Photo by Keith MayThis seaside community is most famously known for its namesake, Richard Henry Dana Jr. In his 1840 nautical novel, Two Years Before the Mast, the seaman described the area, then known as San Juan Cove, as “the only romantic spot in California” (obviously he hadn't seen the twin domes of San Onofre). The most conspicuous change to the area since Dana's trip, one that probably would have caused him to rethink his compliment, is the creation of the harbor. Started in 1966, the harbor, formed by bringing in tons of rocks for breakwaters and sand for beaches, has been an economic boon to the area, with slips for more than 2,500 boats and plenty of shops and restaurants. However, in terms of environmental impact, not only has it killed the surfing at Doheny State Beach—and with it the famous Killer Dana break—but it has also significantly altered the ecosystem. Once considered a safe place for kids to swim, the harbor's Stillwater Beach—more commonly known as Baby Beach—is one of California's most polluted (along with Doheny).
Brig Pilgrim. A Danish-built, full-sized replica of the ship on which Richard Henry Dana Jr. took his famous voyage. Though it sails occasionally up the coast and returns to the Toshiba Tallships Festival, the vessel spends most of the year moored in the harbor and is used mainly as a living-history site for students, who sometimes have the opportunity to sleep there overnight. (It would more truly be living history if lice, scurvy and seasickness were part of the package, but they probably had trouble getting funding.) Every Sunday the ship is open to the public. Ocean Institute, Dana Point Harbor, (949) 496-2274; www.ocean-institute.org.
Dana Point Marine Life Refuge. Anemones, limpets, sea stars, crabs and a host of other creatures live in the protected tide pools. If you want to venture beyond this area, there is a sea cave at the tip of the Headlands. Be sure you've got your timing right; you don't want to get stuck when the tide starts coming in. Below the Dana Point Headlands at the end of the breakwater.Dana Wharf Sportfishing Charter & Whale Watching. Bombarded by flocks of pelicans and seagulls at the wharf, these boats host individual and group charter trips. December through April, the company offers whale-watching tours. More than 200 California gray whales, plus a few humpback and killer whales, were seen last season. Dana Point pays homage to these migrating mammals every year at the Festival of Whales. 34675 St. of the Golden Lantern, (949) 496-5794; www.danawharfsportfishing.com.Ocean Institute. The former Orange County Marine Institute is now in the midst of expansion, with slick tents acting as temporary classrooms. It was originally supposed to become a largish public aquarium/museum, but after much debate at public hearings, the building scope was downsized—with the architecture now ostensibly in harmony with its natural surroundings—and the project's focus shifted to students. There are, however, courses such as bioluminescence voyages that are open to the public. 24200 Dana Point Harbor Dr., (949) 496-2274; www.ocean-institute.org.
Cannons Restaurant and Terrace. This is theplace to go for people who want a fine panoramic scene overlooking the harbor and the Pacific Ocean. It's a bit on the pricy side, but that's what you'd expect for seafood with a view. 34344 St. of the Green Lantern, (949) 496-6146; www.cannonsrestaurant.com.Dana Statue. Beware: this bronze statue of Richard Henry Dana Jr. is cursed. Legend has it that those who step on or touch the sexy, shirtless likeness will meet with the same fate that has befallen the monument. Yes, white splatters of an organic nature will plop on your back, shoulders and hair. It could just be a tale the harbor camp counselors tell their darling hyperactive kids to stop them from climbing on the statue, but do you dare find out? Island Way and Dana Drive.End of Breakwater by the Dana Point Headlands. My mom calls this her Valium spot, and there are probably plenty of people who feel the same way. This is one of the only openings in the harbor where you can look out at waves hitting clusters of rocks—the way it all used to be, pre-breakwater. It's a perfect motivational goal for harbor walkers, and Plein Air artists really seem to dig painting here. End of Dana Point Harbor Drive.
Hennessey's Tavern. There's a wee bit o' blarney in the tavern's logo and on tap, but that's about it. There is, however, a patio with two fire pits, which make for cozy chatting and drinking. 34111 La Plaza, (949) 488-0121.Renaissance Caf. This is one of the only Dana Point places where you can catch bands on a nightly basis. Blues and rock bands such as 2,000 Lbs. of Blues and Missiles of October perform here. 24701 Del Prado,(949) 661-6003.
Bonjour Cafe & Bistro. Despite the overhang that advertises otherwise, this cute, tree-shaded bistro doesn't do dinner anymore; it now offers only breakfast and lunch. The worthwhile offerings—quiche, crpes, omelets—are all served during the day anyway. Try the omelette de Provence with eggplant, black olives, sundried tomatoes and garlic. Or la crpe bonne maman, filled with strawberry preserves and dusted with powdered sugar. When you've got options like this, why bother with scary French evening foods, which often involve cream and unmentionable body parts? 24633 Del Prado, (949) 496-6368.Harbor House Caf. Besides Denny's, this is basically the only 24-hour joint 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 hangout for San Clemente High School students, too. As far as eats go, it's known for its wide omelet selection and thick shakes. 34157 Pacific Coast Hwy., (949) 496-9270.Jon's Fish Market. The fresh, fried seafood offerings are tasty and reasonably priced, but the ambiance is about what you'd expect from a fish market. 34665 St. of the Golden Lantern, (949) 496-2807.Mega Burgers. You can't accuse this joint, located quite obviously in a former KFC, of false advertising. Their trademark is the mega mega burger, a cake-sized burger, served in slices, that is the equivalent of eight hamburgers. There are plenty of other options available, though, if you're more the eat-alone kind of guy. Note: if you are one of those guys (or gals) and think a mega mega burger sounds like an eat-alone kind of meal, do yourself a favor—take a good look in the mirror and have your cholesterol checked first. 34122 Pacific Coast Hwy., (949) 488-0849.Proud Mary's. Opened in 1977 by Mary Merrill and her five children, this most certainly qualifies as a family-run establishment. Located in Dana Wharf on the waterfront, Proud Mary's serves breakfast and lunch. Their menu—at least their breakfast one—features lots of eggs scrambled into such dishes as breakfast burritos and omelets. 34689 St. of the Golden Lantern, (949) 493-5853.Salt Creek Grille. A cozy yet elegant, wood-accentuated restaurant that would fit just perfectly at Whistler or some other upscale ski resort. Recommended are the margarita chicken (grilled chicken breast marinated in tequila and lime juice) and seared rare ahi (drizzled with ginger soy wasabi sauce). The bar area is a popular pickup joint for middle-aged folks. 32802 pacific Coast Hwy., (949) 661-7799; www.saltcreekgrille.com.
