Dream Town: Dana Point, California
The sun has barely peeked over the mountains to the east, and Dana Point is already up and at it. In the shade of trees at a hilltop park, a group of yogis inhale their way into upward dog. A pair of runners exhale heavily on a nearby paved trail with views of the sea. Down a long, sloping hill, surfboards are heaved overhead, and paddleboards are splashed into the Pacific.
It's a scene that plays out year-round in Dana Point, a once-sleepy town put on the map among the surf-minded set in the 1950s. Since then, Dana Point's appeal has reached far beyond wave worshippers: A bustling harbor, locally owned restaurants, and more than 30 specialty shops attract thousands of visitors each year. Walk the palm tree– and succulent-lined pathways overlooking the water and you might catch a fisherman hauling in the day's fresh catch, a family out for an afternoon sail, or a trio of sea lions basking on the harbor's rocky perimeter.
Left: Surf haven Salt Creek Beach, seen from Dana Point's 150-foot-high bluffs.
Quality of Life
Today, 35,000 people—a mix of everyone from retirees to young families—call Dana Point home. An 18-hole, Robert Trent Jones–designed golf course skirts the sea, and an emerging food scene has meant an influx of restaurants: burger joints, fine-dining establishments, and everything in between. Spurring more growth is a $16 million rejuvenation project the city recently embarked on to upgrade its historic Lantern Village district with outdoor seating, wider walkways, coastal landscaping, and more.
Dana Point's under-the-radar vibe makes owning a home here relatively affordable, with prices sometimes close to half those in neighboring Laguna Beach, says local Realtor Bret Johnson. Single-family homes with ocean views in the heart of town typically start at around $800,000; if you opt for a bungalow further inland, prices start at around $500,000. "Most people live in Dana Point full-time," says business owner Diane Wenzel. "If they don't yet, they probably will soon. Nobody wants to be away too long."
Left: A view of the harbor from The Blue Lantern Inn, one of our recommended hotels.
Why We Love It: Ocean Attractions
The Whale Watching
Thanks to the many species of whales that make the waters off of Dana Point part of their annual migration route, the town has earned its distinction as "the whale capital of the West." See them up close in an underwater viewing pod on Capt. Dave's catamaran Manute'a (pictured left).
The Paddle Power
Surfing may be big in California, but in Dana Point, stand-up paddle-boarding may be bigger. The largest SUP event in the country is held here, and Baby Beach is a mecca for SUP-ers nearly all hours of the day.
Why We Love It: Community, Past and Present
A dedicated community keeps Dana Point's beaches beautiful with regular cleanups. Their efforts extend below the surface, too: During the annual Dana Point Harbor Underwater Cleanup, prizes are awarded to volunteer divers who recover the most unusual items.
The Seafaring History
Dana Point was a hub for fur trading in the 1800s, and references to that storied past are everywhere: Streets are named after ship lanterns, and a replica of the town founder's schooner sits in the harbor.
The Essentials: Beaches and Activities
Doheny Beach State Park's three miles of sandy coastline attract surfers and swimmers from all over Southern California (left). Farther north, Strand Beach is a local favorite for its beachside running trail and ample (free) parking.
Lantern Bay Park is a prime spot for practicing your sun salutations during daily classes with I Heart Yoga in the Park. If you prefer adventure, Westwind Sailing offers lessons in the marina for boaters of all ages and experience.
The Essentials: Restaurants and Main Street
At Stonehill Tavern, the kitchen does modern beautifully with a deconstructed lobster pot pie in a brandied lobster cream sauce. For more-casual fare in a surf shop–inspired setting, locals love the hamburgers at Shwack Beach Grill (pictured left).
Head west on Golden Lantern Street as it slopes gently past wildflowers and palm trees and ends up at the marina, where small shops and galleries sell goods ranging from artisan chocolates to local, ocean-inspired artwork.