Cruising The Southern California Coastline

By Zuzana Prochazka

Seven days and six great spots to visit on a weeklong cruise to some of Southern California's most popular harbors.

When we have a week to spare, most of us Californian residents make a beeline to Catalina, Southern California's boating equivalent of Disneyland. But if you're a new boater to the area and a shakedown cruise across 30 miles of open Pacific doesn't sound that enticing, or you'd rather take in the sights and sounds of SoCal, consider coastal hopping and getting to know a few familiar harbors. There's plenty to keep you entertained, and you might even recognize some of these star quality spots from the movies.

This cruise has some assumptions. First, we assume you've got a good weather window to get where you need to go, with a safety margin, as you don't have many options to duck in if the weather turns. Next, let's assume you'll start on a Saturday, in Marina del Rey, which has been Los Angeles' major boating hub since 1965 and has more than 6,000 slips.

Second, you'll be cruising on your 30- to 35-foot powerboat at 10-15 knots. I've done this trip on a sailboat at 7 knots but I tend to leave earlier in the day to give myself time to enjoy the harbors on the other end. Overnight anchoring outside harbors is not advisable in most places on the California coast, so you'll be tying up at docks or finding a harbor-based anchorage every night, far better than pounding all day through the Pacific swell, and then camping on an open stretch of water at night.

Day 1 — A Long Stretch

The first hop will be around Points Vicente and Fermin to Los Alamitos Bay, tucked in between Long Beach and Huntington Beach harbors. You'll be traveling approximately 30 nautical miles today, which is the longest stretch until you come back, and because you'll be heading south, it's unlikely there will be much swell. The key to this leg is finding the right line around Palos Verdes. Go too close to shore and you'll find a lot of prop-eating kelp, but stay too far out and you're likely to end up in the shipping lanes. The Long Beach/Los Angeles harbor complex is the busiest port on the West Coast, and there's lots of shipping traffic, so follow your charts, stay out of the lanes, and keep a good watch. Those freighters sneak up on you at 25 knots, and even if they don't have the right of way under the rules of gross tonnage, you'd be well-advised to stay out of their way.

Photo of Zuzana Prochazka at the helmAuthor Zuzana Prochazka at the helm.

Enter the outer Long Beach/San Pedro harbor via Queens Gate to get out of the swell and head for the Alamitos Harbor jetty. Alamitos Bay is very protected and mostly taken up with the municipal marina, private docks of the homes that line the harbor, and three yacht clubs including Long Beach, Alamitos, and Seal Beach. Here's a fun fact: The dock where you tie up to check in at Alamitos Bay Marina to request transient dockage was the shooting location for multiple episodes of the Showtime series "Dexter," which was supposedly set in Miami.

There's no anchorage inside Alamitos Bay but you can anchor behind what are called the "oil islands" outside the jetty. However, it's a long dinghy ride, so first try for a slip. If you belong to a yacht club, it will be easier to get a reciprocal slip.

If you left Marina del Rey midmorning on Saturday, you should be tied up in Alamitos around 2:00 pm. If you have a slower boat or a sailboat, leave earlier. It's a perfect time to stretch your legs and take a long walk around Naples, a quaint Venice-like residential area with an intricate maze of canals bordered by affluent homes and interesting gardens. For sunset cocktails, stroll over the bridge to the River's End Café on the beach. Waterfront restaurants such as Khoury's, The Crab Pot, Buster's Longboard Bar, and Joe's Crab Shack are just a short walk. The Boathouse is a new/old favorite (it used to be called McKenna's but is under new ownership) with great crab cakes and sushi.

Day 2 — To Beautiful Newport Harbor

The next morning visit the farmers market that is set up right in the marina parking lot from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. every Sunday. This is a great way to stock up on the week's groceries and snacks with fresh produce, nuts, pastries, smoked meats, and all kinds of artisanal honey and bread. Adjacent to the food stalls is an arts-and-crafts area where you can try on bohemian clothing or pick out handmade jewelry. Stop in at Schooner Or Later for lunch before getting out on the water for a run to Newport Harbor. West Marine is just next door, in case you're missing any vital boating items.

On Sunday afternoon, take a straight shot of about 18 nautical miles, past the Huntington Beach pier, down to the very scenic harbor of Newport Beach. The harbor's long entrance will take you past a small lagoon on the right where some of the beach cave scenes for "Gilligan's Island" were filmed back in the ‘60s. Limited transient dockage for boats up to 40 feet is available at the harbor-patrol building just ahead, or advance reservations can be made at one of the many local private marinas or yacht clubs. In a pinch, you can also request a mooring from the harbor patrol, or spend the night in the anchorage, which is centrally located in this amazing harbor, lined with homes currently or once owned by the rich and famous including Nicolas Cage and John Wayne.

