By CARY ORDWAY
It sounds like a yarn made up by some advertising agency, but the locals swear it’s true: When explorer Richard Henry Dana first laid eyes on the harbor at Dana Point, he called it "the only romantic cove in California."
Nowadays you might find some folks who would beg to differ, but all can agree that this magical part of the California coast is one of the most picturesque spots in Southern California. Blessed with near-perfect weather and a proximity to a whole guidebook-full of tourist attractions, Dana Point today is a popular getaway for people from all over the state.
It’s hard to imagine, but at the turn of the 19th century Dana Point was the only major harbor between San Diego and Santa Barbara. Forget Long Beach, San Pedro and all the rest. If you were traveling by ship to this area, Dana Point was going to be your destination.
The same harbor that attracted those earlier mariners is still very much a port of call, but leaning more toward pleasure craft with its 2,500 slips that are usually occupied with a wide selection of expensive yachts and small boats that would make any Boat Show proud. The Dana Point Marina, of course, becomes the centerpiece to the area and the focus of pictures and paintings that are readily available in local gift shops.
But wait, there’s more. There just happen to be several fine public beaches in the area, a plethora of good restaurants, a historic mission and, in nearby Laguna, great shopping, a vibrant arts community and enough Orange County chic to make you feel like you are living in an episode of the OC. Those planning California beach vacations will find plenty of options in this scenic stretch of California coastline.
We made a quick trip up to Dana Point from our home near San Diego – a 45-mile drive and less than an hour. Residents of most areas near Los Angeles also can make it to Dana Point in less than 90 minutes. This is one reason the area has become a popular getaway – a great location that’s easy to reach. For Northern California residents, it’s just a little bit farther south than L.A.
Our base of operations was the Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa, an impressive resort built on the cliffs overlooking the Dana Point Harbor and a great centerpiece for any Southern California vacation. All of the services and amenities you would expect were there – a couple of resort-style restaurants, pools, Jacuzzis, tennis, a new 2,500-square-foot fitness center and a new $8.5 million spa offering a host of services including massages, body treatments and salon services. Those who enjoy taking spa vacations will not be disappointed.
This 376-room resort had the feel of a comfortable beach hotel you might find in Hawaii. While the beach in this instance is a 15-minute walk, the hotel’s spacious rooms are done in bright, well-coordinated tropical colors. On the walls are five-foot-high paintings of boats and beaches and surfers, all reminding you just where you are. If you’re fortunate – as we were – to be in one of the coastal view rooms, your private lanai will overlook a portion of the harbor and coastline. This view probably will vary quite a lot from room to room, so if that’s a major reason for staying here, be sure to be specific when you make your reservations.
The grounds also are reminiscent of some Hawaii properties – lots of well manicured palm trees and walkways on a tropically well endowed 42 acres. That acreage includes a park adjacent to the hotel where you can find rolling lawns, picnic tables, walking paths and great ocean views from the cliffs. Service was great, too, and like many spa resorts, this one just gave us the feeling of being totally pampered.
And one other little thing we noticed about the Laguna Cliffs Marriott: the beds are more comfortable than most hotels we’ve visited. For some reason, even some of the finest resort hotels seem to favor a harder mattress. Not here – these beds were just pliant enough to afford us a restful, undisturbed sleep.
Any visit to Dana Point will involve some time exploring the marina. It’s not just a bunch of boats – a whole village has grown up dockside to offer tourist shopping and places to enjoy lunch or dinner. Some 25 shops and 20 restaurants are open in Dana Wharf, Mariners Village and Mariners Alley. But the boats are a big part of it – it’s fun strolling along the docks, daydreaming about owning one of these beautiful craft.
For those not content to stay on the shore, there are charter fishing companies at Dana Point that will take you out fishing – or just out to see the annual migration of whales. If you’re able to spend an extra day or two, the Catalina Express offers direct service to Catalina for a day, or for an overnight stay on the island.
Adding to Dana Point’s nautical flavor are the two tallships, "Pilgrim" and "Pride of Dana Point." The "Pilgrim" is a full-sized replica of the sailing ship of Richard Henry Dana. The ship is used primarily to educate school children, but its presence in the harbor reminds visitors of this area’s history. During Christmas season, the ship is decorated in lights and is an obvious focal point for the area’s holiday activities.
The "Pilgrim" is operated by the Orange County Marine Institute, which provides classroom instruction, display tanks and unique exhibits for people of all ages. The institute also operates the 70-foot "Sea Explorer," which takes students out to the protected Marine Life Refuge, just offshore. Visitors can walk along the rocky beach near the refuge, where they will find sea caves, earthquake faults and tidepools.
Just south from the marina is 62-acre Doheny State Beach Park with more than a mile of prime California beach. Also in the area are Salt Creek Beach Park and Strands Beach, both popular surfing spots where you can get a good look at the local beach culture. Many California beach vacations begin and end on these beaches — they really have everything you need.
One reason Dana Point is popular with visitors is that there are so many interesting diversions in the immediate area. Just hop in your car and, within 15 minutes, you’ll find a completely new experience. For example, just up the road is Laguna Beach.
The fact that they have based a television show on this beach enclave should be enough to tell you that this is not your typical beach town. This is a place dotted with zillion-dollar homes and ocean views to match. Along the long and winding highway through Laguna, you’re apt to encounter the chic – as well as the cheap. Perfectly dressed, blonde-haired, model-shaped young professionals shop in the local art houses, while down at the beach you’ll find full-time surf bums who are less concerned with money than relishing the endless California summer.
Spin the compass in another direction and you’ll find, just four miles away, the famous town of San Juan Capistrano. Known for the punctual return each year of the swallows, this town was built around its equally famous mission. Inside the 10-acre Mission San Juan Capistrano compound, visitors enjoy a respite from the everyday world as they walk down quiet paths through lush gardens and view historic buildings dating back to the late 18th Century.
It should be obvious by now: the romantic cove that Richard Henry Dana found in 1818 has turned into much more than just a pretty place. Young brides do flock to local spa resorts like the Laguna Cliffs Marriott to brand their wedding pictures with the indelible charm of Dana’s discovery. But plenty of everyday travelers also have found the area appealing — whether they’re feeling romantic or not.
AT A GLANCE
Where: Dana Point is conveniently located about half way between San Diego and Los Angeles, and is within easy driving distance of Orange County coastal attractions as well as theme parks further inland. The area is one of the most popular for California beach vacations.
What: Dana Point is one of the most picturesque settings in Southern California and offers a getaway than can be as quiet as laying on a beach, or as active as visiting Disneyland or Knotts Berry Farm. If your Southern California vacation itinerary includes both the beaches and the theme parks, the Dana Point area would be an excellent base of operations.
When: Any time of year. The ocean water is warmer in summer and boating will be better with warmer air temperatures; however, even in winter, temperatures are mild and days are sunny. Vacation packages are offered periodically by local resorts while it's also possible to find last minute travel deals if space is available.
Why: Dana Point is ideally located, yet unique in its natural beauty.
How: For more information on Dana Point, contact the Dana Point Chamber at www.danapoint-chamber.com. To learn more about Dana Point Harbor, go to www.danapointharbor.com. For more information on the Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort and Spa, one of the aea's finest spa resorts, call (949) 661-5000 or visit www.lagunacliffs.com. Rooms at the resort are generally in the $200 range, although several travel packages are available.
Please visit California Weekend for more information on California travel .
Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway