Founded by sex-deprived sailors searching for paradise—really, the story of the New World—Dana Point has become Brea by the Sea, a classy bedroom community that happens to have its own beach. A massively polluted beach, sure, but hey: it still photographs well. Still, what would sexpot sailor—have you SEEN the etchings?—Richard Henry Dana think of the city that bears his name with dignity (the Parade of the Grays whale-watching festival) if not always grace (termites infesting the museum ships)? Dana Point puts a Laguna makeover on a classically OC city, in some ways an interesting testament to the character of the county—an example of strip malls and cottages existing side by side and a city trying to fit itself carefully into its own environment and history. Pavement or kitsch: We still have time to decide, right?
Best Place to Get a Handle on Some Water Music Doheny Beach. It's well known that the surf culture spawned its own soundtrack: "Ah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha," etc. But Doheny's got this: a Beach Boys tune ("Everybody's Gone Surfin'") and an obscure opera on the construction of the breakwater that killed Killer Dana, a break just north of Doheny. The opera is so obscure that we can't remember more than these most basic facts about seeing it in the mid-1990s: performers (none of them fat, as we recall) sing a libretto suffused with tragedy. They thunder and roar, they whimper and plead about the time in the late '60s when local developers (working with the county Board of Supervisors and the Army Corps of Engineers) built the breakwater to create a safe harbor for yachts—boats more costly than your home, which are absolutely essential to the maintenance of good health, as well as icons for a community in search of definition. That breakwater destroyed the phenomena—the water, the sandy bottom, the fast-rising shoreline—that, combined, made a natural wave machine of rare quality. The pounding surf is gone, and with it a kind of severe beauty. In its absence, pleasure craft bob listlessly and unspeakable filth collects to create a new kind of killer at Baby Beach. We don't know what's become of the opera. But we remember who killed Killer Dana. Pacific Coast Highway and Del Obispo, Dana Point.
Best Booze Sponges Harbor House Caf. Besides Denny's, this is one of the few 24-hour joints in the area and thus a popular hangout for high school kids. After the one in San Clemente closed something like a decade ago, this became the clubhouse for San Clemente High School students too. Rightly renowned for its hangover-friendly selection of omelets and thick shakes. 34157 Pacific Coast Hwy., Dana Point, (949) 496-9270.
Best Place to Break the Bank Salt Creek Grille. If you can get past the smooth jazz and the middle-aged divorcees crowded around the bar on blind dates and/or hookup missions, then the Salt Creek Grille is a great place to nab a special meal. And "special" of course means "pricey," with entres running from $30 to $50 or more. (The adult fare for the Sunday brunch—ripping, we're sure—is $28.50.) But whether it's the signature salads, the impressive wine selection, the mesquite-grilled hand-cut steaks, the fresh Pacific seafood catch of the day or what Zagat's deemed the "Best Pork Chop on the Planet," you can be sure that you'll walk away with the kind of meal that'll stick in your head for days, weeks even, teasing you to come back for more . . . until that Visa bill arrives. 32802 Pacific Coast Hwy., Dana Point, (949) 661-7799.
Best Polluted Beach Doheny. Huntington tries hard to front, but even with the county sewage pipe topping out offshore, they can't catch Doheny State Beach, Heal the Bay's worst—we mean BEST!—polluted beach three years running. Officials modestly explain they couldn't have done it alone; while significant harbor pollution takes a considerable toll, the Los Angeles Times reported that massive amounts of seagull shit push Doheny into the lead.
Best Secret Beach Salt Creek. To get there, go to the St. Regis Resort (located at 1 Monarch Beach) and pretend you're staying there—you know, have some nice beach clothes, or maybe just walk around in one of those plush white bathrobes. Come to think of it, screw that. Just look like you belong. Talk too loud on your cell phone and berate the staff. Now walk onto the beach and head north along the shore. Scramble over the gray boulders that help make this the most difficult-to-reach beach in Orange County. The less adventuresome beachcomber may prefer to impersonate a well-heeled vacationer and simply sunbathe in front of the St. Regis.
Best Beauty to Bulldoze Dana Point Headlands. Overlooking the Dana Point and Niguel Marine Life Refuges, the 121-acre Headlands remain one of the last undeveloped coastal mesas in Southern California. But don't let its diminutive size fool you. Despite being surrounded by development, its cliffs, bluffs and coastal scrub are home to a stunning variety of flora and fauna, including 13 rare plant species, the California gnatcatcher and the endangered Pacific pocket mouse, whose only natural predator is the Million-Dollar Stucco Shitpile, currently dominating the Orange County ecosystem.
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Best Place to Spot Rich People Gone Wild Dana Point hotels. Despite its name, the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel is in Dana Point. The tea room? Not to be missed if you've got a grandma visiting from the north of England. The St. Regis? Fabulous dining and a Sunday brunch that is—no kidding—perhaps the best in all of OC, a kind of magic trumpet spitting out all manner of fresh fruits, meats, fish, waffles, pancakes, eggs and chocolate—chocolate on, like, everything. We sat outside and smoked a cigar one night, contemplating a fountain on the grounds of the St. Regis, a fountain so large that it seemed to throw the world around it out of perspective. We thought it might have been some kind of drug thing, or maybe the cigar, but we've been clean and collecting chips at AA for years. Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel, One Ritz-Carlton Dr., Dana Point, (949) 234-3200; St. Regis, 33102 Niguel Rd., Dana Point, (949) 234-3325.
Best Place to Spot Catholic Priests Gone Wild St. Edwards Parish. OC's most molesterous ministry: John Lenihan, Denis Lyons, Michael Pecharich, Henry Perez, Gerald Plesetz and Siegfried Widera—score!
Best Prawn Pie Beach Cities Pizza. There's sweet spaghetti, wonderful bread sticks and a terrifyingly powerful sauce with thin, crispy strands of garlic that will actually numb your lips. But order one of the gourmet pizzas. I like the Newporter, a sweet mix of meaty prawns, juicy sun-dried tomatoes and a tangy pesto sauce glued onto a thin crust by a milky cheese. 34473 Golden Lantern, Dana Point, (949) 496-0606.
Best Reality TV Footnote Evan Marriott. Former Dana Point construction worker Evan Marriott, the robotic stud on ABC's Joe Millionaire. But where is he now? Average Joe wants to know if he's fat yet.