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Exploring Natural Beauty Along the Southern California Coast
When Richard Henry Dana, Jr.—a writer, lawyer, and sometimes explorer—saw the California point that would one day bear his name, he described it as “the only romantic spot on the coast.” While some other towns along America’s west coast may question that assessment, it’s easy to understand his enthusiasm as you visit the coves, canyons, hills, and headlands of the stretch of Orange County’s coast that includes Dana Point and Laguna Beach

Rising up around a series of secluded coves, Laguna Beach’s setting is nothing short of magical. It’s best experienced both by paddling among the sea lions and taking in the city views from the water and by hiking and biking on land. At Dana Point, the headlands look much as they would have when Dana first spotted them. While he is famous for his memoir Two Years Before the Mast, about his time aboard a merchant ship, you’ll spend only a morning at sea. As this is the Dolphin & Whale Watching Capital of the World, however, you will almost surely see several of those majestic animals, as well as some of the thousands of dolphins also common here.  

This itinerary may be short—you can fit it into four days—but it’s big on natural beauty, from beaches where the Pacific crashes onto the coast to mountain peaks with sweeping views. You’ll walk along the sands of one of California’s most popular beaches and follow trails through old-growth forests, where you can enjoy some time alone with nature and experience the Orange County coast as Dana did.

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    Day 1
    Arrive in Laguna Beach
    Downtown Laguna Beach has its obvious appeals; on another visit you might want to stay at an inn or hotel within walking distance of its restaurant and boutiques. On this trip, however, your base is going to be a little to the south. Located in one of the canyons at the south end of town and across from Aliso Beach, The Ranch at Laguna Beach has a wonderfully rustic location on the site of a 152-acre homestead from 1871—here the night sky is filled with stars, and you’ll wake to birdsong.  

    The Ranch, entirely renovated in 2017, reopened with a new, rustic California feel. Fitting with the spirit of Laguna Beach, the staff has a welcoming, no-attitude approach—you’ll soon feel like the Ranch is your home. Whether you opt for a Canyon Room or splurge on the Treehouse, the décor has a contemporary cottage look, created by local designer Laurie Alter of Tuvalu, (who’s also the daughter of surfing icon Hobie Alter). But as tempting as it may be to spend an afternoon napping, don’t get too comfortable yet. 

    The hills of Laguna Beach are crossed by numerous trails for hikers, bikers, and runners—perfect for some exercise before dinner. Head inland from The Ranch, and after a short, 10-minute drive, you’ll arrive at the Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park. This 4,500-acre reserve has five different trails, ranging from under a mile to over nine in length and from easy to strenuous. You can opt for an easy stroll through meadows or to conquer the ridge for breathtaking views of the Southern California coastline. Another scenic option is the even larger Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, which sits just inland from the town of Laguna Beach. When you walk its 40-plus miles of trails through some of coastal California’s last remaining stretches of old-growth forest, it is easy to imagine how the state would have looked when the first settlers arrived.  

    After an afternoon outside, heading indoors for dinner may not sound that appealing. Take advantage of Laguna Beach’s mild climate to enjoy alfresco drinks and dinner. The Deck is one of the only restaurants in town located right on the beach. You can pair signature cocktails with shared cheese boards and bar snacks, sandwiches, or more serious entrees. A popular rooftop option, Skyloft, has two full bars and, on many nights, live music performances. They’re known for their barbeque dishes—ribs, brisket, and sandwiches. The menu at Mozambique, another option with a rooftop verandah overlooking the ocean, is a South African steakhouse, with live music nightly.
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    Day 2
    Explore Laguna Beach by Land and Sea
    Laguna Beach’s setting is unique, a series of more than 30 secluded coves facing the sea, with a row of hills looming above them. It is perhaps best appreciated if you get out on the water and are able to look back at town.  

    You’ll join a kayak tour this morning that will offer a chance to paddle among sea lions and dolphins, float above kelp forests, and, further out to sea on the horizon, perhaps glimpse a passing whale—either a resident blue whale or a migrating gray one. (No previous kayaking experience is required, but guests should be able to swim.) You can also combine your time getting close to Laguna’s wildlife with one of the newest activities, stand-up paddleboarding (SUP). There are beaches here suited for every level of ability, and Visit Laguna Beach has some paddleboarding tips to help you decide where to launch.  

    At lunch, head to Zéytoon, a Mediterranean bistro that is another popular rooftop option with panoramic ocean views. If you prefer California-centric, head to Zinc Café and Market, where you can dine in the garden or shop for picnic essentials at the market portion and then head to Crescent Bay Point Park or Heisler Park, both overlooking the Pacific.  

    After lunch, explore Laguna by bike—and specifically an electric bike that will provide a little help if you need it to get up any of those hills. You may want to include some of Laguna Beach’s most peaceful spots as stops as you tour the town, like the Top of the World outlook, next to Alta Laguna Park, or Table Rock, a beach named after the unusual rock formation found there.  

    When you dine tonight at Splashes at the Surf & Sand Resort, you’ll understand the inspiration for the restaurant’s name. The ocean sits just 25 feet below the floor-to-ceiling windows. It’s a perfect location to enjoy the seafood-centric menu.
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    Day 3
    Dana Point
    Check out of The Ranch at Laguna Beach this morning and take a quick (8-minute) drive to Dana Point. This city by the sea is famous as the world’s whale-watching capital, so you’ll start your day with a whale-watching excursion. Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whale Watching has been operating since 1971 and they are experts at bringing their guests to the remarkable marine mammals. They even provide a guarantee—if you don’t see a marine mammal on your excursion, you can join them again for free. With blue, gray, minke, humpback, fin, and other whales common here, each for at least for part of the year, it’s rare that anyone redeems the second-trip offer.

    All that sea air may have left you hungry. Fortunately, the 2,500-slip harbor at Dana Point has a number of restaurants to choose from for lunch, ranging from budget-friendly casual Mexican and fresh seafood to white-tablecloth restaurants with ocean views.  

    In the afternoon, drop off your bags at your hotel for the night, the DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Doheny Beach, located on one of California’s most popular beaches. At the aquarium here, you can learn about the local fauna and ecology, and then see some of the area’s animals in the five different tanks. After, take a hike through the Dana Point Headlands Conservation Area—located at the point, extending into the Pacific, that is the source of the town’s name. Start your walk along the three miles of trails at the Dana Point Nature Interpretive Center, where you can pick up a guide to some of the flora and fauna you’ll find along the route. Before you’ve finished your hike, you may have spotted some California thrashers and black phoebes (species of birds, not bands) and be able to tell coastal sagebrush from coyote bush.  

    End the day with an evening in a setting to remember. The Chart House sits atop a bluff with views extending, on clear days, some 50 miles south along the coast to San Diego. The menu features the freshest possible seafood, in preparations that often have Asian and Latin twists. Another “house”—Craft House—features a craft menu that changes seasonally. (You’ll find it near a landmark sign that marks the entrance to Dana Point’s Lantern District.) The restaurant’s menu gives innovative twists to familiar favorites, like a Caesar salad with a chipotle dressing and cotija cheese or a duck breast served with pickled green strawberries.
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    Day 4
    It’s time today to leave Dana Point and return home, though you still have time for one last look at the natural beauty of the Orange County coast—and get in a workout before the drive home or to the airport. With its calm waters and breathtaking setting, Dana Point’s harbor is a popular destination for stand-up paddleboarding, yacht yoga, and casual strolls, while Baby Beach is a good place to launch your craft. Hourly rentals are available, so you can spend as long as you want before you say goodbye, for now, to Orange County.