In winter, Southern California is inundated with visitors from the north looking for warm waters and a little sunshine. No, we're not talking about the annual migration of snowbirds hauling gleaming Airstream trailers but rather the equally ponderous--if slightly more beloved--gray whales. Some 26,000 of the leviathans that departed the chilly Arctic waters last fall will pass by the California coastline in great numbers this month.
Dana Point Harbor welcomes the barnacled cetaceans with an annual celebration, but you need not wait for the Dana Point Festival of Whales to enjoy a nautically based excursion. Whale-watching trips are available daily now through mid-April. Donna Kalez of Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whale Watching says the 50-foot-long beasts are so common around Dana Point that the company guarantees sightings or lets you ride again free.
Landlubbers can stroll along the walkway that runs from Dana Wharf to the Ocean Institute, with exhibits on whales and other marine creatures. Docked near the institute is the brig Pilgrim, a replica of the 1825 ship that carried Richard Henry Dana to these shores. You can visit the brig on Sundays between 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.
Before the harbor was built in the late '60s, this stretch of shoreline was known as Killer Dana to surfers, who claimed it had some of the best waves in Southern California. The surfers have since moved south to Doheny State Beach, but you'll still find marina shops testifying to the area's surfing history. Judy Gudeman's store, Quatro (34493 Street of the Golden Lantern; 949/443-1072), specializes in all things Woody--from a large collection of toy replicas of the '49 Ford surfer wagons to a whimsical Woody beach cruiser with a rattan seat and bamboo basket.
If you arrive in time for breakfast, wander down to Coffee Importers (34531 Golden Lantern; 493-7773). The Harbor Grill (34499 Golden Lantern; 240-1416) has excellent mesquite-broiled fish. But the best deal has to be Jon's Fish Market (34665 Golden Lantern; 496-2807). Through the end of the local lobster season (March 21), Jon's serves a whole lobster dinner with fries and coleslaw for $17.50. Eat outside on the red picnic tables, but don't leave your feast unattended or the gulls perched on the roof will make off with it.
WHERE: From I-5, exit at Pacific Coast Hwy., go north to Dana Point Harbor Dr., turn left, and follow signs to Dana Point Harbor.
WHEN: Festival of Whales, Feb 24-25 and Mar 3-4.
COST: $14 whale-watching excursions (two hours). Free visits on the brig Pilgrim.