Well, I’m totally in the Christmas spirit after seeing a fabulous holiday lights display in Orange County, California! It’s the first year of Dana Point Harbor’s IlluminOcean installation, which features 22 ocean-themed light creations. The lights began on November 26, 2014 and you can still see them through January 4, 2015 every evening starting at 5 pm.
IlluminOcean at Dana Point Harbor runs from November 26, 2014 – January 4, 2015, from 5-10 pm on weeknights and 5-11 pm on Fridays and Saturdays.
The Resorts of Dana Point decked out the harbor with over 500,000 LED lights sculpted into wonders of the sea. That’s right: Leave it to awesome southern California to illuminate underwater ocean favorites like the Little Mermaid, dolphins, whales, crabs, octopus, and shark. Even the palm trees are dressed up with lights to look like ocean kelp!
My personal favorite is a toss-up between the octopus with a Santa hat and the Santa crab! This is just another one of the many reasons why I adore you, southern California.
The lights are so cute and fun! And the experience is so much better than being freezing cold looking at your traditional Christmas lights display with Santa and his elves. (Don’t get me wrong, I still love you cold-weather cities and your holiday light displays…I just don’t like being freezing cold!) IlluminOcean has some traditional Christmas-y things lit up like a huge Christmas tree and it also has light tunnels that stretch as far as my eyes could see.
This is a fun family-friendly activity or even a fun date night for you and your significant other. And while you’re hanging around Dana Point, you might as well make a weekend of it. Here’s my take on some great things to do and places to stay in Dana Point:
What (else) to do
1. Captain Dave’s Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari boards at Dana Point Harbor and is an amazing opportunity offering guests an up-close experience with dolphins—and if you’re lucky, a whale or two as well.
I just learned that Dana Point calls themselves the whale-watching capital of southern California, so there’s another reason! There’s even a glass-enclosed area under the boat that allows you to basically sit eye-to-eye with the cute, little creatures.
2. Coffee Importers has a seaside patio that overlooks Dana Point Harbor. It’s a great place for a sandwich and soup or coffee during the day. You can also come here for some hot chocolate at night while here for the IlluminOcean lights.
3. The Ocean Institute is a non-profit marine science and maritime history education center open to the public on weekends from 10 am – 3 pm. Visitors can participate in lab activities and view sea creatures (my favorites were the jellies!), or venture out to sea on marine wildlife cruises. Guests can also sail aboard one of the institute’s two tallships, the Pilgrim and the Spirit of Dana Point.
Tip: The Ocean Institute has several programs that allow kids to be the crew on the ship. Kids learn about life at sea in the 1830s and practice raising the sails!
Where to stay
1. The St. Regis Monarch Beach has 400 guest rooms, three saltwater pools (that’s right, saltwater pools), six oceanview restaurants, a spa, and a golf course. Oh, and let’s not forget the hotel’s private-access beach, Monarch Beach, that can be reached by golf cart. This is a true getaway in southern California. While the hotel isn’t right next to the harbor lights, it is a quick shuttle ride away. This hotel and the others listed below have shuttles that run every 20-30 minutes from 6-11 pm while the holiday lights are open.
Tip: As you may know, each St. Regis has a one-of-a-kind signature Bloody Mary. This property has a good one, so it’s important to start your morning off right with the Agave Maria Bloody Mary (made with Reposado tequila as opposed to vodka)!
My room overlooked the hotel, pool and ocean as well as the festive holiday tree and Christmas lights in the middle of the property. While I loved my comfy bed and balcony, I think I loved the bathroom a little bit more.
The natural colors and natural light were calming and luxurious to the extent that I wanted to stay in the bathtub all day and night!
I recommend having dinner in the hotel at Stonehill Tavern, Michael Mina’s restaurant that serves American cuisine with seasonal dishes and contemporary twists on classic tavern dishes.
Tip: Most amazing dinner item on the menu: Jidori chicken with truffle mac ‘n’ cheese, broccoli, cipollini onion and sweet onion jus. Most amazing dessert item on menu: molten chocolate cake with sea salt caramel. I’m typically not a huge chocolate cake fan but let’s just say there was not a crumb left on my plate. I promise you will not be disappointed!!
2. Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa has 378 guest rooms, 15 suites, two outdoor heated pools, and a spa overlooking the 2,500-yacht-slip Dana Point Harbor and 10 miles the beach. It’s the closest hotel to the IlluminOcean lights, which is only about a 10-minute walk away or an even quicker shuttle ride.
I brought my parents here last year because I love everything about this hotel. The guest room has a comfortable, beachy feel to it and my mom liked it so much she didn’t want to leave the room. I finally convinced her to move when I told her that my dad and I were walking to the beach, just a short walk down the bluff.
My dad loved the breakfast in the morning at Vue. He ordered the breakfast buffet and liked everything that he sampled (which was just about every item!). On my most recent trip here, I ordered the three-egg quesadilla and, yes, ate almost all of it.
Tip: Local southern Californians and hotel guests flock to the free yoga class that happens in the front of the hotel overlooking the water. It’s available daily from 10-11 am and as I watched it, I could clearly tell there were people of every skill level present. Whether you’re a local or a hotel guest, you have to be present for this!
3. The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel,with 396 guest rooms and 29 suites, sits atop a 150-foot bluff. It’s an absolutely beautiful property and has two ocean view restaurants, enoSTEAK and Raya by Chef Richard Sandoval. Raya was the highlight of my trip here with its pan-latin coastal cuisine. Chef Sandoval serves sustainable seafood, local produce and natural and organic meats with Latin flavors.
On a final note, the Doubletree Suites by Hilton Doheny Beach is close to the lights by shuttle as well, but they’ll be going through a major renovation set to be complete by November 2015. Next year this property may be worth checking out as well!