Photo of Newport Beach HarborThe harbor at Newport Beach is a major boating center in Southern California. (Photo: David J. Shuler)

Newport Harbor is about three miles long and so picturesque it has no fewer than a dozen commercial party yachts that conduct four-hour weddings and corporate parties without ever leaving protected waters. A cruise on your own boat is a must-do before settling in for the night. There are also numerous "dock 'n' dine" restaurants that offer temporary dockage if you come in for dinner before berthing for the night. Docks are usually only available for diners and not overnight stays. Check out Woody's Wharf, Billy's (usually has live music), Rusty Pelican, The Cannery, or Bluewater Grill. For a first-class dining experience, try Balboa Bay Club's First Cabin, which may be able to arrange for a dock if one of the big boats outside is away from its slip. Try out the newly opened The Winery, which serves up award-winning contemporary Californian fare. It's a sister location to the original with a dock and much better view. Most of the harbor party boats leave from here and there's no space to tie up your big boat.

Getting around Newport Harbor is best by boat or dinghy. There are no water taxis and no real bus service. If you want to go shopping up to Fashion Island, which is a swanky mall about four miles away, you'll need to call a taxi or rent a bike near the Fun Zone.

Day 3 — Time To Explore

The next morning (Monday) drop the dinghy in the water and head to the Fun Zone to visit the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum to see some interesting model ships, and then a stroll around Newport's boardwalk complete with Ferris wheel. Check out the black-and-white photos at the Balboa Pavilion that show the early development of Newport Beach. Grab an ice cream and walk across the street to visit the beach and Newport pier. The afternoon is a perfect time to rent a standup paddleboard (SUP), a personal watercraft (PWC) or a kayak — all available at the Fun Zone.

Photo of the Balboa Island ferryYou can tie your dinghy to one of the public docks on Balboa Island for two hours or take the ferry to the Fun Zone. (Photo: David J. Shuler)

Photo of the Newport Beach Fun ZoneThe Newport Fun Zone will be a big hit if you have kids aboard.

Balboa Island is a showstopper if only for the three-mile walk-around. In the summer, you can tie your dinghy to one of the public docks (maximum two hours but they're not that strict) and stroll up Marine Street with its galleries, boutique shops, and tiny restaurants. This is also a great island from which to watch the annual Christmas Boat Parade, which has made the New York Times' list of Top 100 Things To Do. The parade of lights usually has over 150 boats and the parade runs for five nights before Christmas.

Day 4 — Pretty Dana Point

Continuing south on Tuesday morning, head down to Dana Point Harbor, about 14 nautical miles. Dana Point and Dana West yacht clubs, as well as the numerous marinas, offer transient dockage. There's also a small but very calm anchorage at the northwestern end of the harbor in front of the Ocean Institute. The harbor is divided by a bridge into east and west basins, and it is the SUP Mecca of SoCal, so beware when motoring around. You're likely to find a SUP yoga class being conducted right in the middle of the harbor.

Photo of sunset at Dana Point HarborSunset provides the best light for photographs at Dana Point Harbor. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Dana Point is compact and easy to get around. A brisk one-hour walk around the harbor perimeter will take you past the statue of Richard Henry Dana, Jr., the city's namesake and author of the seafarer's tale, Two Years Before the Mast, and The Pilgrim, a replica of the brig on which Dana sailed in 1834. Be sure to visit Turk's for a fish & chips dinner. The walls of this wharf bar and restaurant are lined with photos of Turk Varteresian, a strongman and movie extra who starred in 60 films and TV shows.

  • Photo of the statue of Richard Henry Dana, Jr. A statue of Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
  • Photo of Turk's restaurant at Dana Point Visit Turk's for fish & chips.

To really get some exercise, head west along Dana Point Harbor Drive, up Cove Road to Green Lantern Street and you'll get an aerial view of the whole harbor. Early morning provides the best light for photos.

Day 5 — Poking Around Long Beach

Wednesday morning will be a good time to start heading back north. Go early to avoid the worst of the prevailing northwest winds and afternoon swell. Today's run will be around 30 nautical miles back to a different section of Long Beach.

Phhot of a sunset sail in Southern California

Pull into Shoreline Marina and ask about dockage at one of their 1,800 slips. This downtown marina is convenient to many attractions so, if you're up for a good walk or a short bicycle ride, explore the kitschy shops at Rainbow Harbor, discover Shoreline Aquatic Park around Lions Lighthouse, and take in the winners' names embedded in the sidewalk at the Transpac Walk of Fame that honors the famous race from Southern California to Hawaii. It has been a SoCal spectacle every other year since 1906 and the next one is in July 2015. (Fun fact: In the movie "Jaws," Hooper claims to have crewed three Transpacs to establish his seagoing credentials before getting on Quint's Orca.)

Tonight, head up to Pike Street for a bit of nightlife among the many restaurants and hipster lounges. My favorite is L'Opera, which is always crowded so reservations are helpful.

