Last Updated on December 13, 2023

It’s all part of the magic of Christmas. Despite the holiday being intrinsically linked with festive elements of icy conifers and cold temperatures in a wintry wonderland of snow, you don’t need the trappings of the North Pole to get into the Christmas spirit.

Look no further than the charming beach community of Dana Point to capture a milder, but equally sentimental, version of this most blessed season. Holidays at the Harbor is a wonderful way to get into the spirit of holiday fun.

Festive decorations were everywhere as my husband and I drove into town from San Diego, just an hour south.

You have to believe that a village with streets named Golden Lantern, Copper Lantern, and Sea Bright Drive is going to do Christmas right. Nowhere was this more evident than in Dana Point’s historic harbor area. Palm trees, buildings, and lush tropical vegetation were brilliantly lit in a spectacular display of holiday lights.

Holiday Lights Cruise in Dana Point

Holiday light displays in Dana Point Harbor.
Holiday light displays in Dana Point Harbor. Photo by Michael Kompanik

We came to enjoy the Christmas Holiday Harbor Holiday Lights Tour – one of our annual Christmas traditions.

Hosted by the Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whale Watching Company, it’s a pleasant, relaxing, hour-long tour in the harbor filled with watercraft of all sizes and types. The restaurants and waterfront were gaily decorated and lit along with a dazzling promenade for holiday revelers to enjoy.

Dana Point Harbor was the ideal location for this excursion. Protected on three sides by a towering palisade of cliffs, the basin is the singular naturally protected harbor in all of Southern California.

The harbor is a mecca for specialty shopping, fishing and whale watching excursions, water sports, transportation to Catalina Island, and a variety of eateries to satisfy every taste from small cafes to finer dining.

Our vessel was one of several dockside festively lit, her brightly-colored Christmas lights outlining the superstructure. The 30 or so guests on board were a mix of locals, couples and families including visitors like us and even out-of-towners from as far away as New Jersey and Boston here to enjoy a milder, more benign version of Christmas. 

A cash bar offered champagne, beer, and white wine along with platters of Christmas cookies set out for all to enjoy. Many of the folks came dressed in holiday attire with Santa caps and headpieces along with a few of those infamous Christmas “ugly” sweaters. The night was calm and so mild we never donned our jackets.

Live Christmas music was provided throughout the cruise with a variety of seasonal songs from old classics to more modern holiday tunes. The children on board got into the spirit of things, surrounding a lowered microphone where they belted out several Santa melodies like “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “Frosty the Snowman.”

Our cruise slipped past the moored vessels, many decorated in the spirit of Christmas. On one tight turn, we passed close by a group of sea lions resting on a floating pier – our music enjoined by this boisterous choir with their “arrf! arrf! arrf!” cries almost in rhythm to the carols. They certainly were a big hit with the youngsters!

The tone of the cruise experience was perfect, an ideal blend of festive celebration along with a relaxed ambience to take in the eye-catching sights far removed from some of the usual holiday madness. The clear night sky came alit with stars and the calm waters reflected the colorful splashes of light from all decorated boats, buildings, and trees, adding a special magic to the evening.

Colorful Dana Point harbor boats lit up for holidays.
Colorful Dana Point harbor boats lit up for holidays. Photo by Michael Kompanik

After the cruise, guests can experience the magnificent light displays of “Happy Harbor Days.” The vibrant light displays are free to enjoy with themed exhibits including a giant whale sculpture, lighted palm trees, a giant beach ball ornament stack, and the popular “Merry Kiss Me” arch consisting of over 700,000 sparkling LED lights.

Throughout the holiday season, enjoy live music, visits with Santa, waterfront restaurant offerings, boutique holiday shopping and more.

Dana Point Holiday light cruises will continue on the following dates in December: 15th, 16th, 21st, and 22nd at 6 pm. Reservations are highly suggested.

Happy Harbor Days however will continue through mid-January.


  • Noreen Kompanik

    Noreen Kompanik is a retired registered nurse, legal nurse consultant and military spouse turned travel writer. She launched her travel writing career in 2014 and has over 1,000 published articles in a variety of digital and print publications.