San JUAN has swallows, Dana Point has gray whales. Their migration is in full swing and so is the city's annual Festival of the Whales.
The celebration is centered around the harbor named for Richard Henry Dana, whose book, "Two Years Before the Mast," predated Melville's "Moby-Dick." Both are seafaring epics, but Dana's is autobiography: the diary of a wide-eyed student who interrupted his studies at Harvard to sail from Boston to California on a tall ship, the Pilgrim.
It's a pre-Gold Rush account of life on the California coast as the brig sails from New England, loaded with goods to trade for tallow and hides in the West.
Dana's chronicle has never been forgotten: a statue of him stands in the town that bears his name and the look of his native New England, with Cape Cod-style houses perched high on cliffs overlooking the crashing surf.
Sunbathe, surf or swim
On warm days, visitors gravitate toward Dana's beaches. Longboarders and beginning surfers like Doheny State Beach's gentle waves.
So do families.
With green lawns and white sand, it's a scenic place to picnic and barbecue. Moms with young kids will want to push the strollers to Baby Beach, a sheltered cove near the Ocean Institute with warm, shallow waters and concession stands nearby.
Seek the gray whale
On weekdays, groups of students in big yellow school buses crowd the parking lot at the Ocean Institute, but on the weekends its doors open to the public. Visitors find it an ideal spot to explore everything about the ocean from the habits of the gray whale to the tiniest creatures in its tide pools. Plan a whole day of educational fun for the family. Tour a replica of the Pilgrim; see the privateer, Spirit of Dana Point, set sail; or take a whale-watching trip embarking from the institute, Dana Wharf Sportfishing or other locations in the harbor. Check the institute's Web site for details on tours and whale-watching excursions: www.ocean-institute.org. And don't miss the gift shop for books, videos, games, toys and stickers, all with deep-sea themes.
There are shops galore in Dana Point Harbor. Three mini-malls are linked together: Dana Village, Mariner's Village and Mariner's Alley. Many sell the typical tourist stuff -- resort wear and T-shirts with goofy sayings -- most with a nautical slant.
But there are hipper and nicer goods if you know where to look. At Hot Lava you'll find decorator items in trendy island motifs, like a perfect-for-your-next-party bamboo bar with black Tiki masks on the front.
There are also Hawaiian items, including flower-print bedspreads and welcome plaques that read "Mahalo! Please remove slippers, but don't take mo' betta ones when you leave."
White Pelican Jewelry displays a sea of silver and turquoise in traditional Native American and contemporary designs. They also sell soft calfskin moccasins and clogs with colorful beading or silver accents.
The Catalina Seashell Co. has small baskets of shells to delight kids, but search around for decorator accents for your home, such as giant speckled cowries or huge glass fishermen's orbs.
At Raj Parfumerie you might just snag that hard-to-find scent, like Lagerfeld. And at the Chocolate Soldier you can choose an exquisite china teacup to take home, or just satisfy a sweet tooth with their dark chocolate truffles, pecan turtles and other confections.
Food with a view
The Pacific provides a backdrop to just about anywhere you go for a bite in Dana Point Harbor.
For a magnificent view, follow a steep path up Cove Road to Overview Park. Stop at the gazebo to catch your breath and take in a panoramic scene.
Look over your shoulder and see the green cliffs where, in the old days, tanners tossed cowhides to waiting ships below.
Head for the terrace at Cannons, where you can toss back a margarita, followed by steak and seafood at bargain prices in the lounge during happy hour. Or have a leisurely dinner at fancier prices in the ocean-view dining room.
If you've only got time for a quick bite, try Jon's Fish Market with fresh-catch specials, fish and chips and smoked salmon, swordfish or yellow tail to take home.
Early birds will find big breakfasts and lunches at Proud Mary's, where they serve granola pancakes, breakfast burritos, burgers, sandwiches and hot dogs.
If a continental breakfast is more your style, stop at the Coffee Importers for scones, sticky buns and pastries as well as espresso drinks.
Festival of Whales
The festival will be in full swing Saturday with the 10th annual Wag-a-Thon, a fund-raising event, from 7:30 a.m. to noon, benefiting the Animal Rescue Foundation of Dana Point. Dogs will compete for prizes in best pet trick, best costume and other categories. Frank the Pug from "Men In Black II" will be the furry celebrity guest.
Other Saturday festivities include: sand-sculpting instruction at Baby Beach; Little Dolphin Day/Kid Care activities such as a magic show, crafts, clowns and body painting; and live music at Harpoon Henry's and the Jolly Roger courtyards from noon to 3 p.m.