One of the Southland's most scenic boat basins also harbors a wonderful assortment of dining places. Surrounding the multitude of sailboats and motor vessels at Dana Point are nearly two dozen restaurants that dish up everything from Cajun and continental cuisine to seafood and sandwiches.
You'll also find plenty of picnic tables around the beautifully landscaped grounds of Orange County's newest man-made harbor. It's a favorite destination of families looking for an active and enjoyable time at the ocean's edge.
Visitors can learn about sea life at the Orange County Marine Institute and explore fascinating tide pools during winter's low tides. Go fishing off a pier or the breakwater, take windsurfing lessons or shop in an assortment of specialty stores.
A popular pastime is joining the deep-sea fishing boats on half-day outings. And this time of year you can sail out to sea in search of migrating gray whales.
Overnighters will find a dockside inn at the marina and campsites in adjacent Doheny State Beach Park. A fancy 350-room cliff-top hotel is scheduled to open later this year.
Twenty Years Old
Dana Point Harbor has continued to grow with new facilities and attractions since it was created nearly two decades ago. That's when huge rocks quarried on Catalina Island were shipped in to create a mile-long breakwater that protects 2,500 pleasure craft.
In the previous century there was no jetty, but a cliff-rimmed cove offered some safety for the sailing ships that came for the hides of cattle raised nearby at Mission San Juan Capistrano. The man for which the area was later named arrived aboard a two-masted square-rigger called the Pilgrim in 1835.
Sailor-cum-author Richard Henry Dana penned his now-classic book, "Two Years Before the Mast," that detailed the plight of early seafarers and described the cove (then known as Bahia Capistrano) as the only romantic spot along the California coast.
Today in the harbor you'll find a bronze statue of Dana and a replica of his ship. In 1924 developers tagged the area Dana Point in his honor, but their attempts to promote it as California's Riviera failed. Along the cliff top is the foundation of an unfinished resort hotel.
Recently Dana Point has become hot property, spurred by the arrival of the Ritz-Carlton overlooking the coast in nearby Laguna Niguel. Pricey homes are being built on once-vacant land above the harbor, but some open space has been preserved as two new county parks.
To view the transformation of Dana Point, drive south from Los Angeles on Interstate 5 to the California 1 (Pacific Coast Highway) exit beyond San Juan Capistrano.
Follow PCH north up the hill (it becomes one way) through Dana Point's commercial strip and turn left on the Street of the Blue Lantern to a harbor lookout point.
From a gazebo at the cliff's edge 200 feet above sea level, you're rewarded with a grand panorama of the boat basin and coastline. To enjoy a similar view with food or drink, go next door to Cannons restaurant for a patio or window table.
A Bird's-Eye View
Down the parallel Street of the Green Lantern you also can dine with a bird's-eye view of the harbor at the Chart House, open for dinner at 5 p.m. (4 p.m. on weekends). Beyond is the reopened Cove Road that twists down a steep hillside to the marina, but we suggest an alternate route.
Go back from the lookout to Del Prado and turn right on this one-way street that goes past several restaurants and recent Dana Point developments to the harbor.
First is Luciana's Ristorante, an Italian dinner house, and then JJ's Bistro that's open for Sunday brunch, lunch weekdays except Monday, and dinner Tuesday through Saturday.
Look next for a lighthouse-like building, the Nautical Heritage Museum, that displays models of historic sailing ships and seagoing memorabilia. Included are 19th-Century presidential papers arranging safe passage for U.S. ships in pirate-controlled waters.
The museum is run by the Christman family, also responsible for the creation of the state's official tall ship, the Californian, a replica of an 1850s-era sailing vessel. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. except Sunday and Monday; donations welcome.
Variety of Cuisines
A popular place to eat and drink along Del Prado is the Old Dana Point Cafe/Wine Bar, then go right on the Street of the Golden Lantern and down the hill to the new Pavilion complex that's home to four more restaurants. Try Ferrantelli's for pasta, Ghaffari's for Cajun specialties, Port of Spain for Spanish/Mexican fare and Picasso's for continental cuisine.
Turn right on Dana Point Harbor Drive and follow the cliffs to the marina's west end to view ocean-life exhibits at the marine institute. Hours are 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
You're also welcome Sundays through March 8 during the annual Dana Point Harbor Festival of Whales.