Dana Point: The Laid-Back Beach Trip You Didn’t Know You Needed
The beach town at the beginning of the Pacific Coast Highway may not be as familiar to you as some of its famous Orange County neighbors, but travelers in the know have been flocking to Dana Point's laid-back and uncrowded shores for decades.
Luxurious resorts and celebrity chef-helmed restaurants are now an essential part of its identity, but Dana Point is far from pretentious. Its surfer beginnings still permeate the small town, creating a welcoming atmosphere that invites visitors to take it easy and go with the flow.
Where that flow leads is up to you: you could try your hand at surfing, or go whale watching, attend a music festival, or simply spend hours on the sand under an umbrella with a cocktail in hand. It’s this combination of stunning coastline, countless activities and friendly folks that will have you planning a return visit before you’ve hit the road for home.
Read on for 7 ways to explore this hidden gem of a city by both land and sea.
On the Water
In 1840, many years before Dana Point's relatively recent incorporation in 1988, this stretch of shoreline was dubbed "the only romantic spot on the coast" by author and sea voyager Richard Henry Dana Jr. (for whom the iconic headland and the city of Dana Point were later named). The city maintains its connection to the coast today, with many of its activities and offerings centered around the sea (or views of it).
In the mid-20th century, Dana Point's seaboard was central to the explosion of surf culture. The coves, bluffs, headlands and sea below were a refuge for local teens and 20-somethings who hopped atop balsa boards in an attempt to master Killer Dana—a surf break that boasted 12-foot waves. Blocks away, the first surf store in California (Hobie Surf Shop) opened on the Pacific Coast Highway. Nearby, filmmaker and Dana Point resident Bruce Brown produced the quintessential surf documentary Endless Summer (1966).
Today, the powerful waves of Killer Dana are no more (a jetty was constructed to create the marina in the 1970s) but the surf culture is still strong in Dana Point. Many locals paddle out daily; you might even see your server or bartender ripping a 50-yard ride.
Join fellow longboard surfers on the waves of Doheny State Beach (Doho to locals). If you don't have a board of your own, pick up a rental from Wheel Fun Rentals (don't skip the wetsuit; Pacific waters are notoriously chilly), located right next to the water. Little groms and beginner adults can learn on the gentle swell at Doho where a seabed of cobblestones helps to form slow shoulders and forgiving waves for newbies. If it's your first time, learn from the experts with lessons with Girl in the Curl.
With some more surf experience, take your board on the trolley up to Dana Strands Beach (locals call it The Strand), north of the Headlands Conservation Area. The Strand is a perfect place to sunbathe and spectate if you don't want to surf yourself, and the nearby headlands offer hiking with remarkable sea views.
Advanced surfers will want to ride at Salt Creek Beach where the beautiful cove produces long-ride waves, point break-style lefts and gnarly a-frames.
For those not itching to ride a shore break, there are a number of options for you to enjoy the watery playground too. One local favorite is stand-up paddleboarding (SUP). Launch from Baby Beach in Dana Point Harbor where the calm waters are a perfect starting point to gain confidence before navigating into the Pacific. Rent gear from Westwind Sailing, where you can park for free and head directly into the water from their harbor-side shop; they also offer dockside instruction for first-timers. If you're looking for a side of zen with your SUP experience, you can book a 90-minute paddleboard yoga class with iHeartYoga.
Another very beginner-friendly sport widely available here is kayaking. Thanks to the harbor's calm waters, the whole family can join in the fun. Get your sea legs, then paddle into the ocean for a different perspective on the beaches and harbor. If you're so inclined, rent a fishing kayak and drop a line to catch bass and halibut. For equipment rentals, both Capo Beach Watercraft Rentals and Pure Watersports offer a variety of options that will get your boat afloat.
Known as the Dolphin and Whale Watching Capital of the World, Dana Point has a year-round whale-watching season and the highest concentration of blue whales and dolphins on Earth. Earlier this year, Dana Point added another jewel to its crown when it was certified as the first Whale Heritage Site in the Americas—one of only four sites in the world—due to the city's history of cetacean education, conservation and sustainability efforts.
Depending on the time of year you visit, you may have the opportunity to see gray whales migrating with their babies (November-April), or, if you're lucky, the largest mammal on earth—the blue whale (May-November). The waters also are home to hundreds of thousands of dolphins and a number of whale species including fin, minke, humpback and orca whales. Experience this natural wonder firsthand with Captain Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Watching Safari and get a closer look via their underwater viewing pods. Or you can tour with Orange County's first whale watching company Dana Wharf Whale Watching, which guarantees mammal sightings with the offer of a raincheck tour.
