Mariner's Village at Dana Point Harbor is the kind of waterfront market that tourists love. But how many locals are in need of little plastic bags of Dana Point seawater ("Beach in a Bag," $3.98 at Dana Wharf Cards and Gifts) or cassette tapes of the sound of the Pacific crashing against the shore?
Many of the more than two dozen shops along the harbor are filled with little knickknacks designed to follow folks home to Omaha: seashell-packed plastic buckets that say "Hello from Dana Point!"; T-shirts; ashtrays, and trinkets.
Many of the stores carry the same merchandise, like the shell mobiles at the Gift Chateau and Whimsey Hollow, or the plastic snowball souvenirs at Dana Wharf Cards & Gifts and the Gift Chateau.
But tucked among the tourist traps are a few shops that stock stuff you won't find on every county waterfront.
The most enticing spot on the harbor is White Pelican Jewelry, a shop of American Indian artifacts owned by Chuck and Cathy Mullen. The Mullens carry silver jewelry made by Navajo, Zuni and Hopi Indians, carved alabaster sculptures by the Elk Woman of Santa Fe, sand paintings, pottery, story-telling dolls and kachina figures by the Hopi.
In trying to describe the kachina's significance, Chuck Mullen says: "It would take three months to explain, but in the Hopi culture there are two beings, the spiritual and the physical and these two beings . . . oh, never mind, just say that Kachina are hand-carved figures from cottonwood that hold a lot of significance." They cost $180 and up.
Also significant are decorated clay pots that the Zuni use to store good-luck pieces. At the base is a hole so the spirits can come and go at will ($180). And don't miss the mud heads and black ogres.
Down the lane from White Pelican is the Coffee Importers, which along with fresh coffee beans, pastry, pasta and gourmet food offers coasters, trivets, napkins and napkin rings, saltshakers and a dizzying array of articles shaped like cows: salt shakers, mugs, pitchers and teapots. The Coffee Importers sell Cappuccino and other coffee beverages.
After sampling the coffee, duck into the Chocolate Soldier for scrumptious Belgian truffles or giant hand-dipped "turtles."
Browsers for unique gifts may also hit pay dirt at Joy's Gift Shop, which sells hand-cast paper pictures (made from paper pulp poured into a mold, $44 and up), carved wooden birds and ducks and leather coasters shaped like leaves ($8).
The Golden Galleon Boutique and Golden Galleon Port Side are good bets for women's clothes. Adrienne Vittadini, Karen Kane and other quality sportswear are sold along with shoes and jewelry, with Port Side providing a larger selection than the Boutique. Girls and Boys Ahoy has a good selection of high-quality children's clothes, including Absorba, Oshkosh and sailor suits by Good Lad.
The harbor is divided into two shopping areas: Dana Wharf and Mariner's Village, managed by two separate companies. Both are on the water and sprinkled with a good number of lunch counters and full-service restaurants, including Casa Maria, Proud Mary's and the Harbor Grill.
Mariner's Village and Dana Wharf rely heavily on the harbor's natural beauty for ambiance. Although the stores are well maintained, modern and clean, there isn't much in the way of landscape or architectural design. The blue seas and bobbing boats steal the show. A cement walk leads visitors through the shops, and several restaurants offer outdoor cafe tables.
A terrific spot for a quick lunch is Jon's Fish Market, next to a sunny patio on the south end of the harbor. Jon's serves freshly caught, grilled and fried fish, but the daily crowd-pleasers are the shrimp ($2.50) or fish ($1.75) tacos. Both come with tartar sauce, cheese and shredded greens, wrapped in a soft corn tortilla. The fish and chips is also a winner ($5.49).
What the harbor lacks in architectural design, it makes up for in recreation. Along with shopping and noshing, visitors can go parasailing, fishing, jet skiing or motorboating from the harbor. For the younger set, Skate Arcade has video games and skate rentals ($3.50 and hour).
A good word to describe Mariner's Village is accessible. It is easy to get to, has plenty of public restrooms, and the walkways are easy to maneuver with wheelchairs or strollers.
MARINER'S VILLAGE / DANA WHARF AT A GLANCE
Where: Dana Point Harbor, Dana Point. At the intersection of the Street of the Golden Lantern and Dana Point Harbor Drive.
What: About two dozen shops and a dozen eating spots along the water.
Most unusual shop: White Pelican Jewelry carries American Indian artifacts, including Hopi-made Kachina figures, carved alabaster sculptures and silver jewelry by Navajo, Zuni and Hopi Indians. Some of the objects sound like they leaped out of a Stephen King novel: black ogres, mudheads and fetish bowls. Best place to take the kids: Skate Arcade has video games, candy, pizza and skate rentals ($3.50 and hour).
Quick bites: Grab a fish ($1.75) or shrimp ($2.50) taco at Jon's Fish Market. The deep-fried fish and grilled shrimp are served in soft corn tortillas with tartar sauce, cheese, shredded cabbage and homemade salsa. Yum.