A Day at Dana Point Harbor

Having grown up in Orange County you’d think I’d know the area really well and for the most part that’s true…until I start to head south. I grew up in the northern part of the county and rarely ventured further south than Irvine. Even on beach days my family would head to Seal Beach or Newport and never Laguna, San Clemente or Dana Point. Dana Point might as well have been in San Diego for all the number of times I visited. So when I was invited to visit Dana Point Harbor for a day of fun I immediately agreed hoping to learn more about a part of Orange County that has so far eluded me.

Established in 1989, Dana Point is one of Orange County’s youngest cities. Named after the seaman and author Richard Henry Dana Jr. the area was the setting for his most famous work Two Years Before the Mast. Funny enough, the harbor predates the city having been established in 1971 and today can accommodate over 2500 boats. In addition there are several shops, restaurants and nautical facilities making it the perfect destination for seaside recreation.

Accompanied by my friend Mary (of Along Comes Mary) I arrived at the harbor bright and early for a tour of its most famous occupant the Ocean Institute.

The Ocean Institute was founded in 1977 as place where children could learn all about marine science, outdoor education and maritime history. Over the years it has expanded to become a world renowned institution educating over 100,000 visitors every year.

On our visit we met with Dr. Wendy Marshall, Vice President of Education, who showed us all around the expansive facility. She explained that the main goal of the institute is to educate and inspire school children. While other institutions such as Aquarium of the Pacific or the San Diego Zoo are public institutions which allow school groups to visit the Ocean Institute is a learning institution that also allows the general public to visit.

There are countless ways for children to learn at Ocean Institute. They can come for the day on a field trip, they can join a summer camp, they can take part in an overnight program and they can even sail aboard a tall ship.

Speaking of tall ships, the Ocean Institute is home to the Spirit of Dana Point and The Pilgrim – full size replicas of historic tall ships. Students can spend a few hours or a few days aboard the ship learning all about sailing and maritime history.

While the institution is mostly student focused there are several opportunities available to the general public. Each day there are guided tours that offer behind the scenes views of the different areas of the institution from the tall ships to the learning centers. On the weekends there are various cruises available from whale watching, to tall ship sailing to a bioluminescence night cruise (sign me up for that one!). Then there’s the Tall Ship Festival. From September 6-8 the 35th annual festival will be held and there will be live music, food and drink, lots of tall ships and even a cannon battle!

Touring the Ocean Institute with Dr. Marshall made me wish I was a kid again so that I could sign up for one of their education programs. Why didn’t my school take a field trip there?

After our tour Mary and I were pretty hungry so we headed over to The Harbor Grill for a complimentary lunch. The Harbor Grill, in business since 1984, is a Dana Point institution offering a large selection of seafood dishes. The fish is delivered daily and cooked on the restaurant’s enormous mesquite grill.

Our friendly server, Christie, recommend the Caribbean Spiced Rubbed Mahi Mahi with Tequila Tomato Salsa and I happily ordered it. The fish was grilled to perfection and topped with a delicious array of spices and a fresh and flavorful salsa. It was a refreshing meal with a little bit of a kick and I ate every morsel.

We happened to visit on National Oyster Day and were each treated to a complimentary oyster. I absolutely love oysters and this one was wonderfully fresh and had just the perfect amount of seasoning to make it a delectable treat.

I was pretty full but Harbor Grill’s personable manager, Beverly, wouldn’t hear of us leaving without dessert. I chose the Classic Style Creme Brûlée and, wouldn’t you know, ate every bit of it. Made with fresh vanilla bean and perfectly caramelized it was the perfect ending to the meal.

After indulging in our three course meal it was time to work off some calories so we headed to Capo Beach Watercraft Rentals for a tandem kayak ride. Located in a quite corner of the harbor Capo Beach is another local institution serving customers since 1985.

In addition to single, tandem and three person kayaks Capo Beach also offers an array of Jet Skis and SeaDoos. Wanting to keep it low key we stuck with the kayak and headed out to tour the harbor. It was a bit windy that day so our ride was cut short but we still managed to have a nice outing even meeting up with a pair of frolicking sea lions.

Your eyesight’s fine, they’re not in the photo. They’re too fast to capture when you’re also trying to hold your oar! And yes, I was able to take my phone on the kayak because Capo Beach offers waterproof pouches ensuring you wont miss that ‘grammable moment.

Before we knew it the day was nearing it’s end but we had one final stop.

At the head of the harbor is a statue devoted to its namesake – Richard Henry Dana. Created by John Terken it’s resided over the harbor since 1972 and was the perfect place to end our day. There are numerous benches around it offering views of the harbor and open ocean beyond. Mary and I sat down and reflected on our day. We both were quite impressed with the offerings at Dana Point Harbor and agreed our lunch at the Harbor Grill was delicious, seeing the sea lions on our kayak ride was fantastic and that we must return to the Ocean Institute for a cruise. We also couldn’t believe that there was still so much we hadn’t seen and that we would each be returning to explore some more. After neglecting Dana Point Harbor for so many years I’ve got some making up to do!