As someone born and raised in Southern California, it’s hard to imagine life without California beaches just a short drive away. And while there are plenty of beaches elsewhere in the United States, Southern California’s combination of perfect weather and rolling blue waves makes it clear why so many people come to the region.

One of the best ways to experience some of the best beaches state has to offer is a good old-fashioned road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway that starts or ends at Dana Point and Capistrano Beach. This home base is the perfect place to enjoy a luxurious, yet laid back, California beach town while getting in touch with nature before or after spending hours on the road.

The best things to do in Dana Point

Dana Point’s landscape is defined by cliffside views, and you can catch the best of them from up high on Bluff Top Trail. The trail is small — a 0.2-mile walk up a flight of stairs — but the reward is big. The view from the top is the perfect starting point for a stay in the area.

Whale watching and boat cruises at Dana Point

@captdaveswhalewatching Thousands of #dolphins stampede off #danapoint ! #dolphin #sealife #optoutside #socal #wildlife #marinewildlife #naturebeauty #fyp ♬ original sound – captdaveswhalewatching

Dana Point is also one of the only places in the country that has excellent year-round whale watching. On a recent trip, I was up bright and early to explore wildlife on Captain Dave’s Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari (get there early to find the dock and parking so you boat doesn’t set sail without you). While I didn’t spot any whales on this trip, I saw hundreds of jumping dolphins on the three-hour excursion, and the boat’s underwater glass viewing pods allowed me to see the majestic creatures underwater. However, be forewarned that the catamaran moves a lot when the waves are choppy.

If you’re looking for a more relaxed sail around the harbor, there’s the sunset wine cruise with Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whale Watching. This 90-minute evening excursion covers calm waters just around the harbor where guests can enjoy live music, wine tasting (I sampled six, with the option to buy a full glass or bottle of any favorites), basic small plate appetizers, and sunset views.

Surfing at Dana Point

Dana Point’s beaches are for more than afternoon lazing. Whether you want to interact with nature and wildlife or try your hand at surfing, boating, or water spots, the town is home to several beaches to take part. Surfing in particular is a huge part of Dana Point’s culture and history. The town is home to one of the first California surf shops, Hobie Surf Shop, which opened in 1954. And before the Dana Point harbor, surfers traveled far and wide to visit a surf break called Killer Dana that brought huge swells. Even though surfers can’t take advantage of Killer Dana anymore, there are still great place to catch waves at Doheny State Beach. If you want to learn how to surf, book a private lesson with Girl in the Curl surf shop right on Doheny State Beach.

Where to eat in Dana Point

outer reef restaurant in dana point, california

Photo: Olivia Harden

OverVue Lounge and Outer Reef

Two spots at Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort and Spa offer a chance for coastal scenery and world-class food. The hotel’s OverVue Lounge is an indoor-outdoor space that’s perfect for gazing on the green lawns and Dana Point Harbor while listening to live music and taking in the warmth from heat lamps and the fire pit.

The culinary star on the property is Outer Reef. Chef John Tesar, a four-time James Beard nominated chef and two-time Top Chef contestant, brings a California coastal take on the traditional steakhouse. There were only three types of steak on the menu on a recent visit, but truthfully that’s all you need. The stand out is the 45-day dry-aged 32-ounce ribeye. If you prefer seafood over steak, opt for the kimchi-glazed pacific halibut, which is served with a Korean kimchi pancake, crispy pork belly, and an incredibly bright and delicious sauce.

WhataDish Cafe

WhataDish Cafe is in an unassuming shopping center about a five-minute drive from Laguna Cliffs Marriott. The quaint cafe serves organic and sustainable choices ranging from omelets and Benedict’s, to brunch bowls and chilaquiles, to sweet options like muffins and a twist on French toast that uses bread pudding.

Coastal Kitchen

Whether you spend your morning lazing away or exploring all Dana Point has to offer, Coastal Kitchen is a beloved lunch spot in the Lantern District that locals and tourists alike enjoy for an elevated take of the relaxed Southern California lifestyle. In-season heirloom tomatoes, burrata, trout dip, and kale and spinach dip are all menu highlights (and don’t forget to order an accompanying cocktail).

Where to stay in Dana Point

There are plenty of great campsites along the PCH, but if you’re looking for something more luxurious, Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort and Spa is more than your typical beach hotel. It’s situated at the top of a cliff and has breathtaking scenery of the beach and surrounding golf course. A recent multi-million dollar renovation means the property feels brand new with modern (yet homey) rooms that pay homage to the resort’s hometown. Two outdoor pools, spa, bocce court, and ping pong means there’s never a shortage of things to do on the resort, while bicycle and surfboard rentals make it easy to get off the property. Yet even if you don’t take advantage of the various things on offer, there’s nothing like falling asleep and waking up to the sound of crashing waves.