Day 6 — So Much To See!

Thursday is a great day to pack in the tourist attractions, including the Aquarium of the Pacific where you can view 11,000 animals in 50 exhibits and get a taste for California's underwater world without ever donning a diving mask. In the afternoon, head over to the historic Queen Mary. She sailed between 1936 and 1967 until she became a museum and hotel here, thousands of miles from her birthplace in Southampton, England. For more nautical history, go next door to visit the Russian Scorpion submarine, unchanged since the Cold War.

Photo of the Queen Mary in Long Beach, CAThe historic Queen Mary dominated the transatlantic passenger trade for 31 years.

For a change of pace in the evening, I like to motor over to San Pedro in Los Angeles Harbor and the new Cabrillo Way Marina where friendly staffers are happy to find me a slip for the night. Here, you can also visit the Los Angeles Maritime Museum where exhibits include the history of commercial diving and the area's fishing and cannery heritage. The museum is near the restaurants of Ports O'Call Village so lunch or dinner here is a possibility. A relatively new exhibit is the USS Iowa, a 1940 battleship that opened as a museum and interactive exhibit just last year and is well worth a visit.

For this short five-mile hop, I never leave the protection of the outer jetty, but the scenery changes completely and the evening is likely to be very quiet. Drinks and dinner at the 22nd Street Bar & Grill are just a short walk away and most days, you'll be rewarded with a great sunset view.

Day 7 — People-Watching At Venice Beach

The week is nearly over so it's time to head out of Angels Gate and back around Palos Verdes into Santa Monica Bay toward Marina del Rey. Leave early to cover the 25-mile trek north, hopefully avoiding any snotty weather. If you get back in time, or have the full Saturday in your schedule as well, rent bicycles and pedal over to Venice Beach, the quintessential beach hangout complete with restaurants, the Muscle Beach gym, and possibly the best people-watching in Southern California.

By the end of the cruise, you'll have covered roughly 130 nautical miles round trip. Add to that another 15 miles of moving in, out, and around harbors, and that brings it to 145 miles or roughly 10 to 15 hours of cruising. It doesn't seem far to go in a week, but remember there's really no "sheltered" cruising in Southern California. As soon as you exit a harbor, you're out in the Pacific, so check the weather and sea conditions constantly, and be prepared to sit out a day and maybe a location, in case it's just too lumpy out there to be comfortable.

Getting around SoCal harbors is best done via boat or dinghy. Folding or full-sized bikes will serve you well if you have them. There is very little bus service, taxis are few and far between, and the only water shuttle is between Alamitos Bay and Rainbow Harbor in Long Beach. If you want to shorten the cruise due to weather or schedule, use this shuttle and do some of the back-end activities on the way south. That way, you can do a straight run back to Marina del Rey from Dana Point, but that will be a long day of 50-plus nautical miles. My advice: Do not miss Newport Harbor as that is a popular year-round destination for boaters as well as land-based visitors.

Even if you've visited these towns before, perhaps by car, arriving by water will provide a whole new dimension when seen from your helm and through your boater's eyes. 

Writer Zuzana Prochazka is a USCG 100-Ton Master, and has cruised, chartered, and skippered flotillas in many parts of the world.

— Published: October/November 2014

Count The Cost

Fuel: Available in Marina del Rey, Long Beach, Alamitos, Newport Harbor, and Dana Point. Expect to pay in excess of $4 per gallon for both diesel and gas.

Dockage: If you have yacht club reciprocity, you may get a free slip for a night. Most marinas charge $1-$2 per foot per night. Anchoring is free. Don't forget BoatUS members can get fuel and dockage discounts at various marinas. For details, go to


Newport Harbor Nautical Museum (ExplorOcean)
Adult $5, Senior $4, Ages 4-12 $3

Queen Mary Museum
Cost Depends On Tour Taken

Aquarium of the Pacific
Adult $29, Senior $26, Ages 3-11 $15

Los Angeles Maritime Museum
Requested Donation $3

USS Iowa
Adult $16, Senior $13, Ages 6-17 $8


Good To Know


Alamitos Bay Marina

Newport Harbor Patrol

Newport Harbor Nautical Museum

JetPack America

Dana Point Yacht Club

Dana West Yacht Club

Shoreline Marina

Queen Mary Museum

Aquarium of the Pacific

Cabrillo Way Marina

Los Angeles Maritime Museum

USS Iowa

Muscle Beach

BoatUS Service Locator


BoatUS Magazine Is A Benefit Of BoatUS Membership

Membership Also Provides:

  • Subscription to the print version of BoatUS Magazine
  • 4% back on purchases from West Marine stores or online at
  • Discounts on fuel, transient slips, repairs and more at over 1,000 businesses
  • Deals on cruises, charters, car rentals, hotel stays and more ...
  • All For Only $24 A Year!

Join Today!