Five-star resorts and local surfers
DANA POINT is home to some of Southern California’s most stylish resorts (St. Regis and Ritz-Carlton), but it’s steeped in locals-only soul. It’s a quiet, naturally beautiful enclave just past the beach bustle of Laguna with seven miles of coastal bluffs that include world-famous surfing hot spots such as Doheny and Salt Creek.
It’s named after author Richard Henry Dana, who wrote the 1840 novel “Two Years Before the Mast” and who described the area as the “only romantic spot in California.” The man-made harbor provides an excellent jumping-off point for marine adventures, including sailing and whale watching, while the town itself, with its many intriguing shops and restaurants, is still considered by locals as one of Orange County’s best-kept secrets. Many of the main streets are named for colors of lanterns, a homage to days when the streets were lighted with ship’s lanterns of colored glass.
This educational facility is open to school groups through the week and to the public on weekends, with access to natural tide pools, whale-watching excursions and onboard visits to a tall ship replica, the Pilgrim, docked at the harbor. On Sept. 6-7, it hosts the Tall Ships Festival, the largest annual gathering of tall ships on the West Coast. 24200 Dana Point Harbor Drive, (949) 496-2274; www.ocean-institute.org.
Killer Dana was a legendary surf break that drew a thriving community of surfers till harbor construction in the 1960s stilled the waters forever. The name lives on with the Killer Dana Surf Shop, founded by local surfers Gary Wright and Chris Andrews, who have also created an apparel line. The wetsuits outside are a sure indication the shop is staffed by die-hard local surfers. 24621 Del Prado, (949) 489-8380; www.killerdana.com.
Where the locals go
Renowned for hearty portions and extensive selection (it has a 10-page menu), Harbor House Cafe is a historic 24-hour diner (34157 Pacific Coast Highway,  496-9270; www.harborhousecafe.com) with walls and ceilings covered with vintage movie posters. Breakfast is served all day, and the huge omelets, with 25 varieties, have to be seen to be believed. For ice cream junkies, there’s a harbor-side ice cream parlor, Scoop Deck (34531 Golden Lantern,  493-7773).
Dana Point has enough five-star resorts to make it one of California’s culinary centers. Celebrated San Francisco chef Michael Mina’s Stonehill Tavern at the St. Regis Resort (1 Monarch Beach Resort,  234-3318; www.michaelmina.net) is American contemporary fare at its most notable, with its inventive first-course tasting trios a must. For wine enthusiasts, there’s the gleaming upscale ENO wine-tasting room at the Ritz-Carlton, with daily flights of wine, cheese and chocolate. For the novices, they host regular ENO-versity classes. (1 Ritz-Carlton Drive,  240-2000; www.ritzcarlton.com).
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