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In Dana Point, a kids' marine scene

From expanded Ocean Institute to tall ship to beach, the small fry get a big splash of watery exploration.

December 15, 2002|Susan Lendroth | Special to The Times

Dana Point — "Mom, I see a boy!" My daughter's shout drew me to the sliding door of our hotel room.

"What?" I replied, looking down to a deserted, rain-spattered pool deck.

"Not there," Kyla said, "there." She pointed farther out into the night, toward the ocean. "I can see the red light."

I squinted and could just make out a glowing speck in the darkness. Ah, a buoy.

My daughter's excitement was contagious one Saturday last month. Despite a late start because of a storm, we finally had arrived at the Doubletree Guest Suites in Dana Point for a three-day weekend. A fire flickered at a Doheny Beach campsite across the road, the buoy winked in the Pacific and room service soon would deliver our dinner of clam chowder and Caesar salad. More good things were ahead: visiting the Ocean Institute's new $16.5-million marine education and research facility, sailing on an old-fashioned tall ship and combing the beach to see what the storm waves had tossed up.

The next morning, our gamble on the weather paid off. I opened the drapes to blue skies.

Our gamble on a budget-priced hotel paid off too. On the Doubletree Web site I had found a nightly rate of $62 (plus tax and $13 for parking), low enough to give me pause. And upon arrival, my suspicions seemed confirmed when we were given a room that was a humid 80 degrees. No amount of coaxing could keep the air conditioner working.

But the front desk staff proved courteous, sending up a bellman to move us into a room with a functioning air conditioner and an ocean view. The bedroom and bathroom were compact, and the furnishings were a bit worn around the edges. But the separate parlor, a godsend when traveling with a child, more than compensated with its microwave, refrigerator, sink, TV and VCR.

Sunday morning Kyla and I lingered over hot chocolate and warm bread -- microwave cooking at its finest -- before setting out for Dana Point Harbor, a five-minute drive.

Dana Point is named for Richard Henry Dana Jr., author of "Two Years Before the Mast." He sailed from Boston in 1834 on the brig Pilgrim, bound for California to trade manufactured goods for cattle hides and tallow. Dana Point, then called Capistrano Bay, was on the ship's trading route.

The harbor and town don't show many signs of those old days. Two marinas have slips for more than 2,400 yachts, and luxury homes are perched atop the cliffs from which ranch hands threw bundles of hides to sailors on the beach below.

We stopped for brunch at Harpoon Henry's in Mariners Village, a collection of restaurants and shops by the harbor. I enjoyed my scrambled eggs, muffins and fruit, and Kyla liked her cinnamon-vanilla French toast. Our booth overlooked rows of boats, kayakers paddling between the slips and white sails gliding out to sea. It was a million-dollar view for $17.23.

Ocean Institute aquariums

The Ocean Institute is less than a mile away at the other end of the harbor, an easy walk except for 7-year-old legs. We drove.

The institute opened its Ocean Education Center in October. Weekdays the classrooms are filled with students. But on weekends the facility opens to the public for tours of classroom laboratories, including new aquariums. More than 10,000 gallons of seawater are home to small sharks, black sea bass, bottom dwellers such as brittle sea stars and other colorful life.

My daughter has loved fish since she was too small to pronounce their names, so we had high expectations. Then we saw the sign at the door: "Tours canceled today."

Apparently a car had plowed into the center's power generator the night before. The driver disappeared from the scene, but the Ocean Institute's fish did not get off so easily: During the blackout, the tanks couldn't filter the water and regulate the temperature as usual.

By Sunday morning, power had been only partly restored, and the classroom aquariums were off-limits while staff administered fish first aid. (The institute reported no casualties.)

Kyla and I were able to explore lobby exhibits about underwater archeology in the sunken city of Port Royal, Jamaica, and about ice probes that one day might be used on Jupiter's moon Europa. Kyla didn't pay much attention to the display of 17th century pewter plates and pirate cannonballs, but she liked operating the magnetometer that demonstrated how divers find metal artifacts buried on the ocean floor.

We left for an even more appealing exhibit, the Ocean Institute's full-size replica of Richard Dana's Pilgrim. The brig, fully operational but usually moored as a living-history classroom, holds a free open house most Sundays. With Kyla leading the way, we clambered up to the helm, then to the tight quarters below decks.

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