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How to Enjoy Southern California’s Surfing…and Surf Culture
Surfing originated in the islands of Polynesia, but it was introduced to mainland United States on the beaches of Orange County in the early 20th century, when Hawaiian surfers demonstrated the sport for curious California audiences. While it took a while to catch on, a local surf culture had emerged by the 1920s and ’30s. With some world-class breaks and a mild climate year-round, the towns of Dana Point and Laguna Beach are among the world capitals of surfing culture.  

When you’re ready to hang ten, here’s an itinerary covering some of Orange County’s top surf spots—as well as places where you can experience its famous surf culture on dry land. Some beaches are ideal for beginners, while others are only safely surfed by more experienced athletes (but watching the pros master the most formidable waves can be as exhilarating as being on the water yourself). Along with surf sessions, this itinerary includes time to enjoy some of Dana Point’s and Laguna Beach’s best restaurants, and a well-deserved spa treatment at the end of your vacation by the sea.

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    Day 1
    Arrive Dana Point
    You’ll start your surfing weekend in a town that has a rich surfing history. Hobie Atler shaped the first foam surf board and opened the world’s first retail surfing shop in Dana Point in 1954. His innovations in surfboard design helped popularize the sport, as well as other water sports. Publications such as Surfer Magazine and Surfer’s Journal, both founded here, and the classic 1966 movie produced by Bruce Brown, The Endless Summer, helped increase interest through sun-kissed portrayals of the surfer lifestyle.  

    In addition to the beauty of its location on the California coast and its perfect climate, Dana Point also boasted the famous Killer Dana surf break up until 1966. The right-breaking wave here rose out of deep waters before breaking on rocks along the beach of then Dana Cove. Many of the legends of surfing traveled to Dana Point to conquer the killer wave (despite the break’s name, there’s no evidence of any surfers dying there). When the harbor at Dana Point was created, though, a breakwater was constructed that passed right through the break, thus taming it and sending the currents to Dohney Beach. This created an approachable wave that all can enjoy. 

    While Killer Dana lives on only in legend, Dana Point’s surf scene is thriving. You can stock up on any essentials you may need—as well as surfer fashion—at places like the Hobie Surf Shop, a local institution on the Pacific Coast Highway, or Killer Dana. Or for the experienced, you can have a surfboard shaped to your liking. 

    Then check into your hotel for the night. The 378-room Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa has an enviable location perched above the Pacific, extensive landscaped grounds, a 14,000-square-foot spa, and a lounge with ocean views—named, appropriately, OverVue. It also embraces a casual and friendly approach to luxury that’s typically Dana Point. Or choose to stay at the DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Doheny Beach, set on Doheny State Beach and just steps from one of Southern California’s most beautiful stretches of sand.  

    This evening, enjoy a dinner of fresh seafood at one of Dana Point’s many popular restaurants. Whether you’re in the mood for some fish tacos at a casual local joint or more haute cuisine, there’s a long list of options. Afterwards, get a good night’s sleep: Your California dreaming will be accompanied by the sound of the ocean surf.
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    Day 2
    Surf Doheny State Beach
    Spend today surfing the waves at one of California’s most popular beaches, which also happens to be the first state park beach, Doheny State Beach. It’s right outside your front door if you’re staying at the DoubleTree, and just a one-minute drive down to the ocean if you’re at the Marriott.  

    The swells here are famously gentle, making it an ideal place for kids and other beginning surfers. It’s also popular with longboarders. If you’re new to the sport, Girl in the Curl’s classes can help you learn the basics and have you up on your board and riding the waves with confidence before lunch.  

    Take a break from the sun and surf with some surfer-approved fare at lunch. A long list of the legends of the surfing world, including Hobie Alter, Lorrin “Whitey” Harrison, and Kelly Slater have visited El Patio Café, which opened in 1937 and is the oldest Mexican restaurant in Orange County. Order some tacos and tostadas and enjoy them in a dining room filled with surfing memorabilia. The history of A’s Burgers isn’t quite as long, but the namesake burgers, as well as the tacos and burritos, have been satisfying surfers since the 1970s.  

    Spend some more time at Doheny State Beach this afternoon. If you’re feeling more comfortable on your board, you may want to head to the part of the beach near San Juan Creek where a sandbar and reef help create somewhat stronger swells.  

    In the evening, you can explore some more of Dana Point’s surfing heritage on a visit to Waterman’s Plaza before dinner. A recently unveiled sculpture of Hobie Alter celebrates one of the most pivotal figures in the city’s surfing history, and it will soon be joined in the harbor area by the Surf Heritage and Cultural Center. Afterwards, dine at one of the area’s lively restaurants. The Harbor Grill pairs ocean breezes with fresh seafood prepared in a variety of styles. Over at Waterman’s Harbor, the tuna and oysters locally sourced, and two bars serve California (and other) wines, plus handcrafted cocktails.
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    Day 3
    Surfing at Strand Beach and Salt Creek
    This morning, head to Strand Beach, about a five-minute drive just on the other side of the point of Dana Point. Running along the ocean beneath a bluff, this beach is a favorite of local surfers. The waves are a little more powerful here than at Doheny State Beach, and if you decide you’d rather spend more time on dry land, this generally uncrowded stretch of sand has some tidal pools to explore.  

