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TO THE POINT: The unbeatable view, beach access and fine service make this one of the more memorable Ritz-Carlton properties. The pros: seaside location halfway between LA and San Diego, well-informed staff, top-notch in-house bars and restaurants. The cons: Not everyone gets a room with a view, the pool was small and drab and the bathrooms are nothing to write home about.
Over the course of a week in July, I had the good fortune to stay at three different Ritz-Carlton properties in three different cities. The first stop was at the magnificent Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel, a seaside retreat on the bluffs overlooking Salt Creek Beach in Dana Point about 90 minutes south of Los Angeles. The complex boasts 396 guest rooms and six restaurants, bars and lounges. It feels like an estate or palace — but with crunchy California accents like gourmet to-go snacks for the beach and surf-themed artwork.
There should be no bad rooms at a hotel as esteemed as the Ritz-Carlton. That said, some spots clearly have superior perks. Better amenities include views of the ocean, the option for two double beds instead of one king-sized bed and plentiful square footage (the highest end exceeds 1,500 sq. ft). This is a Tier 4 property, which means you’ll need 60,000 Ritz-Carlton Rewards points to redeem a free one-night stay.
The new Ritz-Carlton Rewards Visa Card, which we reviewed here, wasn’t available when I was booking my trip, so I sought out the help of AAA — since I’m a member, I was able to get a discount of around 5%. I booked one of the less expensive rooms (i.e. no beach view) using my Chase Sapphire Preferred Card for $539 per night before taxes and fees (the starting rate would have been $567 per night without AAA’s assistance). If you want an ocean or coastline view, you have to shell out even more.
The final bill also included valet parking ($35; nowhere else to park), an occupancy tax of $53.91, a tourism assessment fee of $2.75, a $3 local tax and $30 in resort fees — per night — so my grand total for one night ended up being $663.76, and that doesn’t even include meals. By using my Chase Sapphire Preferred, I was able to earn 2x points on travel and dining (and 1x for all other purchases). If the Chase Sapphire Reserve had been available, I would have earned 3x points for travel and dining. I also snagged 500 bonus points just for following Marriott on Instagram.
Driving up to the sprawling complex is a treat: You know you’re close to the ocean — you can hear it and smell it — but you don’t really know how close you are until you turn left into the valet area and suddenly see sand and surfers in the distance. Valets approached the car quickly and seemed friendly, not harried or sweaty. They took my bulky luggage out of the trunk and to the reception area and gave me a receipt that did more than tell them which car was mine; it also explained how to text the valets to give them advance notice before you come down to pick up the car. As a result, I never had to wait for my rental to be brought around.
The front desk is located at the very beginning of a long and grand hallway framed by stately columns and marble floors. Light pours in during the day through the glass-filled doors.
The check-in area is decorated with white and green flowers in clear vases — opulent but tasteful.
There was no line when I entered, so I sauntered up to the check-in agent, took in the live feed of the nearby beach on four large TV screens (pictured below) and asked a lot of questions. There were two agents available who handily answered all my questions. Yes, Wi-Fi is free once you log in from your room. Sure, you can catch a shuttle that takes you straight down to the beach if you’re tired of walking or traveling with older folks. Planning to dine in-house? We can set up a reservation if you like. I booked a 7:00pm dinner for that night, and was glad I did when I saw others waiting to be seated later that evening.
The bellhop escorted me to my room, pointing out the bars, restaurants, gym, pool, beach and spa — being a seaside resort, there’s beach stone therapy, like the “beach comber” with salt scrub and the “marine facial” with seaweed and sea minerals, to stimulate the skin. He told me his name and remembered mine when I saw him downstairs later. That’s a nice touch you won’t see at all hotels.
It was 5:00pm, still sunny, and guests walked past us dressed for the beach in a procession of shorts, t-shirts and towels with a lingering scent of suntan lotion. During our labyrinthine walk, I noticed many spectacular views — a photographer’s dream — integrating palm trees, arched window frames and dappled light.
It was hard for me to not wonder what a beach-view room would have looked like (some rooms also offer personal outdoor fireplaces). As it happens, my room got plenty of light; it was just a few hundred feet from the pool.
The first thing I did, in fact, was walk across the room and open the doors of my mini-terrace to gaze out at… well, an all-weather chair and table set and no room for much else.
A small, no-frills terrace is better than no terrace.
Looking out directly in front of me were palm trees, bushes and a pool off in the distance.
