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The remarkable beauty of the Ritz-Carlton's Dana Point location is what sets this luxury resort apart. Situated high atop a 150-foot bluff, the four-story Mediterranean-style hotel, set on 18 acres of well-tended grounds, commands a view that is breathtaking; it literally stops you in your tracks.
The finest place to watch the sun set over the Pacific? The winning vote can't help but go to the private balcony of an ocean-view suite at this Ritz-Carlton.
Lift an iced glass brimful of a perfect Martini and gaze out over palm trees to the ocean. When the sun dips below the horizon and the cocktail has been drained, you may descend to the Ritz Dining Room, where a light dinner or a lavish multicourse feast await your pleasure. Later the wood-paneled library beckons: savor a snifter of Hine Triomphe and a fragrant Zino Mouton-Cadet No. 4 while watching the lights twinkle along the shoreline.
On clear days, Catalina Island can be easily seen from your hotel window. Beginning in January, you might spot a gray whale on its annual winter migration to Mexico. And rain or shine, you'll watch wetsuit-clad surfers knifing through the waves on Salt Creek Beach directly below the hotel's terraced gardens.
The Laguna Ritz celebrated its tenth anniversary in 1994. All 393 guest rooms have been redecorated in luxuriant fabrics and soft pastel colors. Accommodations range from fine to palatial; the hotel's three Crown Suites are located on corners and feature wood-burning fireplaces and private dining rooms. Guests on the exclusive Club Floor, accessible from the elevator with a special key, have a private salon where drinks are served and five buffet-meal presentations, ranging from breakfast to after-dinner cordials, chocolates and petits fours, are offered daily.
True to its heritage, the Ritz has a richly appointed formal dining room, but there's no haughty attitude here; instead, efforts are made to accommodate guests with a variety of tastes and cravings. Dining Room Chef de Cuisine Fabrice Canelle offers an imaginative daily food-and-wine-pairing menu of five or seven courses, along with a fixed price menu of two courses ($38), three courses ($46) and up to seven courses ($67).
The resort's Club Grill is decorated in English hunt-club style, accented with fine eighteenth- and nineteenth-century paintings of hunting and racing scenes. A trio and vocalist perform nightly. Grilled meats, including a buffalo steak with violet mustard sauce ($30), are popular entrées on the à la carte menu.
The hotel's Terrace Restaurant, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, opens onto an attractive trellised patio where meals are served throughout the year, weather permitting (in Southern California, it usually does). The Terrace has a wide-ranging menu. Even at dinner, you can munch happily on a fat club sandwich with homemade potato chips ($10) or banquet more formally on fresh oysters ($11) and a miso-blackened whole Louisiana catfish ($18), complemented by a bottle of Babcock Vineyards 1991 Sauvignon Blanc, 11 Oaks Ranch ($40).
Cigars may be enjoyed on the resort's outdoor terraces and in the library, where afternoon tea, evening cocktails and after-dinner drinks are served. The library's selection of Sherries, Ports, cordials and digestifs includes Dow Vintage Port 1963 ($20 a glass), Blandy's 1954 Bual Madeira ($13) and Delamain Très Vénérable Cognac ($30). A limited array of cigars is offered in the library; the gift shop's humidor has a wider selection.
The hotel's superb 30-page wine list, developed by Master Sommelier Emmanuel Kemiji, director of Food and Beverage Julien Carralero and Beverage Supervisor Ted Chappell, is both broad and deep. (Six bottlings of Krug Champagne, including the Clos du Mesnil Brut Blanc de Blancs 1979, $350. Sixteen dessert wines, including Chateau Nairac 1981, $30. Two Pinot Gris from Oregon. A half dozen California Sangioveses.)
The hotel hosts an annual World of Food and Wines festival on a weekend in mid-November. The resort is equally well-known as the site of an annual Gentlemen's Smoker, an event launched in 1989 by former general manager and cigar maven Henry Schielein. This $350-per-person dinner features an elaborate menu accompanied by well-chosen wines and, of course, an array of fine cigars and digestifs.
The seventh annual Gentlemen's Smoker will be held on March 23. But don't despair if you're booked; on April 19, the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain will hold its first international Smoker, in conjunction with Cigar Aficionado magazine, at all the Ritz-Carltons around the world, including Laguna. Mark your calendar.
-- Jean T. Barrett writes on wine, spirits, food and travel and lives in Los Angeles.
The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel
33533 Ritz Carlton Drive
Phone: (714) 240-2000
Fax: (714) 240-0829
Room rates: double: $215 to $355; double with ocean view: $415
The Ritz-Carlton Club: $275 to $475, suites: $500 to $2,750