    Salt Creek Beach sits just north of the Strand, but before you get back in the water, stop for lunch. Raya at the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel overlooks the break at Salt Creek Beach, and serves a pan-Latin menu of dishes by Chef Richard Sandoval. If your visit falls on a Sunday, the restaurant’s champagne brunch is a favorite of both locals and visitors. (While you’ll only have lunch at the Ritz-Carlton today, the resort’s beach butlers and their surfing experience program makes it another good base to consider for a seaside holiday in Orange County.) A much more low-key option is Salt Creek on the Beach Burger, a low-key burger stand that sits (as its name implies) right on the beach. It’s about as casual as a restaurant can get, but the burgers are justifiably celebrated.  

    After lunch, take your board and head down to the sea. Salt Creek Beach is a long stretch of sand and has a few different surf spots offshore. The beach attracts everyone from beginners to pros—Pat O’Connell, star of Endless Summer II, learned to surf here. Locals can point you to the breaks that best suit your ability.  

    At the end of the day, take a 10 minute drive north along the coast and you’ll arrive in Laguna Beach, where you’ll check into the Surf & Sand Resort. This 167-room resort sits right on the sand, with outdoor common areas and ocean views. While the property faces the Pacific, it’s also close enough to town that you can leave your car at the resort and explore on foot, or via the free trolley.
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    Day 4
    Surf Laguna Beach
    Head out this morning to Brooks Street Beach, just a few blocks north of the Surf & Sand Resort. This is one of Laguna Beach’s best surfing spots, especially known for its left-breaking waves. Skilled surfers—with an emphasis on “skilled”—can ride it for nearly a quarter mile, at least on good days, before it crashes into the shore. Brooks Street is not for beginners; unless you’re at least somewhat experienced and comfortable on your board, you may want to sit on the shore and watch the pros.  

    For lunch, head to a nearby local favorite. La Sirena Grill describes itself as a “Mexeco” eatery— the “Mex” part refers to their menu of tortas, tostadas, enchiladas, and other Mexican dishes. The “eco” half is a nod to the restaurant’s environmentally conscious goal of minimizing the carbon footprint of everything they do. Slice uses the best ingredients available to create their celebrated pizzas, and there’s a rotating selection of artisanal beers from the owners’ favorite breweries. Slapfish serves a variety of comfort-food seafood favorites—tacos, ceviche, clam chowder, shrimp rolls, and more—in a no-attitude, casual setting.  

    In the afternoon, check out some of the other surfing beaches in the area like Rockpile and Thalia. You’ll understand the name Rockpile as soon as you arrive: boulders dot the beach here, forming a series of fascinating tide pools. As with Brooks Street, the surfing here is limited to those who are experienced, and swimming is prohibited. Thalia Street Beach, on the other hand, is the only beach in Laguna recommended for beginning surfers. Its gentle waves are ideal for novices, and it’s within walking distance of downtown.  

    Return to the Surf & Sand Resort by late afternoon to enjoy treatments at the intimate Aquaterra Spa. After several days of surfing, you’ve earned some pampering. Enjoy the eucalyptus steam room before choosing from facials, massages, and body treatments (which typically include a wrap and a focused massage).  

    Relaxed and sporting a healthy glow, you’ll be ready to dine out at one of Orange County’s top restaurants. Selanne Steak Tavern, owned by former NHL Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne, is located just across the street from your resort. You can order steak and favorite steakhouse sides in five different dining areas, like the cozy Wine Library or the outdoor Terrace. Harley serves small-plate American dishes in a mid-century modern dining room. Finally, it’s hard to find fresher ingredients than those served at Harvest restaurant—many are grown on the restaurant’s on-site gardens (others are sourced from local producers). The homegrown produce and herbs are then used to create masterful California cuisine-inspired dishes.  

    The list could go on: at Broadway, inspired by New York theaters, the dishes (and cocktails!) are the leading stars; Oak Laguna Beach serves rustic California dishes and handcrafted cocktails; and Ocean at Main celebrates California’s culinary and wine traditions in a stately building that was formerly a bank. (If you’re beginning to regret that this is your last dinner in Laguna Beach, you can always extend your trip beyond this itinerary’s five days.)
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    Day 5
    Depart
    While you will return home today, make time to head to Aliso Beach or Victoria Beach and spend the morning watching a sport invented in Laguna Beach: skimboarding. In the 1920s, lifeguards here used short planks of wood to ride waves that break too close to shore to be surfed. The finless boards allow riders to glide atop the waves. Laguna Beach is also the home of Victoria Skimboards, the first company to manufacture the boards and the sponsor of The Vic, the international, world championship skimboarding competition held every August. Skimboarding isn’t an easy sport to pick up quickly; start with a class, like those offered by the Solag Skim School

    Before hitting the road, have a final meal—perhaps a lunch at Lost Pier Café, located on the beach, at the former site of the Aliso Creek Pier. This landmark diamond-shaped pier was built in 1971 and became an extension of Aliso Beach for surfing, fishing, and experiencing the majestic Pacific. The perfect time to raise the topic of when you will return to Orange County’s beaches is when you and your travel companions have your feet in the sand as you enjoy one of their delicious poke bowls or burritos.