The pool, located in a courtyard, is not unattractive, but there’s no view of the beach or horizon and it’s a bit on the small side. It’s shaped to wade in — no laps here. You can certainly grab a folding chair and have servers bring you drinks and snacks though.
All rooms come with the usual entertainment system: a 42-inch LED flat-screen HDTV with DVD player and free Wi-Fi. More important, to me at least, was that the room had a single-cup coffee machine. I need my java in the morning.
The bathroom wasn’t especially exciting — it’s not huge and it doesn’t have a scenic view, but it’s elegantly appointed and the marble feels luxurious.
The toiletries come from Asprey, a UK-based retailer founded in 1781 that’s been serving the royal family for more than 100 years. While they may be more famous for their jewelry (and silver and leather goods), the company also make soaps, shampoos, conditioners, emory boards, shaving kits, dental kits and emory boards — all of which come with the room.
Couples will be glad to hear there are two sinks — although the tub I got was no larger than what you probably have at home and was a combo unit with the shower. The toilet was located opposite the tub behind another door.
Food and Other Amenities
I had assumed there would be a wet bar (booze), plus snacks. No such luck. This Ritz-Carlton instead offers a few themed snack packages for sale between $30 and $300. The selection is effectively hidden on the top shelf of the food-and-drink closet, mounted as if part of some photo display, on a catalog page that looks like something from the 1970s. Would you know to reach for the glass thingamajig on the top shelf?
In lieu of a mini bar, the room offered themed menus like the “Night at the Movies” which is basically popcorn, Junior Mints and soda — for $35. Wait, $35 for that?
Happily, I was not charged for the water.
Not all Ritz-Carlton hotels offer so many activities and the selection here was actually overwhelming. In addition to the beach — and people do surf here — there are two swimming pools, two tennis courts and a full-sized basketball court, plus ping pong tables and a fitness center boasting yoga, pilates, Precor and Icarian equipment. The spa treatments have their own menu; book reservations in advance as the spa is only open from 9:00am to 5:00pm daily. And yes, you can arrange for in-room massages if you prefer.
As you’d expect at a resort known for its service, the room service is prompt and professional. I asked for my breakfast to be delivered at 7:30am and it was. The pot of coffee arrived hot, the fruit bowl attractive and ample and the yogurt indeed Greek style as ordered and not too sweet (though they have that too if you prefer).
Here’s something you don’t see too often: Not only is this a pet-friendly hotel, but the hotel also has a separate menu just for Fido. It’s not cheap but, as noted at the bottom of the menu, your pooch also gets its own bottle of Fiji spring water. No thirsty dogs here.
The views from the various bars and restaurants are so compelling that it’s hard to focus on the food and drink. The main attraction, located at the end of that long hallway where guests check in, is celebrity chef Richard Sandoval’s Raya, a pan-Latin, seafood-centric, lounge-like eatery open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Book in advance, especially if you want to catch the sunset — which is clearly prime time. All tables face the floor-to-ceiling windows, but not all are located right up close, so if that matters to you, consult with the reservationist — and good luck.
I was not the only one snapping photos during dinner. If you’re looking for postcard views, you’ve found them.
You can order small or large plate dishes at Raya. I opted for several small items, including two luxe-Latino mashups like lobster tacos and rock shrimp and bacon quesadilla (gussied up with manchego cheese, Tōgarashi chili pepper, green onion, cilantro, avocado crèma and a tomatillo-chipotle honey salsa), pictured below.
Carnivores and light-sensitive diners can go to enoSTEAK instead, a small steakhouse with lots of pricey wines, including classics like Screaming Eagle, Stag’s Leap and Opus One.
Thankfully, the hotel also hosts several small shops and places to grab portable food and drink so you can take it to the beach — like soda, chips, panini and other gourmet snacks.
While there are several areas serving alcohol — pools, restaurants and lounges — the must-visit spot is 180blũ, located on a terrace 150 feet above Salt Creek Beach. The joint was filled day and night. And the views were insane.
The view from the same bar at night swaps blue skies and green hills with yellow-lit walkways and purple mood lighting.
Plan your day and night wisely and you will experience the best of both worlds — California beach access and regal service from check-in to dinner. Ultimately, you get what you pay for, so decide if you need scenic views from your room or not. And the resort offers enough activities to please families traveling with kids — or a “posh pooch.”
Have you stayed at the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel? Share your experience in the comments, below.
Featured image courtesy of the hotel. All other photos are by the author.
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