Now that we've got the sea portion of your trip planned, let's move ashore. Inside the city limits of Dana Point, there’s so much to see and do. Staying here also means you'll have the rest of Orange County (including Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm and the Mission at San Juan Capistrano) in your backyard. A coastal drive or trip on Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner can whisk you away to San Diego, LA or around OC.
One spot in town not to miss is the Ocean Institute. This nonprofit educates students on maritime history, ocean science, research and conservation. Their campus has hands-on exhibits, science labs and a live collection of 140+ species of marine life. Even if you can't enroll your little one in ongoing classes, there are ways to support the institute's efforts and let the whole family soak up some knowledge.
Book an hour-long Harbor Geology Tour (Saturdays, $10 per person) to learn about the natural history of Dana Point Harbor; students (that's you!) examine rock layers and geologic structures while an educator explains how the area was shaped over the course of 15 million years. Or, you can explore the institute's neighboring rocky conservation area in search of snails, crabs, and sea stars that make tide pools their home by booking the popular Tide Pool Hike ($15 per person for a two-hour tour on weekends during low tide).
The magic of live performance is one of the things we've missed most over the last year, so when it was announced that Ohana Music Festival (Sept. 24-26) would be returning in 2021, tickets were purchased and plans were made by more than one Travelzoo employee. The three-day, three-stage, alfresco event takes place on Doheny State Beach and is open to all ages.
Headliners this year include Pearl Jam (plus an Eddie Vedder solo set), My Morning Jacket, Black Pumas, Maggie Rogers and Kings of Leon, plus many more beloved acts. The stunning backdrop and consistent roster of world-class performers make this annual festival one of our favorites in Southern California—and one well worth planning a trip around.
If you're not able to make it to the coast for Ohana Fest this year, instead catch one of Dana Point's free Concerts in the Park (Sundays, July 18 - August 15) which include local acts and a fun lineup of cover bands like The Next Best Thing to Journey, The Eagles Experience and Mirage - Visions of Fleetwood Mac.
Food & drink
Equally exciting announcements are coming out of Dana Point's culinary world, where the town's current celebrity chef restaurants—Michael Mina's Bourbon Steak (located at Waldorf Astoria) and Richard Sandoval's Raya (at The Ritz-Carlton)—will welcome a third this summer: Outer Reef, a new venture from celebrity chef John Tesar—a former James Beard award nominee and Top Chef contestant. Located at Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort, the fine-dining restaurant will serve locally sourced seafood and killer ocean views on its large outdoor patio.
Winter 2020 brought the opening of Rad Brat Brewery: a casual eatery with surfer vibes that serves brats and craft beers from 30+ indie-owned breweries. We're currently drooling over their signature Rad Brat, topped with sauteed peppers, sauerkraut and mustard. (Psst... vegetarians, you can sub a vegan dog for no extra cost.)
Another new beer-centric spot is Station Craft Brewery and Kitchen which creates their own in-house brews (many named for local landmarks) and serves elevated pub fare from its California cool dining room. The tropical, California IPA Diller Kana is a perfect accompaniment to the warm days ahead.
For dessert, you'll want to visit Giana Bakery + Provisions on the Pacific Coast Highway, the soon-to-open restaurant from Chef Danielle Kuhn, who owns and operates local-favorite Maison Café + Market.
As for where to lay your head at the end of a relaxing day, you won't be short on excellent options. Renovations were completed in early 2021 at both The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel (a many-time Condé Nast Traveler Readers' Choice listed resort) and the AAA 4-Diamond Laguna Cliffs Marriott. There's also another luxury brand new to town—Waldorf Astoria now manages the celebrated resort formerly named Monarch Beach Resort & Spa. Stays at this beautiful 5-star property will get you access to the resort's exclusive beach club and three on-site pools (oh hello, summer).
The city is also home to many small, wallet-friendly inns and boutiques. The Blue Lantern Inn, outfitted in crisp coastal decor, boasts Pacific views from (nearly) every guest room window, Dana Point Marina Inn is the city's only hotel on the harbor and includes daily breakfast for all stays.
For a blend of brand-name comforts and budget-friendly stays (and the added bonus of everyone's favorite chocolate chip cookies), lodge at DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Doheny Beach.
No matter where the current takes you during your laid-back getaway, take the time to bid each evening farewell as the sun sinks into the sea.