dollops of tangy passionfruit curd and crispy bits of merengue is the perfect sendoff.
Day 2: Explore Dana Point
For early risers or those on east coast time, the Dana Point Headlands Trail is the perfect morning activity. Park your car at Strand Vista Park on Selva Road, and look for the trailhead across the street from the park. It is more like a series of disjointed segments than a trail, but you can easily connect them to create your own path. Meander through the cactus and sagebrush-strewn territory of the endangered Pacific pocket mouse, snap Insta-worthy shots at several scenic overlooks, breeze past oceanfront mansions, and view the sunrise and the morning kayakers in the harbor from the bench atop Hilltop Park.
One of Dana Point’s many charms is its walkability. You can traverse the entire town from end-to-end and back on foot. Start at the large arch that marks the beginning of the Lantern District, at the southbound entrance of Del Prado Avenue where it intersects with the Pacific Coast Highway. Read about the city’s namesake, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., a Harvard-educated adventurer and author of Two Years Before the Mast, which describes Dana Point and its neighbor, San Juan Capistrano, as “the only romantic spot on the coast.”
Next, head over to Bonjour Café and Bistro, which serves breakfast all day and is known for the best French toast in the O.C. If you prefer a savory breakfast, try la bouchée aux aspeges: asparagus, sun-dried tomatoes, and brie with scrambled eggs atop two puff pastries, topped with hollandaise. You can dine al fresco and do some people-watching here while you enjoy your coffee and the gentle samba soundtrack, but the menu strongly suggests leaving your laptop at home, reminding you that “This is not Starbucks…relax and enjoy your meal.”
Continue meandering east on Del Prado Avenue, and turn right on Street of the Golden Lantern to make your way to the Dana Point Harbor, where you can appreciate the clever names of the Dana Point residents’ boats and yachts (“Kiss My Bass” was a favorite). Stroll the harbor boardwalk to browse the specialty shops, or re-energize with a latte, pastry, or ice-cream cone from Coffee Importers.
On your way back, stop in at The Schwack Beach Grill (home of the Schwack burger) serving “Breki, Core, Din Din, and Schwacketizers” to the tune of reggae music. This local favorite also provides the ambitious or impulsive customer an opportunity to buy the $600 Combo: A Schwack burger (up to ten patties), fries and a custom-designed surf board. The ahi tuna burger is also a hit.
Jam with the Locals
For a fun night out in Dana Point, head to Stillwater Spirits and Sounds on Del Prado Avenue for craft cocktails, good food, and a friendly, live-music scene. The party is happening here Wednesday through Sunday, with music ranging from 80’s hits to classic rock. On Thursday nights, locals from all over the O.C. come here for a relaxed dinner in front of the tabletop fireplaces on the stone patio, then move indoors for Sessions at Stillwater: an evening jam session with experienced local musicians. There is no cover charge, and the space is casual but classy—it’s clean and clearly designed for music, with a fairly large stage set in the corner of a high-ceilinged, dark wooden building with exposed beams and pipes. The walls are covered with black and white photography recalling the Prohibition era. The menu includes traditional bar favorites with a California twist, such as fish and chips with chili tempura, as well as artisan sausages served with pretzels and home-made sauerkraut. Emerald green shishito peppers sautéed with olive oil and sea salt are a unique and tasty appetizer. Edgar, the charismatic manager, mixes up tasty and inventive cocktails like “The Last Cocktail”, with Plymouth gin, pear rosemary essence, and sparkling wine or “Tito’s Negroni” garnished with an aromatic twist of burnt orange peel. “Doc Brown’s Old Fashioned” contains pinot noir syrup for a dash of depth. Dancing is encouraged.
The Next Morning
When you awake to the sounds of the surf breaking on the beach, you will probably wish you could spend a little more time in Dana Point. You will realize that you never got a chance to go mountain biking, stand-up paddle boarding, or whale watching here, and that you have the urge to practice yoga and meditation on the beach. Call down and request a late checkout—48 hours is not enough.