In the 1950s, the surf scene in Dana Point was as hot as it got. “Killer Dana,” a right-breaking wave that swelled to 12 feet, attracted hordes of surfers. Hobie Alter sold his popular foam boards in a little shop on Pacific Coast Highway, not far from where Bruce Brown would later produce the seminal surf film “Endless Summer.” A breakwater destroyed the famous swell about 1966, and activities such as boating, whale-watching and stand-up paddleboarding now dominate the harbor area. The Orange County town, halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, makes for a delightful overnight getaway, especially in March, when gray whales head north. The tab: $211, including tax and parking, for two for an overnight stay, and $128 for meals.
We booked the DoubleTree Suites because of its location across from historic Doheny State Beach. Although our third-floor room had nice features, the ocean view we were promised was obscured by palm fronds. All was forgiven when we got a late checkout of 1 p.m., allowing time for another walk on the beach. We had fun watching a group of youngsters, who we later learned were enrolled in a surf school called Girl in the Curl, catch their first waves.
The harbor is endlessly entertaining, packed with pleasure boats with groan-worthy names such as Sea Vu Play, lobstermen unloading their catch and barking sea lions. After walking for what seemed like miles, we didn’t have the energy to return to the hotel to clean up before dinner. With sand between our toes and no reservation on a busy evening, we scored a table at popular Waterman’s Harbor, which specializes in sustainable, area-sourced seafood. Lunch the next day was at the Shwack Beach Grill, a locals’ favorite with a surf-shack vibe and good burgers and tacos.
Dana Point’s new trademarked slogan — “Dolphin & Whale Watching Capital of the World”— may involve a bit of chest thumping. But there’s no question that proximity to deep offshore canyons makes this part of the California coast superb for viewing Pacific grays on their epic journey from Alaska to Baja and back. The city has several good whale-watching outfits, but my favorite is the nonprofit Ocean Institute, which offers trips aboard the 65-foot research vessel Sea Explorer. Lead captain Mike Bursk is an old hand at finding grays and — when he’s lucky — the elusive blue whale, the largest animal on Earth. Be sure to check out the Ocean Institute’s fine replica of the sailing brig Pilgrim, immortalized in the memoir “Two Years Before the Mast” by Richard Henry Dana Jr., after whom Dana Point is named.
THE LESSON LEARNED
The original Hobie surf shop, where Hobie Alter mass-produced boards out of lightweight polyurethane foam, is long gone. But a new location two blocks away has an interesting display of historic photos and a board-shaping room in back.
DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Hotel Doheny Beach-Dana Point, 34402 Pacific Coast Highway, Dana Point; (949) 661-1100, bit.ly/doubletreedanapoint. Wheelchair accessible.
Ocean Institute, 24200 Dana Point Harbor Drive, Dana Point; (949) 496-2274, ocean-institute.org. Whale watching most Saturdays and Sundays; toddlers 2 and younger, free; ages 3-17, $15; ages 55 and older and active-duty military with ID, $30; adults 18-54, $35. The Sea Explorer is not wheelchair accessible.