Making Waves At The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel

A mom goes from surf widow to wave wahine learning to ride the rollers with the resort’s learn-to-surf program.

Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel

View from the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel. Photo: courtesy Ritz-Carlton

On my honeymoon, I realized I had made a big mistake.  I had allowed my new husband, a surfer, to plan our trip to Costa Rica.  As we bounced down rutted dirt roads to rustic surf breaks, I accepted the bed roll I had made for myself and in my bridal bliss, embraced the experience as a big happy adventure.

Fifteen years later (have I mentioned I still don’t hang ten) I’m done.  Don’t get me wrong.  If you’re going to be a widow of some sort, a surf widow is a good choice.  Who can argue about being abandoned at beautiful beaches on sun-baked shores?  But after years of staying at dive motels where the breakers came first, I’m finally learning to surf — and I am doing it in style — through the So Cal Surf Package offered at the Five Diamond Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel. When we arrive at sunset, my husband, who had surreptitiously checked the online surf forecast and found it flat, reassures me that on this trip he will be the one on the sand.  As I am relishing this role reversal, we pause at the picture window opposite the elevator on the way to our room and catch sight of a continuous ribbon of swell lines rolling onshore below – and I hear Doug sigh deeply.

As he struggles with his inner wave demon, I give him my best martyred nod of approval to hit the surf.  In truth, I’m looking out the window at the inviting terrace patio bar, 180blũ , an oceanfront lounge with a  panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean.  While my husband heads for the waves, my kids, 12 and 9, and I head to our own little slice of paradise on the terrace. And as I spy my husband hit the beach below, I think this sure beats a plastic ice bucket filled with beers, cokes, and a can of nuts.
Later, my family — including one salty, happy husband — head to the Ritz-Carlton’s signature  restaurant, Raya, and savor  a meal that simultaneously introduces my kids to fine dining and spoils my ability to ever serve fish sticks again.  Raya’s Pan-Latin Coastal Cuisine uses sustainable seafood, local produce, and organic meats to create dishes that are eclectic and also delicious without being pretentious.  After dinner we relax on our room’s oceanfront balcony overlooking the grounds of the Ritz and watch the moon’s reflection on the flat sea.  I secretly wish on a star for the ocean to be as calm when my daughter and I have our lesson.

Wish Granted

The next morning, the ocean gently caresses the shoreline.  We meet our instructor, Chris Williams, at a classic beach shack in nearby Dana Point and carry our boards three blocks to the break at Thalia Street.  I’m given a wide, blue foam board that while it’s light enough to lift easily, my arms barely wrap around the edges.  By the time we paddle out, my biceps are already aching.


A dolphin surfaces to join our lesson just as Chris is explaining how to catch a wave.  I lay flat on the board, watch for a set, and then furiously paddle.  As the water surges beneath me, Chris gently shoves my board and I’m suddenly thrust in front of the kinetic energy propelling the wave and me toward the shoreline. I grab the rails, steady myself, and with a “hop” of faith, plant both feet on the board.

With my arms stretched-out wide for balance, I straighten my legs and for a few seconds, I’m Kate Winslet on the Titanic, triumphant and on top of the world.  I spy my guys on the shore and attempt to wave.  Bad idea – I lose my poise and pummel into the water.  I surface with a smile, grab my board, and paddle out for more as my daughter flies by on her own wave.  We repeat this routine and my Titanic moment grows into longer rides. In between, I rest outside the break of the waves where the ocean remains glassy.  A couple glides by on stand up paddle boards and onshore the cliffs reflect the dusty orange and bronze of the setting sun.  Relaxed and happy, I absorb the beauty of the ocean experienced from a surfer’s perspective and begrudgingly acknowledge the captivating appeal this mistress has on my man.

Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel Coastline

Surfer's perspective of the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel. Photo: courtesy Ritz-Carlton

Back at the hotel, as my aching arms (ignored in the exhilaration of my surf session) are gently kneaded by a masseuse at the Ritz-Carlton Spa, I realize my infatuation with the Magic Fingers beds found in the dumpy roadside motels from our surf travels was overrated.  Feeling completely refreshed, I later linger in my plush robe and soak in the luxurious serenity of my surroundings, while the tranquil water features of the spa lull me into a hypnotic repose.  I reluctantly leave only when I realize I am famished.

We order room service for the kids and head to Eno, the resort’s intimate and elegant tasting room and delight in a trio of my favorite flavors: wine, cheese, and chocolate.  Flights of each arrive with freshly baked breads and amuse-bouche like quince paste, Spanish Marcona almonds and Mediterranean style olives.

On our final morning, the family heads down to Salt Creek Beach located below the Ritz-Carlton.  We get a lift to and from the sand on the resort’s stretch golf cart.  As Doug and the kids head into the surf, I settle into the sand, assume my usual position with book in hand, and watch the action from the sideline.  I look forward to getting on a surfboard again, but as I watch my family play in the shore break, I admit to myself that as long as they are with me, I’m content whether on the sand or in the sea. But I’m not about to let on; not as long as a weekend like this is my payback for playing the role of a suffering surf widow.

Latest posts by Gretchen Newcomb

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