It’s no secret that you’ll find some of California’s best beaches in Orange County. But the OC, which encompasses a bevy of coastal towns between Los Angeles and San Diego, offers many other ways to while away Southern California’s balmy days than just lying on the golden sand or surfing the curling waves.
Follow our itinerary to the OC’s Dana Point in search of whales and other marine life, excellent food and an incredible waterfront landscape.
For your two-day getaway, stay at Waldorf Astoria Monarch Beach Resort & Club. The sprawling 175-acre clifftop haven has long been a fixture in the area, but Waldorf Astoria took it over in February 2021, bringing the storied brand to one of the country’s best-known beach spots.
After checking in at the ocean-blue, white and gray lobby, head to the back wall, where glass doors open to the best view at the Dana Point hotel. The vast terrace looks out over tiers — AVEO Table + Bar’s alfresco veranda dotted with turquoise-and-white-striped umbrellas below, a sweeping white double staircase that leads to the pool and golf course beyond that, and finally, the Pacific blurring into the horizon.
You could stare at this spellbinding scenery all day, but the first activity awaits. The luxury hotel will set you up on an e-bike tour of the coast and San Juan Capistrano with operator Expert Active. Guide Danny Brown will meet you outside the Waldorf Astoria with cool RadRunner e-bikes, helmets and water, and quickly get you pedaling along the coast, pausing at picturesque points for photos and stories. You’ll breeze past Monarch Beach, Salt Creek Beach (popular with surfers) and Strand Beach (where you can glimpse Catalina) and learn about the area’s rich surfing history (including a visit to Killer Dana, the now-extinct revered surf break, and the first surf shop from now-well-known Hobie).
Brown will then take you a bit inland to San Juan Capistrano, a classic California community. You’ll ride past the Spanish mission, a landmark that’s considered the birthplace of Orange County, and along San Juan Capistrano’s quaint streets to admire the mission-style architecture and Western feel.
Next, you’ll cycle over to The Ramos House Café for lunch. Located on Los Rios, California’s oldest residential road, the small weathered wooden structure was built as a home in 1881. Today, it’s a rustic alfresco café with brick flooring, wood tables and overalls-wearing staff. The menu changes daily, but expect comforting, Southern-leaning brunch fare using organic, local ingredients — if you want to get a sense of how local, the strawberry guava juice used in the enjoyable mimosa came from the fruit tree out front. As far as food, the piping-hot cinnamon apple beignets rest in a pool of caramel and crème anglaise, offering a rich taste of fall. Be sure to order the crab hash with smoked bacon and scrambled eggs, a towering heap topped with crunch sweet potato strips.
Soon it will be back to the bicycles to work off some of that brunch. Brown will bring you to grassy Heritage Park, which offers beautiful panoramas of boat-lined Dana Point Harbor. Here, he’ll tell you about Richard Henry Dana Jr., for whom the town is named. Dana wrote Two Years Before the Mast, an 1840 memoir in which he called the area “the only romantic spot in California.”
After all of that pedaling, you’ve earned some relaxation time at the pool. There’s a family pool with a spray area, but the spacious Monarch Pool is the main attraction — it’s the one you spotted from 33 North, the lobby terrace. Gaze at the Pacific while you swim or head to the two infinity-edge whirlpools at the ocean end to get a closer look. Afterward, squeeze in a stroll around the lovely small sculpture garden between the Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed golf course and the pool.
For dinner at one of the best restaurants in the country, you won’t have to venture far. The hotel’s Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Bourbon Steak Orange County is a treat: it’s overseen by celebrated chef Michael Mina, and the attentive staff is knowledgeable, friendly and warm.
Instead of the obligatory breadbasket, the meal kicks off with a complimentary trio of Mina’s famous crispy duck fat fries with sauces. This will require a cocktail. The creative menu focuses on old- and new-school interpretations of classic 20th-century libations. Take the Hemingway daiquiri — the traditional preparation includes Havana Club blanco rum, grapefruit and lime juice, and Luxardo Maraschino liqueur, while the new method swaps in Ketel One Grapefruit and Rose, Velvet falernum, grapefruit and lime juice, and angostura bitters.
