Dana Point, Orange County: see life the Californian way
Peering over the edge of the boat, I see two eyes looking right back up at me. Before I had even embarked on a dolphin and whale watching expedition, a family of friendly sea lions were swimming alongside the boat to say hello. It was late Autumn in Dana Point, California, one of the best places in the world to spot sea mammals.
As we left the picturesque harbour it wasn’t only the local wildlife that was giving us something to look at. Relaxed locals took to the waves for kayaking, surfing and swimming. One smiling young woman greeted us from her paddleboard, where she had a large golden retriever relaxing at her feet.
Heading out to sea, our guide Nona Reimer, from Dana Wharf Whale Watching, explained why the area is the best for spotting the Pacific’s most beautiful creatures.
The warm waters are home to humpback, blue, and killer whales, as well as grey whales passing by during their 14,000 mile migration down towards Mexico. The city's harbour is one of the less developed in the region and is refreshingly small with no oil rigs, tall buildings or large ships.
There are also more dolphins per square mile than anywhere else in the world, with half a million in the waters off the Southern California Coast. We saw dozens of striking monochrome Pacific white-sided dolphins swimming alongside the boat and playing in the waves at its wake. We also saw pods of what are known as common dolphins. Children and adults squealed excitedly as the guide pointed out more groups on either side of the boat. The sheer number of them was a sight to behold.
Returning to land we had a browse of the city’s waterfront, which features boutiques, bars and restaurants with stunning views over the local sailors’ yachts. It is the perfect place to while away a few hours in the afternoon after a morning of whale watching.
At the heart of Dana Point’s community is fresh, healthy and delicious food, and the city is famous in California for its unpretentious atmosphere and award-winning seafood joints. We enjoyed the relaxed vibe and good service of Coastal Kitchen; a family-owned restaurant further into town that showcases the best of the region’s rich natural resources.
Particularly of note were the Cioppino, a seafood stew packed with scallops, shrimp, crab and manila clams, a filet mignon served with three sauces and creamy, parmesan mash potatoes and an utterly divine Key lime pie.
Nearby is Doheny beach, a name that has become so synonymous with the surfing scene that it is included in the Beach Boys’ Surfin’ USA. California’s first surf shop Hobie Surf Shop, named after the huge local waves, opened there in 1954 and its miles of unspoilt beaches still attract surfers from around the globe.
A overarching sense of being totally relaxed is apparent throughout Dana Point. The Orange County city is just an hour south of Los Angeles, but a world away in terms of temperament. While Hollywood may be hectic and notorious for traffic and tourists, this region is famous for stunning coastline and clear waters. Among yoga in the park, nearby golf courses and four conservation parks to hike in, life here is mostly spent outdoors.
After a day in the late Autumn sunshine, it was time to head to our hotel. The Ritz Carlton Laguna-Niguel is the premier resort in the area. Perched on a cliff top above two beaches just outside of Dana Point’s centre, the Ritz Carlton has two outdoor pools, a spa and comfortable rooms starting at 400 sq ft, some of which boast private outdoor fireplaces. Ours offered sweeping sunset views over the Pacific Ocean and Catalina Island. It was the perfect place to spend the evening after a busy day.
The resort is home to three restaurants, 180Blu, situated on an outdoor terrace above the beach, beef specialists EnoSteak, and Raya, where we ate dinner. Raya is a restaurant concept by acclaimed chef Richard Sandoval and showcases Pan-Latin cuisine prepared with local, sustainable seafood, produce and grass-fed meats.
I started with a pear salad with burrata, candied almond and champagne thyme vinaigrette, followed by a 24-hour cooked Wagyu short rib served with white beans and cippolini onion. My dining companion raved about the rich lobster tacos and arroz negro with shellfish, which paired perfectly with the Spanish Albarino wine our waitress selected for us.
For those looking for a family-friendly accommodation option, the Hilton Doubletree Doheny Beach, which is situated just across the road from the area’s famous surf spots, is ideal. With large rooms and a stunning rooftop bar looking over the beach, it is a lovely option for something more central.
After dinner we headed to Dana Point’s town centre, a quintessential example of small-town Americana, and took in some of the city’s best nightspots. From wine bars to sports bars, there is everything you might need. After a few cocktails in Harpoon Henry’s harbour front grill, we chatted sports and politics with locals in the prohibition-themed bar Stillwater Spirits, as well as enjoying the music until the early hours.
Dana Point’s laid-back attitude is infectious, making it the perfect spot to spend a relaxing weekend. California is a beautiful place to go on holiday, but in Dana Point, you feel right at home.
Rooms at the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel from $699 per night. Surfside Suite at the DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Hotel Doheny Beach from $259 per night. Visit Coastal Kitchen Dana Point. For more information, visit visitdanapoint.com.