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Exploring the world outside of the park
Dana Point

Dana Point is a welcome bit of reality in the vast beige ocean of "neighborhood association controlled" housing tracts known as South Orange County. This seaside city hangs on to enough of its small town charm to keep it interesting.

Dana Point
A traditional view of Dana Point.

Dana Point is named for Richard Henry Dana, who first saw this stretch of coast in 1835 from the trading brig Pilgrim.

In his book, Two Years Before the Mast, Dana wrote, "San Juan is the only romantic spot in California. The country here for several miles is high table-land, running boldly to the shore, and breaking off in a steep hill, at the foot of which the waters of the Pacific are constantly dashing. ...Directly before us, rose the perpendicular height of four or five hundred feet."

Today, a replica of the Pilgrim is docked at the western end of the harbor. Tours are available and occasional dramatizations of Dana's book are performed. Occasionally, the tallship California will also dock here. In the age of jet airliners and cruise ships, it's shocking to see just how rugged sea travel must have been for our ancestors.

Near the Pilgrim is the Orange County Marine Institute, at 24200 Dana Point Harbor Drive. The Institute offers educational tours for those interested in marine biology. The high point is a large whale skeleton, which hangs from the ceiling. I strongly recommend calling ahead for hours before visiting the Pilgrim or the Marine Institute. (949-496-2274)

Nature lovers of all ages will enjoy the magnificent tide pools on the extreme west end of the harbor. Park at the Marine Institute and take the steps down to a small beach. The tidepools begin on the opposite end of the beach. Expect to see crabs, fish, anemones, sea urchins, a variety of shellfish and the occasional starfish.

(A description of tidepools, for you landlubbers out there: At high tide, millions of small sea creatures find their way into nooks and crannies of the rocky coastline. As the tide washes out, low spots in the rock become shallow, isolated pools where one can examine trapped ocean life at close range. A well-stocked tidepool is truly a wonder to behold. Please don't remove or injure the animals, as their numbers are diminishing and you will be liable for hefty fines.)

Dana Wharf Sport Fishing, at 34675 Golden Lantern, offers not only deep-sea fishing expeditions, but also charters on sailing vessels, harbor tours and whale watching tours. The whales migrate along the Southern California coast between December and March, and Dana Point is one of the best places to see them. By law, the boats must keep their distance from the massive gray whales, so bring your binoculars or a telephoto lens. Whale watching tours cost $8-$14. (949-496-5794)

Dana Point
The gorgeous scenery of Dana Point has long made it a favorite destination for visitors to California.

There are many ways to enjoy the beautiful harbor area -- by bicycle, rollerblade, boat or shoe-leather. But if you're in relatively good shape, one of the most enjoyable ways is by kayak. On most sunny weekends, and for much of the summer, kayaks can be rented on the small "Baby Beach" near the west end of the harbor. A friend and I rented a two-person kayak for $12 per hour and had a lot of fun.

A few words of warning about kayaking: You may capsize and you WILL get wet. Wear swimsuits and put on plenty of sunblock. Also, unless you are experienced at kayaking, I suggest getting a separate kayak for each member of your party. Learning to synchronize your rowing isn't easy and involves hands being smacked with paddles.

When it comes to dining out in Dana Point, the two local favorites are Olimendi's Mexican Cuisine at 34660 Pacific Coast Highway, and the Harbor House Cafe at 34157 Pacific Coast Highway.

Olimendi's Restaurant
Olimendi's as seen from the water.

The Olimendi family serves excellent meals at reasonable prices. I have yet to be disappointed by anything on the menu, and I'm especially fond of the enchiladas. Don't let the picnic table seating, cluttered walls and inauspicious exterior fool you.

Democrats beware: You will be surrounded by images of Richard Nixon while you eat. Nixon himself often ate at Olimendi's while staying at the Western White House in San Clemente, and his favorite dishes are marked on the menu.

Harbor House offers a huge menu of classic American food in a cozy and clean roadhouse atmosphere. My favorites are the omelets and the milkshakes. I even love their BANANA milkshake, and I do NOT like banana milkshakes.

Best of all, Harbor House is open 24 hours and breakfast is served all day. Eating pancakes at midnight, surrounded by wood paneling, red leather, neon and old movie posters, it's hard to remember the hour or even the decade. And unlike many retro-styled diners, Harbor House has actually been in business since the 1930s.

There are two Dana Point restaurants I have not eaten in, but must comment on:

The Wind and Sea is a nice restaurant; so don't expect to waltz in right off the beach with sandy bare feet. I must mention this place because of the art on its walls. Look for scenes of sailors battling the sea, painted by one of the last great practitioners of the "California school" of watercolors: Jerry Nicholson. The Wind and Sea is located at the east end of the harbor..

Also, I must mention Cannons, which sits atop the bluffs overlooking the harbor at 34344 Green Lantern Ave. Rumor has it that they have one of the best views in Orange County. (949-496-6146)

Dana Point can be easily reached from central Orange County by taking the I-5 Freeway south to the Beach Cities exit. Those coming from coastal cities may prefer to take a picturesque drive along Pacific Coast Highway instead.

While I don't agree with Dana's comment that this place is the ONLY romantic spot in California, Dana Point is certainly a beautiful harbor town well worth visiting.

Related Links:

Dana Point Harbor

City of Dana Point

(Links above will open in new windows so you don't lose your place)

Guest Columnist Douglas Seabury can be contacted at


Knott's Berry Farm
8039 Beach Blvd., Buena Park

This is the nation's oldest theme park. It includes 165 attractions in multiple themed areas such as Calico Ghost Town, Mexican Village, Indian Trails, The Boardwalk and Camp Snoopy. (714) 220-5200

Hard Rock Cafe
451 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach

One in a chain of 104 Hard Rock Cafes around the world. You are paying for the honor of sitting under the autographs of rock stars. The highlight of the decor is the garish suit worn by Prince in the film "Purple Rain." (714) 640-8844

Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament
7662 Beach Blvd., Buena Park

Watch "knights" engage in jousting and other forms of mortal combat while you eat dinner. Paper crowns (a la Burger King) included. (714) 521-4740

Movieland Wax Museum
7711 Beach Blvd., Buena Park

An elaborate collection of movie and TV memorabilia, including authentic costumes and sets and more than 200 lifelike replicas of famous stars. Open Sat.-Sun. 9 a.m. - 7 p.m., Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. Admission $6.95-$12.95. (949) 522-1154 or visit Movieland Wax Museum online.

Rainforest Cafe
3333 Bristol Street, Costa Mesa (In the Sears wing of South Coast Plaza)

A themed restaurant with a jungle motif. Includes animatronic creatures, indoor thundershowers, live parrots, talking trees and a large saltwater aquarium. (714) 424-9200

Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum
7850 Beach Blvd., Buena Park

"The odd, the unusual and bizarre from nature and man." Open Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m. - 6 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. Admission $5.25-$8.95. (714) 522-7045 or visit Ripley's online.

Wild Bill's Wild West Dinner Extravaganza
7600 Beach Blvd., Buena Park

Watch dancing Indians, lariat-twirling "cowboys" and singing cowgirls while you eat dinner. (714) 522-6414

Wild Rivers Water Park
8770 Irvine Center Dr., Irvine

A water theme park with over 40 water rides and attractions, on the site of the late lamented Lion Country Safari. (949) 768-9453

Intrigued by this abbreviated list? Click here to visit Douglas's more complete list of significant locations in Anaheim, including including HISTORICAL SITES, MUSEUMS, SEASIDE ATTRACTIONS, GARDENS, SHOPPING, JUST FOR KIDS, and MISCELLANEOUS FUN categories.

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