Among the appetizers, go for the ahi tuna tartare. The server finishes it at your table, whisking a quail egg and then mixing it with habanero sesame seed oil, diced Asian pear, pine nuts and tuna. Spoon some onto the toast triangles for a deliciously smoky bite. If you see the steak tasting on the menu, order it — our shareable plate came with tender strips of Delmonico, American wagyu and Japanese wagyu. The heavenly black truffle mac and cheese is a must-have accompaniment.
After the indulgent meal, retreat to your calming, white-and-pastel-filled room. A stay in the ground-level fireside terrace suite allows you to end the evening huddled in front of the cozy flames — though the cream marble bathroom’s spacious deep-soaking tub is a tempting option.
Begin the day with a light breakfast at AVEO. The So-Cal egg white bites with roasted peppers, spinach and jalapeño jack cheese get a burst of flavor from the chipotle crema (which we would slather on everything). Sit outside for the stunning pool, golf course and ocean backdrop.
Return to the harbor for a whale outing. Dana Point is the dolphin- and whale-watching capital of the world and the Americas’ first and only Whale Heritage Site (the designation, given out by the World Cetacean Alliance and World Animal Protection, recognizes destinations that support and demonstrate the importance of whales, dolphins and porpoises and their ocean habitats). You can spot the mammals (including fin, gray, humpback and minke varieties) year-round here, and the city boasts the first and longest-running whale festival, the Dana Point Festival of Whales (the 51st edition takes place March 5 and 6).
For your whale-watching excursion, you’ll board a Capt. Dave’s tour boat. Your captain and guide will keep the time between picture taking and whale spotting interesting, noting tidbits like how the anchovies and sardines in the waters are what attract so many birds (like the brown pelicans lined along the mile-long jetty out of the harbor) and dolphins.
Taking a break from searching the horizon for whales, you’ll enjoy a large picnic packed by the Waldorf Astoria, a great treat to sate you before your boat comes upon a neighborly pod of dolphins (we saw about 200 during our trek), majestic creatures who like to bob in and out of the water near the cruiser.
After an exciting day, unwind at Waldorf Astoria Spa, which debuted in June 2021. The spa feels natural and organic — the front desks are covered with wood, and white stones decorate the wall behind them. As you walk into the facilities, a wallpapered corner showcases rippled waves fronted by carefully stacked rocks that carry a spiritual significance among numerous cultures along sand shelves.
Choose the appropriately named Serenity Massage, during which an expert therapist will use circular strokes and Serenity Oil (an aromatic blend of jasmine, tuberose and sweet orange) from 111SKIN (the London brand has an exclusive partnership with the spa) to melt your stresses away. And while you could end the session in the sauna, steam room, skylit hot tub, adults-only outdoor lap pool or dimly lit women’s lounge, couples can clink glasses of Chandon sparkling rosé while sitting in the coed Tranquility Lounge’s semicircular sofa under the striking curved, wall-length sunset panorama.
Feeling refreshed, take the golf cart shuttle down to the Monarch Bay Beach Club for sundowners. Reserved for hotel guests and members, the tucked-away beach club puts you on the sand in big white Adirondack chairs warmed by inviting fire pit tables. Sip a Duke’s Old Fashioned — the OC spin on the classic cocktail adds local bourbon inspired by John Wayne (the actor grew up in SoCal and was nicknamed Duke) and a housemade IPA syrup — and watch the sun sink into the ocean.
For dinner, head down Pacific Coast Highway to Laguna Beach’s Selanne Steak Tavern, named after co-owner Teemu Selanne, an NHL Hall of Famer, six-time Olympian and former Anaheim Mighty Duck. The restaurant feels intimate with several smaller dining rooms — it’s a historic 1934 home.
Order the scarlet beet ravioli, a pastaless dish featuring roasted thinly sliced beets stuffed with herb goat cheese alongside a zesty side salad with diced golden beets, hazelnuts and candied orange. The buttery Pacific diver scallops with cauliflower and pickled shimeji mushrooms are a luscious follow-up.
Carnivores will be easily tempted into steak for a second night given the choices here, from a petite eight-ounce filet mignon to a massive 38-ounce Lord Stanley wagyu for two. Those looking to venture out a bit should inquire about chef Vincent Terusa’s new nightly special called “The Chef’s Cut,” which spotlights less well-known cuts of meats, like a succulent Brazilian picanha.
Whichever you choose, it will be a decadent end to two days in sun-soaked Orange County.