In Dana Point, a kids' marine scene

In Dana Point, a kids' marine scene
Jellyfish mesmerize an Ocean Institute visitor. (Irfan Khan / LAT)
"Mom, I see a boy!" My daughter's shout drew me to the sliding door of our hotel room.

"What?" I replied, looking down to a deserted, rain-spattered pool deck.

"Not there," Kyla said, "there." She pointed farther out into the night, toward the ocean. "I can see the red light."

I squinted and could just make out a glowing speck in the darkness. Ah, a buoy.

My daughter's excitement was contagious one Saturday last month. Despite a late start because of a storm, we finally had arrived at the Doubletree Guest Suites in Dana Point for a three-day weekend. A fire flickered at a Doheny Beach campsite across the road, the buoy winked in the Pacific and room service soon would deliver our dinner of clam chowder and Caesar salad. More good things were ahead: visiting the Ocean Institute's new $16.5-million marine education and research facility, sailing on an old-fashioned tall ship and combing the beach to see what the storm waves had tossed up.

The next morning, our gamble on the weather paid off. I opened the drapes to blue skies.

Our gamble on a budget-priced hotel paid off too. On the Doubletree Web site I had found a nightly rate of $62 (plus tax and $13 for parking), low enough to give me pause. And upon arrival, my suspicions seemed confirmed when we were given a room that was a humid 80 degrees. No amount of coaxing could keep the air conditioner working.

But the front desk staff proved courteous, sending up a bellman to move us into a room with a functioning air conditioner and an ocean view. The bedroom and bathroom were compact, and the furnishings were a bit worn around the edges. But the separate parlor, a godsend when traveling with a child, more than compensated with its microwave, refrigerator, sink, TV and VCR.

Sunday morning Kyla and I lingered over hot chocolate and warm bread -- microwave cooking at its finest -- before setting out for Dana Point Harbor, a five-minute drive.

Dana Point is named for Richard Henry Dana Jr., author of "Two Years Before the Mast." He sailed from Boston in 1834 on the brig Pilgrim, bound for California to trade manufactured goods for cattle hides and tallow. Dana Point, then called Capistrano Bay, was on the ship's trading route.

The harbor and town don't show many signs of those old days. Two marinas have slips for more than 2,400 yachts, and luxury homes are perched atop the cliffs from which ranch hands threw bundles of hides to sailors on the beach below.

We stopped for brunch at Harpoon Henry's in Mariners Village, a collection of restaurants and shops by the harbor. I enjoyed my scrambled eggs, muffins and fruit, and Kyla liked her cinnamon-vanilla French toast. Our booth overlooked rows of boats, kayakers paddling between the slips and white sails gliding out to sea. It was a million-dollar view for $17.23.

Ocean Institute aquariums

The Ocean Institute is less than a mile away at the other end of the harbor, an easy walk except for 7-year-old legs. We drove.

The institute opened its Ocean Education Center in October. Weekdays the classrooms are filled with students. But on weekends the facility opens to the public for tours of classroom laboratories, including new aquariums. More than 10,000 gallons of seawater are home to small sharks, black sea bass, bottom dwellers such as brittle sea stars and other colorful life.

My daughter has loved fish since she was too small to pronounce their names, so we had high expectations. Then we saw the sign at the door: "Tours canceled today."

Apparently a car had plowed into the center's power generator the night before. The driver disappeared from the scene, but the Ocean Institute's fish did not get off so easily: During the blackout, the tanks couldn't filter the water and regulate the temperature as usual.

By Sunday morning, power had been only partly restored, and the classroom aquariums were off-limits while staff administered fish first aid. (The institute reported no casualties.)

Kyla and I were able to explore lobby exhibits about underwater archeology in the sunken city of Port Royal, Jamaica, and about ice probes that one day might be used on Jupiter's moon Europa. Kyla didn't pay much attention to the display of 17th century pewter plates and pirate cannonballs, but she liked operating the magnetometer that demonstrated how divers find metal artifacts buried on the ocean floor.

We left for an even more appealing exhibit, the Ocean Institute's full-size replica of Richard Dana's Pilgrim. The brig, fully operational but usually moored as a living-history classroom, holds a free open house most Sundays. With Kyla leading the way, we clambered up to the helm, then to the tight quarters below decks.

Some of the Ocean Institute's vessels do go out on the water. The calendar of cruises includes trips to see marine wildlife during the day or bioluminescence at night. (Visitors also can join Capt. Dave's Dolphin Safari; the popular Dana Point catamaran operation, not affiliated with the Ocean Institute, looks for dolphins and whales.)

We chose a three-hour tour on the Ocean Institute's other tall ship, the Spirit of Dana Point. Capt. Sully motored us out of the harbor. John, a crewman in a striped T-shirt and cloth cap, divided passengers into teams to raise the sails.

"When I say 'heave,' you say 'ho' and pull hard," John instructed.

Our ship soon was scudding along in a breeze. Capt. Sully gave each child a turn at the helm, and John played a ukulele and sang silly songs and sea chanteys. I leaned back to enjoy the sun on my face and the roll of the waves. Eventually we lost the wind, so the captain switched on the engine to return to harbor.

After soup for me and a kid's sandwich for Kyla at the Brig Restaurant, we shopped at Mariners Village and rounded out the evening with a girls' night in the hotel. We watched "The Princess Diaries" (brought from home) on the VCR and painted each other's fingernails.

Monday was a holiday, so we had the luxury of swimming in the hotel's small pool and relaxing in the spa before breakfast in the Doubletree restaurant. After checking out, we went to Doheny State Beach, a five-minute walk, across PCH.

Kyla enjoyed the visitor center, which features aquariums and an artificial tide pool full of real critters, such as sea stars and hermit crabs. I had brought a falcon-shaped kite, which we assembled but couldn't keep from divebombing into the sand. A passerby with two kids showed me how to tug on the kite's string to flap the falcon's wings every time it began to lose altitude. Kyla raced off to play with her new friends while I swooped the kite below gulls and pelicans.

Our last stop was for lunch at the nearby Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort's Regatta Grill. The view of lush lawns and azure ocean was spectacular, as was my crispy-skin salmon. Kyla was content with a grilled-cheese sandwich. We peeked into one of the guest rooms, refurbished in the resort's recent $10-million renovation. It was luxurious, but our suite at the Doubletree was bigger, and better for my budget.

I still think back to when, as we watched the sun sink past the yacht masts at Mariners Village, Kyla held up two dandelions and said, "Make a wish, Mom." I did. And with any luck, we'll be back in Dana Point soon.

Budget for two

Actual expenses for this trip:

Doubletree hotel, Two nights, parking, tax $162.74

Brunch, Harpoon Henry's $17.23

Tall-ship cruise, Spirit of Dana Point $55.00

Dinner, The Brig Restaurant $11.58

Lunch, Laguna Cliffs Marriott $26.07

Admission, Doheny State Beach $3.00

Gas $14.19

Other meals $43.27

Final tab $333.08


Doubletree Guest Suites Doheny Beach, 34402 Pacific Coast Highway, Dana Point, CA 92629; (949) 661-1100, reservations (800) 222-8733, fax (949) 489-0628,

Ocean Institute, 24200 Dana Point Harbor Drive, Dana Point, CA 92629; (949) 496-2274,