Go nose-to-nose with a bottlenose. Or plant your flag in a pirate cove. Dana Point, a hiccup of a harbor where ranchers once slid cowhides into sailing ships from the nearby bluffs, offers a range of family activities yet is quaint enough for a romantic getaway. The tab: A night at the Laguna Cliffs Marriott, with expansive views of the Pacific, set us back $500. Dinner for two, including wine, was $110. Whale-watching was $100 more. You'll save on gas, though: With decent traffic, this nautical play station is only an hour south of L.A.
The 378-room Laguna Cliffs Resort & Spa (25135 Park Lantern,  661-5000, http://www.lagunacliffs.com) is not in Laguna. It's on a sweeping expanse of lawn overlooking Dana Point Harbor, with dreamy views up and down the coast. This red-roofed Marriott property offers a full-service spa, stylish pools, tennis, surfboards, boccie ball, even free bicycles for a morning ride (doubles from $189 weekdays, more on weekends). It's a 10-minute walk from the harbor, so it may not be close enough to the water's edge for some. But the views make up for it. Far cheaper is the Dana Point Marina Inn, with rooms starting at $100 (24800 Dana Point Harbor Drive,  255-6843, http://www.danapointmarinainn.com). Same sky, same ocean are also available at Doheny State Park campsites, south of the harbor (www.reserveamerica.com), for $35 a night.
The recently opened Waterman's Harbor (34661 Golden Lantern St.,  764-3474, http://www.watermandp.com) features a variety of seafood in a casual but high-end setting with plenty of patio and balcony dining overlooking the boats returning from Catalina. My Hawaiian swordfish ($30) was smothered in a rich mushroom sauce. My son's Scottish salmon ($27) was even better, with a sweet Asian thump to every bite — the edges curled crispy, the center moist. Also impressive: a plate of oysters consisting of samples from Baja, Washington and Canada, served chilled from the raw bar. At Stacks, a popular breakfast emporium, low prices and high mounds of fresh hotcakes make for a good and tasty value (34255 Pacific Coast Highway,  429-2222, http://www.stackspancakehouse.com). Breakfasts from $5. Open 6:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Imagine climbing down below the surface of the sea to go eye to eye with seals and dolphins. That's what the Manute'a catamaran allows you to do (Captain Dave's Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari, 24440 Dana Point Harbor Drive,  488-2828, http://www.dolphinsafari.com; $59 for adults, $39 for children 2-12; kids younger than 2 free; reservations suggested). Plexiglass in the bow allows passengers to climb down beneath the water's surface for an aquarium view. On the good days, passengers can be so close to the mammals that they can hear their clicks and squeals. The novel perspective adds a fourth dimension to the usual Southern California whale-watching trip. Among the other family activities: a picnic in the little cove known as Baby Beach, where gentle waves, free parking and nearby barbecues make for an easy-breezy afternoon. In the background will be the tall-masted teaching ship the Pilgrim, a mainstay of school trips for generations.
The lesson learned
Much to do here in a compact space. There is access to Jet Skis and kayaks, charter fishing and day trips to Catalina. Unlike Laguna Beach just to the north, there are few crowds to deal with and everything is within walking distance. It's also a five-minute ride from historic San Juan Capistrano.
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