Dana Point: sails, sand and spouts

Times Staff Writer

San JUAN has swallows, Dana Point has gray whales. Their migration is in full swing and so is the city's annual Festival of the Whales.

The celebration is centered around the harbor named for Richard Henry Dana, whose book, "Two Years Before the Mast," predated Melville's "Moby-Dick." Both are seafaring epics, but Dana's is autobiography: the diary of a wide-eyed student who interrupted his studies at Harvard to sail from Boston to California on a tall ship, the Pilgrim.

It's a pre-Gold Rush account of life on the California coast as the brig sails from New England, loaded with goods to trade for tallow and hides in the West.

Dana's chronicle has never been forgotten: a statue of him stands in the town that bears his name and the look of his native New England, with Cape Cod-style houses perched high on cliffs overlooking the crashing surf.

Sunbathe, surf or swim

On warm days, visitors gravitate toward Dana's beaches. Longboarders and beginning surfers like Doheny State Beach's gentle waves.

So do families.

With green lawns and white sand, it's a scenic place to picnic and barbecue. Moms with young kids will want to push the strollers to Baby Beach, a sheltered cove near the Ocean Institute with warm, shallow waters and concession stands nearby.

Seek the gray whale

On weekdays, groups of students in big yellow school buses crowd the parking lot at the Ocean Institute, but on the weekends its doors open to the public. Visitors find it an ideal spot to explore everything about the ocean from the habits of the gray whale to the tiniest creatures in its tide pools. Plan a whole day of educational fun for the family. Tour a replica of the Pilgrim; see the privateer, Spirit of Dana Point, set sail; or take a whale-watching trip embarking from the institute, Dana Wharf Sportfishing or other locations in the harbor. Check the institute's Web site for details on tours and whale-watching excursions: www.ocean-institute.org. And don't miss the gift shop for books, videos, games, toys and stickers, all with deep-sea themes.

Shop

There are shops galore in Dana Point Harbor. Three mini-malls are linked together: Dana Village, Mariner's Village and Mariner's Alley. Many sell the typical tourist stuff -- resort wear and T-shirts with goofy sayings -- most with a nautical slant.

But there are hipper and nicer goods if you know where to look. At Hot Lava you'll find decorator items in trendy island motifs, like a perfect-for-your-next-party bamboo bar with black Tiki masks on the front.

There are also Hawaiian items, including flower-print bedspreads and welcome plaques that read "Mahalo! Please remove slippers, but don't take mo' betta ones when you leave."

White Pelican Jewelry displays a sea of silver and turquoise in traditional Native American and contemporary designs. They also sell soft calfskin moccasins and clogs with colorful beading or silver accents.

The Catalina Seashell Co. has small baskets of shells to delight kids, but search around for decorator accents for your home, such as giant speckled cowries or huge glass fishermen's orbs.

At Raj Parfumerie you might just snag that hard-to-find scent, like Lagerfeld. And at the Chocolate Soldier you can choose an exquisite china teacup to take home, or just satisfy a sweet tooth with their dark chocolate truffles, pecan turtles and other confections.

Food with a view

The Pacific provides a backdrop to just about anywhere you go for a bite in Dana Point Harbor.

For a magnificent view, follow a steep path up Cove Road to Overview Park. Stop at the gazebo to catch your breath and take in a panoramic scene.

Look over your shoulder and see the green cliffs where, in the old days, tanners tossed cowhides to waiting ships below.

Head for the terrace at Cannons, where you can toss back a margarita, followed by steak and seafood at bargain prices in the lounge during happy hour. Or have a leisurely dinner at fancier prices in the ocean-view dining room.

If you've only got time for a quick bite, try Jon's Fish Market with fresh-catch specials, fish and chips and smoked salmon, swordfish or yellow tail to take home.

Early birds will find big breakfasts and lunches at Proud Mary's, where they serve granola pancakes, breakfast burritos, burgers, sandwiches and hot dogs.

If a continental breakfast is more your style, stop at the Coffee Importers for scones, sticky buns and pastries as well as espresso drinks.

Festival of Whales

The festival will be in full swing Saturday with the 10th annual Wag-a-Thon, a fund-raising event, from 7:30 a.m. to noon, benefiting the Animal Rescue Foundation of Dana Point. Dogs will compete for prizes in best pet trick, best costume and other categories. Frank the Pug from "Men In Black II" will be the furry celebrity guest.

Other Saturday festivities include: sand-sculpting instruction at Baby Beach; Little Dolphin Day/Kid Care activities such as a magic show, crafts, clowns and body painting; and live music at Harpoon Henry's and the Jolly Roger courtyards from noon to 3 p.m.

A special meet-the-artist exhibit by George Sumner will be held both days at the Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort.

The festival continues Sunday with a pancake breakfast, the Taste of Dana Point Harbor food-sampling bash, an art show and sale and other events. Log on to www.festivalofwhales.org or call (888) 440-4309 for a full schedule.

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Dana Point

Doheny State Beach

Pacific Coast Highway and Dana Point Harbor Drive

Dana Village

Dana Wharf Sportfishing, 34675 Street of the Golden Lantern, (949) 496-5794

Jon's Fish Market, 34665 Golden Lantern, (949) 496-2807

Hot Lava, 34671 Golden Lantern, (949) 661-8300

Proud Mary's, 34689 Golden Lantern, (949) 493-5853

Mariner's Village and Mariner's Alley

The Chocolate Soldier, 34513 Golden Lantern, (949) 493-4135

White Pelican Jewelry, 34475 Golden Lantern, (949) 240-1991

Catalina Seashell Company, 34511 Golden Lantern, (949) 487-0013

Raj Parfumerie, 34487 Golden Lantern, (949) 489-2962

The Coffee Importers, 34531 Golden Lantern, (949) 493-7773

Ocean Institute, Brig Pilgrim and Spirit of Dana Point privateer

24200 Dana Point Harbor Drive, (949) 496-2274

Baby Beach

Dana Point Harbor Drive between Ensenada Place and Cove Road

Ken Sampson Overview Park

Santa Clara Avenue and Street of the Blue Lantern

Cannons

34344 Street of the Green Lantern, (949) 496-6146

Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort

25135 Park Lantern, (949) 661-5000 or (800) 533-9748 (reservations)

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