39 of the best things about the next 104 days

We parked across the street from the hotel in the coin-op public lot to avoid the valet-parking scene, strolled inside and headed for our tea party. The dťcor is what you'd expect when the telephone reservation hostess replies, "Two o'clock is just grand. You will be sitting in the library." The library kinda looks like your stuffy grandfather's parlor, if your stuffy grandfather had a ridiculous view of the Pacific.

There are actual books in this library, but most of them are encyclopedias. They look old and unread. A pianist tinkles nearby; when not in the restroom, he plays light jazz. The walls are wood-paneled with brass fittings, and a 4-foot model of an old wooden schooner squats in the center of the floor. Two oil paintings of Kid Rock line the back wall. No, that's a joke: the paintings are of grim-looking aristocrats. Couches abound, and three tiny tables sit adjacent to a huge window overlooking the beach below. At a few hundred feet up, the expansive ocean view is stunning.

Now for the tea. There are only three menu selections: the traditional and Pacific teas, at $30 each, and the royal tea, $35, which throws in a Kir Royale, fresh strawberries with cream and the beheading of any peasant you desire. I had the traditional tea, selecting the "Ritz-Carlton Blend" as my tea of choice. No single-malt, this tea was a blend of five different teas. Together, they combined on the palate for a smoky, deep-forest flavor that smelled a lot like Deep Woods Off! bug repellent. Surprisingly, it was not unpleasant. My companion ordered the "Special Tea Blend," which had a very floral bouquet with strong notes of jasmine and oolong. She loved it.

Thirty bucks should include a hell of a lot more than tea, and it does. The food arrived all at once and looked to be about four bites, total. Don't have high tea on a low stomach.

But those four bites were exquisite. A terrific egg and chive salad bejeweled with diced tomatoes was poised on what looked like a soggy communion wafer the size of Shaq's thumbnail. That, unfortunately, was the largest bite. Bite No. 2 took care of dill cream cheese adorned by tiny cucumber slices atop a tease of white bread. That was also fantastic. Bite three was a salty veneer of smoked salmon resting on a pumpernickel crumb. Not the best. Some sort of Lenten hoagie followed as well, featuring a perfectly crunchy asparagus tip nestled within a swatch of ham no bigger than a dangling earring.

A few dessert morsels followed the heartier fare, almost all of them wonderful —in particular some sort of almond and chocolate mousse doughnut concoction. The fresh strawberries were ripe and bulging, although each berry's bitter-tasting pith (that's the white center just under the stem) was not removed. At around $6 a bite, one might demand such things.

Nevertheless, all of those morsels added up, and by the time the check arrived, we were no longer hungry. Smiling, sated and poorer, we walked out into the afternoon sun. 1 Ritz-Carlton Dr., Dana Point, (949) 240-2000.

BEST SAMPLER You won't find the waspy surf crowd here—dudes sporting the standard salon-spiked hair and Hawaiian silk shirts with surgically reconfigured chicks in tow. This amicable stone-floored, hangar-sized, ballsy beer house caters deft brews to inland menfolk wearing their favorite button-down or T-shirt preserved since high school—because, um, because they don't give a damn, by God. And, as always, the women outclass their male counterparts, wearing tight, silky tops and clingy skirts, sitting coyly amid beer bellies and microbelches. The waitresses don't have practiced smiles or silicon shelves, working the room with genuine hospitality and corn-fed figures. Order the Sample Set ($5.25), an initial excuse to get lugged-up on five 5-ounce tasters of inevitably fine house brews. Or go for a Golden Spike light ale (pint, $3.50), a malt-fermented, crispy treat. Tustin Brewing Company, 13011 Newport Ave., Ste. 100, Tustin, (714) 665-BEER.

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