I just came back from Dana Point, California, where I experienced something very magical called IlluminOcean. A massive lover of Christmas lights, I had a feeling I’d be memorized, but I actually underestimated the event’s enormity. Billed a “wonderland by the sand,” this new installation features 22 giant ocean-themed lighting sculptures with over 500,000 LED lights along a one-mile stretch on the harbor. It’s really the perfect outing for a family and seriously worth the trip. Kids can even wear 3D glasses for a holographic look.
Forty Nights of Lights
The “Forty Nights of Lights” is FREE and comes alive every night at sundown through January 4th. Sponsored by The Resorts of Dana Point, the attraction is made up of glowing dolphins, starfish, dragons, an octopus, a gigantic whale people can walk through the belly of and more. Some of the lit up sculptures even have sound effects, like Christmas carols. Even the palm trees glow in the night, with what appears to be icicles dripping from their treetops.
For this northerner, it seems crazy to celebrate Christmas in such a warm climate, but it really works. It was really fun watching the kids run from one sculpture to another, gawking and declaring one better than another to their parents, clearly enjoying the fantastical element of the experience. I have a friend who actually knows the guy who designed all the lights and installations – yes, he is a father himself so he knew exactly what would entice kids – and adults – alike!
Dana Point is hosting a number of holiday-themed events throughout the season, including Winter Wine Cruises from the harbor on a catamaran; boat rides with Santa; and the FantaSEA Holiday Boat Parade of Lights from 7:30 to 9 p.m. on Dec. 12 and 13 (there’s still time tonight and tomorrow!), where hundreds of boats line up and get decked out in full Christmas lights. It’s really an amazing sight.
The resorts also participate in the neon fun by featuring displays outside their entrances, and you feel the heart of the event all over town. The Ritz Carlton is hosting an annual Holiday Surfboard Display and Auction, raising money for a charity called Surfers Healing. Kids will love S’mores and Stories Under the Stars on Friday and Saturday nights Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort and Spa and the Gingerbread Academy at St. Regis Monarch Beach until December 21st.
Dana Point is located in Orange County. If you live in San Diego or Los Angeles, it’s close enough and totally worth the treat. Go catch IlluminOcean! Stay in a Dana Point resort and be close enough to walk to all the fun festivities.
I actually watched the Boat Parade of Lights while having dinner in a restaurant called Cannon’s, Seafood Grill, located on a cliff overlooking Dana Point Harbor. The view of the boats from above was surreal and we could see IllimiOcean all lit up in its glory. Their food is delicious, served in plentiful portions while using fresh ingredients. They have a big selection of fish and non-fish items. I munched on a field green salad to start followed by a mahi mahi topped with grilled wild mushrooms and a lobster reduction, alongside roasted garlic mashed potatoes and green beans. The food, combined with the views, as well as great conversation with Ciaran from Momfluential.com, was simply sublime. Cannon’s caters to families, as well, offering inexpensive kid’s meals with options like Fresh Fish, Crispy Chicken and a Hamburger for less than $10.
If you’re going for a few days, I have all kinds of suggestions on where to stay and what to do. Dana Point is a great destination for families. It’s a beautiful town, located all along the shores of the Pacific Ocean, with its harbor, shops, restaurants and proximity to Catalina Island. If you’re an adventurous family that likes to surf or go whale watching, you have full access by the water. The resorts offer hotel packages, Eco tours, family dining and 24/7, 365 days a year of sunshine and palm trees.
Where to Stay in Dana Point
St. Regis Monarch Beach is a Forbes five-star rated resort. The view from my room was gorgeous and my room was spacious and elegant. The resort has six ocean view restaurants, a private beach, three swimming pools, programs for kids, babysitting service and, get this, butler service. Being there during the holidays was a real treat. They have a beautiful tree outside by the pool (Magic Johnson served as emcee of the Tree Lighting ceremony recently), afternoon tea, a Gingerbread House Academy, Sunday brunch at the Motif restaurant, Photos with Santa and so much more for families. It’s a luxurious hotel that is Tuscan-inspired. While I was traveling without my kids on this visit, I enjoyed sitting on my private balcony, enjoying the sweeping views of the grounds all the way to ocean, a stroll in their Botanical Gardens and champagne at the bar.
Laguna Cliffs Marriott is my favorite choice for a comfortable, nautical visit to Dana Point. Its views of the Pacific Coast are dramatic as the hotel sits overlooking the Harbor. Every which way I looked, I was reminded of the area’s beauty, and I loved my room. Complete with Wifi, 250 thread count Frette Linen Beds and linens, soft robes, cable TV, a work space and California coastal décor that reflects the spirit of Dana Point, the room provided an immense amount of relaxation and the ultimate experience was tranquilizing. To top it off, the Marriott’s Spa offers customized treatments, which use organic orange extracts, coastal thyme, sea clay, mesquite honey, and wild marigolds. I had a one-hour massage that made me feel renewed and put me in a “So Cal” state of mind.
Other places to stay: the down to earth The DoubleTree Suites at Doheny Beach, perfect for drinks during sunset; the very posh The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel for the ultimate luxurious stay in Laguna Niguel with gorgeous views, an inspired spa and Raya, an amazing restaurant featuring food with Latin American influence by Chef Richard Sandoval. All resorts mentioned are a part of the IlluminOcean experience.
What to Do in Dana Point
Dana Point offers a lot of activities, and you’ll want to be on the water most of the time. I took a tour of the Ocean Institute, a non-profit marine science and history education center in Dana Point Harbor and learned about the Pacific Ocean’s sea creatures and plants. They offer immersion-based educational programs and summer camps for kids during the week and Marine Wildlife Cruises to weekend visitors. Weekend guests can also take a “Pirate” Adventure Sail aboard the Spirit of Dana Point, a rigged sailing vessel and a replica of a 1770’s privateer used during the American Revolution.
Furthering my desire to be near the water, I went Whale Watching with Captain Dave’s Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari, a 3 hour whale watching trip. It was a wild ride, taking us near dolphins, whales, sea lions and other marine life. Even on a warm day, your ride might be chilly so bundle up, take a bottle of water and snack, and get ready to see a lot of ocean life. After all, Southern California has more blue whales and dolphins and the best whale watching weather of anywhere on earth, or that’s they say!
Stop for a bite at Coffee Importers, a casual eatery in the harbor, offering Americana breakfast and lunch options under umbrellas with views of the sea. Get a simple bagel, salad, plate of eggs, panini sandwich, gourmet soup, bowl of soup or plate of hummus.
I also went on a bike ride (rented from Wheel Fun) along Doheny State Beach, starting from the DoubleTree and ending up in San Clemente, taking me on a 10-mile stretch of the beach. We passed surfers, beautiful hotels and apartments, tide pools and ended up on a pier in San Clemente with stunning views of the Pacific. It was out of control and such good exercise, a great way to wrap up two days in Dana Point.
If you’re looking for a getaway this winter, forget Florida. Think about a trip to Dana Point in Ocean County. You can fly your whole family out by finding reasonable airfares and booking something at one of the hotels mentioned above. The area is extremely family-friendly but also great for a couples or girlfriend getaway.
Disclosure: I went on press trip to Dana Point last weekend and received complimentary airfare, accommodations, a spa treatment, meals and activities to facilitate this article and others. As always, all opinions are my own.