In Southern California, Skip the Road Trip, Take the Boat Trip

Make a splash with these four water-friendly routes through Southern California.

Surfers carrying boards on beach at La Jolla Shore, San Diego

San Diego is home to miles of coastline—and a huge bay for exploring.

Photo by Sebastien Burel/Shutterstock

With scenic highway vistas and drives galore, California is an ideal state for road-tripping. But the southern part of the Golden State is also known for a (mostly) Mediterranean climate, which means exploring by sea is also a fine option. While you can’t float the whole way, you can spend the majority of a trip basking in the sun and splashing in the Pacific Ocean surf. Here’s your four-day itinerary for navigating SoCal in a whole new way.

Day 1: Long Beach

Skip the chaos at LAX and fly straight into Long Beach Airport (LGB), one of Southern California’s less intense airports. It’s located three miles northeast of downtown Long Beach (and about 22 miles south of LAX).

Long Beach is an easily walkable city and also impressively watersport friendly. If you’ve ever had ambitions to be an aquatic adventurer, Belmont Shores is an appealing spot for kitesurfing and windsurfing, and Captain Kirk’s Water Sports offers lessons and rentals for both total newbies and more experienced enthusiasts.

For those who are more about sightseeing, Harbor Breeze Yacht Charters and Cruises offers some of the area’s best whale watching excursions. The city is home to the Venetian-style Naples Canals, inspired by the waterways of Italy (and an alternative to L.A.’s Venice Beach). For those looking to spark some romance, Gondola Getaway offers traditional cruises that include a professional gondolier, free corkage, and complimentary photos.

Where to stay

Book now: Broadlind Hotel

Continue the cozy vibes with a night at the historic Broadlind Hotel, one of the city’s designated historic landmarks in the East Village Arts District. The property’s 20 newly renovated, eco-friendly rooms feature an apartment-style layout with full kitchenettes, cookware and utensils, and private baths, while the building retains an Old World European aesthetic.

Overhead view of harbor on Catalina Island

Catalina Island is an hour from the mainland coast of California but feels more like somewhere in the Mediterranean.

Photo by LA Nature Graphics / Shutterstock

Day 2: Catalina Island

Long Beach also offers easy access to California’s “Mediterranean getaway”: Catalina Island, just 22 miles from the coast. Head to the city’s port and board a high-speed ferry to one of two destinations: Avalon, the island’s only incorporated city, or Two Harbors, the rustic village at the Isthmus of Catalina.

If you’re looking for a bustling vibe with options for entertainment and nightlife, Avalon is your best bet—you’ll be able to snorkel among the Garibaldi at Casino Point Dive Park and check out a variety of clothing boutiques and restaurants. If a serene, rugged landscape is your speed, head to Two Harbors. The Dive & Recreation Center rents equipment like snorkel and scuba gear, kayaks, and stand-up paddleboards. Anyone opting out of the more active pastimes can sit back at Harbor Sands, a restaurant and picnic area that features beachfront dining and lounge chairs, and take in the scenery or enjoy a tropical cocktail from Harbor Reef Saloon. Catalina Express has plenty of departures to both locations each day, and the one-hour commute is typically sunny, scenic, and spacious.

Where to stay

Book now: Hotel Metropole

For a truly lavish overnight experience, shake off the sand and luxuriate at Hotel Metropole, located steps from the beach at Avalon and close to its fun hot spots. The oceanfront mini suites offer panoramic sea views, and the 1,800 square-foot beach house has a full kitchen, two-sided fireplace, and expansive living and dining rooms.

Dolphins at Dana Point

Dolphins and whales are often spotted in the warm Southern California waters.

Photo by Sofiia Dorsey / Shutterstock

Day 3: Dana Point

It’ll be tough to tear yourself away from Catalina’s offerings, but if you hop back on the ferry and head to Dana Point (instead of Long Beach), you’ll find a slew of quintessential SoCal amusements on the water like paddleboarding, sailing, whale watching, and more. (If you’re driving, you’ll need to pick up that car back in LB.)

Located on the southern edge of Orange County, the seven miles of beach and breaks have been legendary in the surf community since the 1950s. Doheny State Beach is a great place to learn your way around a board, so if you’re a beginner, consider signing up for lessons at Girl in the Curl or Blue Bus Surf. Another attraction of Dana Point is the year-round whale and dolphin watching. With a large concentration of blue whales and dolphins, the area is known for some truly spectacular sightings. Captain Dave’s Dana Point Whale Watching and Dolphin Tours offers private boat safaris, and Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whale Watching was Orange County’s first dedicated marine mammal sighting company.

Where to stay

Book now: Waldorf Astoria Monarch Beach Resort & Club

The best bet for a unique, cozy stay: Blue Lantern Inn, an elevated bed-and-breakfast with plush amenities and impressive ocean views. Those seeking a seriously luxe experience may want to head about two miles north toward Laguna Beach and stay at the Waldorf Astoria Monarch Beach Resort & Club. Located at the top of a 150-foot seaside bluff, the 175-acre property has nearly everything a sophisticated traveler could ask for, from a private beach club to an award-winning golf course.

A San Diego beach viewed from top of cliff

If you’ve never picked up a surfboard, there are few finer places to learn to surf in the continental U.S. than Southern California.

Photo by Samuel Ramos/Unsplash

Day 4: San Diego

A boat- and board-themed SoCal trip wouldn’t be complete without a final stop in San Diego. Just an hour south of Dana Point by car (you’ll need to venture out of the water for the commute, but there are numerous rental spots a five-minute Uber ride from the harbor), San Diego might well be Southern California’s coastal pièce de résistance, with seaside activities for all ages and skill levels.

Surfing and paddleboarding reign supreme, with plenty of inviting spots along the county’s 70 miles of open ocean coastline. Black’s Beach in La Jolla is renowned for its waves, and even nonsurfing spectators will love Trestles, the site of the annual World Surfing League contests. One of the best ways to take in the sights is, of course, by boat, and there’s no shortage of eclectic options. The narrated SEAL Tours (which take place on hybrid buses/boats known as “amphibious vehicles”) hit all the famous points of interest, like the U.S.S. Midway and Shelter Island. Sailing fans will want to book a spot on America’s Cup Stars & Stripes USA-11, which offers three-hour excursions all around San Diego Bay. Round out the trip with a kayak lesson from Aqua Adventures in Mission Bay.

Where to stay

Book now: Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa

Escape to the hacienda-style Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa for the night, before drying off and heading home. The resort features botanical gardens and poolside cabanas for truly chill days, and a rotating calendar of events (like the Mexican spirit–inspired Agave Fest) for memorable nights.

Michelle Konstantinovsky is a San Francisco–based freelance journalist, marketing specialist, and ghostwriter. An alum of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, she’s written extensively on health, body image, entertainment, lifestyle, design, and tech for outlets such as Vogue, Scientific American, Wired, Medium, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Teen Vogue, and more.
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