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Dana Point: the whale watching capital of the world

The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel is a luxe basecamp for land, sea, and culinary explorations

The Ritz-Carlton’s outdoor bar, 180blu
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We’re cruising the Pacific Ocean off Dana Point aboard a chartered whale-watching boat. Heading south, about a mile offshore, some of us are scouring each and every wave for signs of marine life. Off the port bow, I glance up, catching sight of a magnificent creature. Not a whale. There, on shore, is the regal Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel. The four-story, 396-room property overlooks the ocean from atop a fairytale-like seaside bluff. I’m booked in a sea-facing, club-level guestroom at this internationally lauded and recently renovated property. Flashback to last night: Feet up on the patio railing. Snug in a chair. Sipping Grand Marnier as the setting sun grows into a yellow fireball that slowly sinks into the watery blue horizon. 

A humpback whale breaches in sight of The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel
A humpback whale breaches in sight of The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel

The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel exudes iconic luxury. The spa is scented like jasmine and apple. Airy guestrooms are paired with marble bathrooms swathed with grey veining and hints of gold. Best of all, Ritz staff treat us like visiting members of a royal family. The resort has an onsite Eco-Adventure Center, manned by expert naturalists. They can set up guests with garden tours, tide pool exploration, and whale-watching tours.

The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel

Ahoy! Back to my two-hour cruise. This coastal region is one of four spots on the globe recently recognized as a Whale Heritage Site for having cultural ties and respectful interactions with the marine mammals. A successful 2019 trademark campaign also won Dana Point the right to be called “The Dolphin and Whale Watching Capital of the World.” But Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whale Watching, which is operating my excursion, has been in business for much longer — 50 years, to be exact.

Laura Lopez knows whales. She’s been an onboard guide with the outfit for four years. Last year, she says she went out on more than 500 trips. Lopez is a font of information. We chat about how whale watching is a year-round activity in Dana Point. During the summer season (May to September) you might catch sight of larger whales — like blues, fins, and humpbacks — heading south. During the winter season (December to May), gray whales tend to navigate through the area going northbound, often with calves in tow.  

While a whale sighting isn’t guaranteed, Lopez says 95 percent of all tours include dolphin (common and bottlenose) interactions. It’s estimated close to half a million dolphins live off the Southern California coast between San Diego and San Pedro.

Our group encounters a large pod of common dolphins. They seem to enjoy racing the boat and crisscrossing our path. We ooh and aah as cow-calf pairs do synchronized swimming and even breach together. There’s an abundance of cute dolphin moments. 

Twice, the boat slows down and whale-sighting anticipation grows. Alas, the captain cuts the engine both times to stop and skim mylar balloons out of the sea. We live vicariously through Lopez’s enthusiastic account of once seeing a pod of eight orcas, with a calf in tow, cruising near the southeast end of Catalina Island.

The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel
The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel

The Lantern District

It’s about two miles to the Ritz-Carlton from the charter boat drop-off spot at Dana Point Harbor. We disembark onto The Wharf to consider our tourista options. 

At the end of The Wharf, we’re beckoned by the casual vibe of Wind & Sea Restaurant. A patio server tempts us with the claim that the bar has mixed more than 3 million Mai Tais. Rather than become Wharf rummies, my wife and I decide to explore. Doheny State Beach is just to the south, but we opt to walk the inclined road that leads to the up-and-coming Lantern District.

Part of Dana Point’s Town Center, The Lantern District is in the midst of a revitalization. It’s pedestrian friendly. The shops, galleries, and restaurants are in growth mode. We pop into Coastal Kitchen. A historical landmark that dates back to the 1920s, the building is modernized and seems to attract locals. I get some kick from a lip-smacking, grapefruit-infused vodka mule.

And even though we didn’t see any whales on this day, we’re surprised to find elephants all throughout The Lantern District. Here’s why: The Elephant Parade, a social-awareness organization, stages exhibitions of decorated elephant statues at locations all over the world. The intent is to raise awareness for the plight of Asian elephants. We learn there are 50 colorfully painted elephants herded to various outdoor spots here in The Lantern District. We find nine. Beat that, Laura Lopez!   

Blue elephant statue from The Elephant Parade
A statue from The Elephant Parade

The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel

Whale watching and elephant hunting gives a traveler an appetite. After a day in the wilds of Dana Point, back at the Ritz there are culinary temptations that make you question why you’d ever consider setting foot off property.  

The Ritz’s renovation was completed in March 2021 and showcases an airy, state-of-the-art, coastal-inspired aesthetic. Everything pays homage to the Pacific Ocean. The on-property Raya restaurant is no exception. The eatery’s windows overlook that mesmerizing ocean view, while chef Richard Sandoval’s menu showcases a Pan-Latin cuisine starring sustainable seafood. A marvelous aspect of Sandoval’s seasonal dinner menu is that it’s both concise (one page) and varied (meat to fish to seafood). Standouts include a Piloncillo Shrimp appetizer candied with sweet, nutty flavored pepita. And, the Mariscos a lo Macho main course — the light stew with halibut, prawns, and clams — is seasoned “a lo macho,” that is to say, spicy in a “manly” way. I’m not making that up. 

The resort’s Bar Raya
The resort’s Bar Raya

The hotel’s exclusive Club Level Lounge has a huge culinary impact on our stay. The recent renovation doubled capacity to 47, adding cozy nooks and banquet seating. At the center of the updated lounge sits a large-scale, white marble island for house-made food presentations. Having access to the Club Lounge is like owning a VIP ticket to Foodie Disneyland. Continental breakfast is a smorgasbord of eggs, sausage, bacon, bagels with salmon and capers, fruit bowls, cheese plates, hard-boiled eggs, pastries, yogurt, oatmeal, three kinds of milk, and six different fruit juices. The light lunch includes four different platters of sandwiches and some vegan options. For light hors d’oeuvres there’s sushi, shrimp alfredo, and a full bar. For dessert time, the bar stays open and options such as pumpkin cheesecake and budino appear on the marble island. What am I forgetting to mention about the Club Lounge? Oh yes, the all-day glass jars filled with cookies, energy bars, and candy (taffy, Smarties, Tootsie Rolls, Nerds, Cow Tails…).

From top to bottom, the revitalized Ritz dazzles, as expected. My three unexpected trip highlights: Dancing dolphins. Parading elephants. All-day access to caramel-cream Cow Tails. 949.240.2000, ritzcarlton.com

Image Credits Whale: Photo by Craig DeWitt for Captain Dave’s Whale Watching; Elephant: Photo by Ron Donoho; All other photography courtesy of The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel

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