The Coffee Importers. An espresso bar, ice cream shop, bagel/sandwich store and juice bar . . . What more could you want from a harbor-side establishment? And they've got plenty of umbrella-protected outdoor seating. 34531 St. of the Golden Lantern, (800) 399-7773; www.coffeeimporters.com.J.C. Beans Coffee. Though it has a drive-through, this coffeehouse hasn't neglected its interior, which is particularly cozy during the winter, when there's a wood-burning stove going nonstop. Sitting inside is almost like sitting in your old Aunt Millicent's living room. It's even got a slightly out-of-tune piano. But unlike Aunt Millicent's, the coffee here is good. If only all independent coffeehouses were like this. 34114 Pacific Coast Hwy., (949) 496-4700.
Doheny State Beach. One of Orange County's best known beaches is also one of its most polluted. As the Beach Boys' “Surfin' Safari” and “Surfin' USA” attest, Doheny was considered one of the better surfing places—that is, before the construction of the harbor. It's now a good spot for surf beginners, camping and picnicking. It's also the site of some mighty big music festivals, like the Doheny Blues Festival and the Doheny Days Music Festival. 25300 Dana Point Harbor Dr., (949) 496-6172; www.dohenystatebeach.org.Girl in the Curl. Cute, cute, cute! Owner/surfing instructor Mary Hartmann offers adorable surf/tropical-themed jewelry, bikinis, bags, surfboards and lessons for wahines. Hartmann's brother, the late actor Phil Hartman, who was an avid surfer himself, had a hand in helping her open the store. 34116 Pacific Coast Hwy., Ste. A, (949) 661-4475.Killer Dana Surfshop. Named in tribute for the awesome waves that broke at Dana Point Cove pre-harbor, this popular surf store is owned and operated by second- and third-generation Dana Point surfers. The popular store has also spawned an offspring, Killer Dana Kids, just around the corner. 24621 Del Prado, (949) 489-8380; www.killerdana.com.Salt Creek Beach. Due largely to a “Save Salt Creek” movement in the 1960s, the area was acquired as a beach park for public use. Located next to the Ritz-Carlton, it is a popular surfing and swimming locale with an offshore reef. Pacific Coast Highway and Ritz-Carlton Drive, (949) 661-7013.
Hot Lava. A celebration of some of the finest and tackiest objects to come out of or be inspired by the Pacific islands: Hawaiian shirtorama, Indonesian bamboo furniture, hula-girl bamboo curtains that shimmy in the breeze, and tikis (don't tell the Bradys). Dana Village, 34671 St. of the Golden Lantern, (949) 661-8300.The White Pelican. The store calls itself “a gallery of Native American art and jewelry.” Made by various tribes, its wide range of items (turquoise jewelry, pottery, moccasins and the like) are sold at reasonable prices. 34475 St. of the Golden Lantern, (949) 240-1991.
Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort. A hotel complex reminiscent of the Hotel del Coronado, except it's located atop grassy bluffs . . . oh, and it doesn't have any of that hotel's illustrious history. It does have a great gourmet Thanksgiving brunch for those of you who don't want to deal with preparing a huge meal. Besides, it's harder to get into a family brawl in a public space. 25135 Park Lantern, (949) 661-5000.The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel. Yes, it has Laguna Niguel in its title, but the Ritz-Carlton is in fact located in Dana Point, overlooking the ocean, next to Monarch Beach. For some reason, the Ritz thought it would sound, well, ritzier if it allied itself with the neighboring city instead. Celebrities such as Mick Jagger, Julia Roberts and John Travolta have stayed here. For those of us who aren't movie stars, a somewhat reasonable option is to show up for sunset cocktails. 1 Ritz-Carlton Dr., (949) 240-2000.St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort & Spa. Talk about serious competition for the Ritz: this 400-room resort, featuring rooms starting at a mere $415 per night, is located almost across the street from that hotel. Of course, it doesn't want to just match its rival's standards; it wants to exceed them by being awarded not a four-star rating (which the Ritz was downgraded to several years ago) but five. And how can you argue with a place that has a wishing well called the Well of Desires outside its spa? 1 Monarch Beach Point Resort Dr., (949) 234-3200; www.stregismonarchbeach.com.
The Blue Lantern Inn. Looking out over Dana Point Harbor, the inn has all the charming little features you expect from a bed and breakfast. Where some places have chubby cherubs as their decorative pice de rsistance, Blue Lantern is the residence of teddy bears—mama bear, papa bear, baby bear and all their extended family. The stuffed animals are a trademark of the owners, Four Sisters Inns, who chose this stuffed animal to promote a children-are-welcome vibe. 34343 St. of the Blue Lantern, (800) 950-1236 or (949) 661-1304.