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Canyon Critters

Wind your way along the Laguna thoroughfare to meet sea lions, enjoy the colorful koi and play fetch with the dogs.

March 06, 1997|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sea lions frolic, dogs run free and fish glitter in Laguna Beach. And that's not even on the coast.

Laguna Canyon Road offers a lot more than summer festivals, especially for animal lovers.

EARLY AFTERNOON: 1

One sea lion was serenely sunning, half a dozen pups were splashing about, and two more were in intensive care. That was the scene recently at the Friends of the Sea Lion Marine Mammal Center, which provides medical care to sick and injured sea lions, harbor seals and elephant seals found off the Orange County coast.

Most of the animals have respiratory disease, caused by ocean pollution, that prevents them from holding their breath to dive--and therefore from eating. Injuries, also, are most often man-inflicted. Because of the animals' birth cycles, the busy season is just starting; by mid-spring the center, housed in a two-story barn, can host as many as 70 sea lions and seals. Posted photos indicate that most will recover.

The center also sells sea lion greeting cards, books, decals and sundry other pinnipediana. A "bone room" offers educational displays. Walk-in visits of the center are welcome; sign up for hourlong tours a week in advance.

The animals have exquisitely expressive, almost dachshund-like faces, and their play can be endlessly entertaining. But note the sign: "Please do not talk to animals." The attendant is even careful not to make eye contact.

"We don't want them to bond with people," explained nine-year volunteer Lynn Spiegel. (Incidentally, more midweek volunteers are needed at the center.) "They're going back to the ocean, where people might hurt them."

Spiegel believes sea lions are distantly related to dogs. "I see great similarities," she said. "The ears are alike; they're good-natured, like dogs; they're very smart; they bark. . . ."

MIDAFTERNOON: 2

Which brings us to the Bark Park.

By loaning two acres to the city, a utility company made it possible for dogs, which crave nothing so much as the company of other dogs, to play with one another off a leash. It's a godsend for dog owners, and non-dog owners have fun just watching. Breeds represented are encyclopedic: The Bs alone recently included Basset hounds, Boston terriers and Bernese mountain dogs.

LATE AFTERNOON: 3

The spectacularly colored Japanese carp known as koi range in cost from three for $13 to more than $500 for one fish at Laguna Koi Ponds. (One exceptional show fish recently fetched $14,000.)

The carp are categorized by color and pattern. Varieties are described as "metallic snake," "blue reticulated net pattern with orange belly," "black edging over red scales," "blue grape-like clusters over red" and "glittering scales," with scaleless versions also available. As the ponds' water temperature warms in spring, the public can feed the fish special food issued from a dispensing machine for a quarter.

DINNER: 4

To feed yourself, head to town. Romeo Cucina offers a mustard-and-rust decor accented by mahogany squiggles, classically inspired art and Italian marble bars.

At the top end of salads ($4-$6.50) is the Mediterraneo: shrimp, scallops and calamari marinated in lime and lemon with garlic, olive oil, arugula, green onions, tomatoes and hearts of palm.

Pizza "alla Melanzane" is topped with eggplant, duck ragu, goat cheese, garlic and rosemary ($8.95).

Timballino Casa Romeo (for two, $7.50 per person) is a pastry shell filled with small rigatoni, sun-dried tomatoes, eggplant, porcini mushrooms and a mozzarella-bechamel sauce, baked in a clay oven.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

1) Friends of the Sea Lion Marine Mammal Center

20612 Laguna Canyon Road. (714) 494-3050.

10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily.

*

2) Bark Park

Laguna Canyon Road, half a mile south of El Toro Road. (714) 458-9663.

Dawn to dusk Thur.-Tue.

*

3) Laguna Koi Ponds

20452 Laguna Canyon Road. (714) 494-5107.

9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun.

*

4) Romeo Cucina

249 Broadway. (714) 497-6627.

Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Thur.-Sun.; dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Mon.-Thur., 5:30-10:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat., and 5-10 p.m. Sun.

Parking: There is free parking in small lots at Marine Mammal Center and Laguna Koi Ponds. There is Bark Park parking along Laguna Canyon Road. There is pay parking in a lot adjacent to Romeo Cucina ($5 all day, free with restaurant validation after 5 p.m.) and metered parking on Broadway.

Buses: OCTA Bus No. 89 runs along Laguna Canyon Road with stops at El Toro Road and Canyon Acres Drive.

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