Four Hours: Vintage beach town Dana Point is awash in holiday lights

Sunsets, holiday lights and vintage beachfront shops in Dana Point Harbor
Sunsets, holiday lights and vintage beachfront shops are just a few of the things that make Dana Point Harbor a festive place to visit in December.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

It’s official: Dana Point, a little harbor wedged between Laguna Beach and San Clemente, is now the “Dolphin & Whale Watching Capital of the World.”

“There are other contenders,” admits Donna Kalez, co-president of Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whale Watching, “but we trademarked the name first.”

It’s a bit small-town corny, but that’s part of the charm of Dana Point Harbor, a 2,400-slip marina with restaurants, shops and a vintage, folksy feel.

During the holidays that homey feeling is especially strong, with enough lights on every tree, bush and pole to almost require sunglasses at night, plus the 45th Dana Point Harbor Boat Parade of Lights starting at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 6-7 and Dec. 13-14 and free boat rides with Santa around the harbor (although a $5-per-person suggested donation benefits the El Camino Real Junior Woman’s Club) between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Dec. 7 and 8.

Dana Wharf, the Ocean Institute and Capt. Dave’s Dolphin & Whale Watching Safarioffer two- to 2½-hour boat rides to see dolphins and whales. Gray whales migrate between Alaska and Baja November through April, Kalez said; blue whales visit in the summer and humpbacks, fin and minke whales visit year-round.

Want to spend the entire day in Dana Point? That’s where this itinerary comes in: If you take a morning boat ride, there’s plenty to do in the afternoon.

Noon Two of the marina’s most popular locally owned restaurants, Harbor Grill and Harpoon Henry’s, offer inside seating with marina views if the weather is cold. But we’re going to brave the elements and head to the tide pools, so make your way to Coffee Importers, a go-to eatery with so many offerings it flanks the stairs between the boardwalk and Mariner’s Village parking lot — sandwiches, bagels and smoothies on one side and coffees, pastries and ice cream on the other. If you have a hankering for portable fish and chips, try Jon’s Fish Market at the south end of the boardwalk.

A tide pool in Dana Point at sunset
Visitors enjoy the tide pool during low tide and a yellow sunset in Dana Point, Calif.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

12:30 p.m. Walk north along the boardwalk, toward the tide pools at the north edge of the harbor. The mile-long walk from the south edge of the harbor takes you past lots of bobbing boats, Baby Beach (especially suited for wave-shy toddlers) and the Ocean Institute (more about that in a minute), where you can admire a replica of the tall-masted trading vessel, the Pilgrim, that helped make Dana Point famous after 19th century author Richard Henry Dana Jr. chronicled his two-year trip from Boston to Dana Point, via the tip of South America, in his book “Two Years Before the Mast.”

1 p.m. Walk past the Ocean Institute to the tide pools, so you can take advantage of low tide (12:39 p.m. on Dec 7; otherwise check the surf forecast before you go and plan accordingly). Eat your lunch on a bench or rock and then do some exploring. If you want to get more steps in (and have sturdy-soled shoes), walk along the rocky jetty that turned Dana Point from one of the premier surfing spots in the country (known as Killer Dana) to a gentle marina in 1970.

The historic Pilgrim tall-masted privateer schooner is a replica of the trading ship that first brought Dana Point's namesake, author Richard Henry Dana, to its shores.
The historic Pilgrim tall-masted privateer schooner is a replica of the trading ship that first brought Dana Point’s namesake, author Richard Henry Dana, to its shores, in search of cow hides.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

2 p.m. Walk back to the Ocean Institute, a research and educational institute devoted to marine science and maritime history. Much of its work is focused on educating students from kindergarten to college but visitors can explore its instructive exhibits and animal tanks on weekends from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (last admission on weekends is 2:15 p.m.) It also offers special programs (such a guided tide pool tours on Dec. 8 and 22), its own whale-watching cruises and, on weekdays, 30-minute guided tours of its displays.

If the little nautical museum is open across from the Pilgrim, take a minute to learn about Dana Point’s early days, when ranchers threw their cow hides down the steep cliffs to sailors below, who had to load them into dinghies and row the three miles back to the waiting ships through 12- to 15-foot swells, according to volunteer tour guide Milt McMenamin.

3:15 p.m. Walk the half-mile back to Mariner’s Village, where the mostly locally owned stores offer the quirky combinations of merchandise so peculiar to vintage beach shops — locally made chocolates, English bone china and Beanie Baby toys (at the Chocolate Soldier), fuzzy monster slippers and exotic jerkies (at Jerky & Cali Gifts) or moccasins, Pendleton wool shirts and Native American jewelry and art (at the White Pelican).

Ship's masts silhouetted against the Dana Point Harbor sunset.
Ship’s masts are silhouetted against an orange dusk sky at Dana Point Harbor.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

4:30 p.m. Stash your booty in your car and then head back to the boardwalk for a sunset stroll, where the masses of holiday lights complement the spectacular show on the horizon: sunset.