Dana Point - An Oasis of Relaxing Elegance

I’ve always found the Orange County coast extremely appealing, so my recent introduction to Dana Point came with high hopes. They were easily exceeded. Superb beaches, wonderful dining and some comfortably elegant meeting properties stood out most, as did the lack of heavy traffic that SoCal can sometimes be known for.

Our host property, the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel, encapsulated the entire community pretty well from my perspective: Invitingly luxurious without even a touch of the stuffiness occasionally found at some upscale properties; excellent but approachable cuisine at Raya, with fare like delicate little lobster tacos enhanced by the sweeping views of the sun setting over the Pacific; numerous ways to luxuriate in comfort, but ample active options as well. The guest rooms, each with a balcony offering an ocean view (pictured below), were equally appealing.

Off-site excursions included a visit to the Ocean Institute, a handsome modern venue at Dana Point Harbor offering a display of sea life, some cool meeting space adorned by the skeleton of a young gray whale, and two spectacular schooners—including a replica of Pilgrim, the former tall ship of the city’s namesake, Richard Henry Dana. Pilgrim and The Spirit of Dana Point (pictured below) can be used for group seafaring adventures or as memorable reception venues (for up to about 45 attendees) while docked pier-side.

While at the harbor, we were also able to take an unforgettable catamaran outing with Captain Dave’s Whale & Dolphin Safari. Being between migration seasons, there were no whales to be seen, but nobody seemed to mind—as a pod of hundreds of dolphins surrounded our boat and playfully swam alongside for miles. Making the experience even more memorable was the presence of two underwater viewing portals, where—by lying down facing forward—you have the sensation of swimming along the dolphins beneath the sea (pictured below), an electrifying experience. The snazzy ship can host groups of almost 50.

We also had the chance to tour a pair of other meeting properties. At the Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa, with a classic look somewhat akin to the famed Del Coronado in San Diego, a huge event lawn and adjoining city park stood out as superb event space options, backed by a panoramic ocean view. The very family-friendly property, which is also host to nearly non-stop wedding ceremonies, offers two pool areas and about 50,000 square feet of overall event space.

My personal highlight of the visit was probably a farewell dinner at Michael Mina’s Stonehill Tavern, at the St. Regis Monarch Beach, with creative and colorful fare that had our party "oohing and aahing" as practically every plate arrived. My favorites included an appetizer featuring handmade tortellini with a poached quail egg, and Mina’s signature Lobster Pot Pie, but every dish was truly exceptional and the setting was the perfect blend of comfort and sophistication.

Touring the property before dinner was an eye-opener as well, from its cool Beach Club dining venue to some of the most elegant meeting space you’ll ever see. Like the Ritz-Carlton, the property is invitingly luxurious without pretentions.

I also caught wind during my visit of a fantastic lighting festival debuting this year from November 26 through January 4, 2015. IlluminOcean will light up the Dana Point Harbor with 18 marine-themed lighting elements that will include sea sculptures and light tunnels, and the free event will stretch for more than a mile along the waterside.

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