Let’s face it, the Southern California coast is a trove of cool places and amazing experiences. Why should groups—or families—take the time to explore in particular the upscale enclave known as Dana Point?
I discovered during a small press junket that there are plenty of reasons, but three stood out as especially ‘can’t-miss,’ beginning with an unforgettably amazing boat outing and ending with one of the most impressive meals I’ve had in ages.
Here’s a quick take on the trio of temptations that should have parents and planners considering this southern slice of coastal Orange County.
Capt. Dave’s Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari
Debarking from the picturesque Dana Point Marina, Captain Dave’s offers a veritable mini-armada of possible ships (and outings) to enjoy, but the Manute’a is hard to top—a comfy and spacious catamaran with a special touch that took our enjoyable outing to another level.
The Manute’a has been specially designed with two viewing pods below deck—and below sea-level—that allow you to swim at eye level with sea creatures. It was already a breathtaking sight when the ship became accompanied by literally thousands of dolphins who seemed to make a game out of racing alongside us almost close enough to touch. But it truly became otherworldly when I entered the left viewing portal and lay down flanked by massive windows along my side; the proximity to these wonderful animals, and the forward motion of the ship, really makes it feel like you’re part of the pod swimming along with them.
And this description barely does the outing justice; you really have to experience it to truly grasp the sensation. The crew adds to all the fun with humorous trivia, fascinating facts and one of Capt. Dave’s home-made fudge brownies to dig into at trip’s end.
The Stonehill Tavern at Monarch Beach Resort
Operated by famed Chef Michael Mina this is without doubt one of the best restaurants in California. While the setting is modern-sleek, the food is both creative and comforting (and of course delicious); it’s also a great place for groups, with some compelling private dining areas and many of the plates served ‘family-style.’ Our small group of seven especially enjoyed the establishment’s iconic dish, Lobster Pot Pie. Yes, this might sound like heresy to lobster purists, but you’ll be a believer after one bite.
The appetizers are another highlight, and it doesn’t really matter which ones you order since they’re all sensational. We shared something that included tortellini and quail eggs, which sounded a bit questionable to me on paper. And it was delectable. Make sure to give yourself a few hours to enjoy your meal here, it’s a marathon not a sprint—and every dish is worth savoring.
The Ocean Institute
Set along the Dana Point Harbor, this is a venue that groups and families should know about. It’s home to some interesting event spaces—including a conference hall complete with 25-foot-long gray whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling—and also maintains a pair of replica tall-ships for seafaring fun. It additionally hosts a facility of various aquaria that kids will love to explore, and is home to numerous educational programs.
Kids can even take a seafaring field trip overnight aboard one of the ships, or a three-to-five day educational jaunt to Catalina where they become part of the crew. It’s hard to imagine a more unforgettable escape for children with a sense of adventure.
On a final note, it would be unfair to leave out our host property, the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel. This is a first-class resort in every way and is literally steps from the beautiful beach. The cuisine here is also impressive, including Raya, where our group savored some fantastic finger foods for lunch—including lobster tacos and ‘piloncillo’ shrimp that were simply mouthwatering. The views from the resort’s bluff-top locale are yet another bonus, and it’s only a 10-minute walk down the beach from the Stonehill Tavern and Monarch Beach resort.
Photo credits: Swimming dolphins – Mark Tyson/DolphinSafari.com; catamaran exterior: Mike Johnson/DolphinSafari.com.