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For the love of Dana Point

My favorite places always seem to have sand. When not in the desert, I can generally be found at the beach. These days, my beach town of preference is Dana Point.

It was years ago, in Laguna Beach, that I first heard about Dana Point. I was learning how to surf and the waves got crowded. My instructor recalled the old days – the 1950s – when a small band of immortal longboarders had the ocean all to themselves.

By the time I first visited Dana Point in the mid-l980s, “Killer Dana,” the wave that made the area legendary, was long gone, transmogrified into a different kind of ride by a jetty installed in 1968. My instructor, although too young to have surfed the original, mourned its loss, and I sympathized – in theory.

For me, a good surf day is if I hang 20 without being flipped overboard; depending on the scenery, I tend to prefer small waves, whether they are the result of nature or human interference (though of course I prefer nature’s version). I was drawn to Dana Point by the surf and its legends, but have come to count on being there for its own sake, and for the beauty that Richard Henry Dana Jr. found when he arrived in its natural harbor in 1835.
My initial taste of the surf in Dana Point was on a fine and gentle summer day at Salt Creek Beach (not a section affected by the jetty), a mile-long stretch north of the point with easy breakers that peel left across the sandy bottom. Each wave ride was a reminder of the perpetual rebirth that goes on out here whenever the decision is made to hop aboard.

I cursed my ancestors – how had they chosen Lake Erie, in Ohio, which was mostly frozen, as the body of water on which to settle, instead of the Pacific Ocean in Southern California?
I promised myself I would spend more time in this delightful and thrilling bathtub.

Because I don’t like to change telephone numbers, moving to Orange County from Los Angeles was out of the question. Fortunately for me, my cousin Jon, a longtime corporate consultant, his wife, Denise, a food stylist par excellence, and their daughter Ariana, a college-bound fan of K-pop and a fancy dancer herself, have lived in Dana Point for many years. Their home is where I make my base of explorations.

Heading south from LA on the 405 to the 73 toll road, I get off at the Laguna Beach exit, and head west through Laguna Canyon, breathing much easier now as I close in on my destination. Next to Pacific Coast Highway, this is my favorite drive in Southern California, partly because it takes me to the highway, but also because on either side there is pristine chaparral adorned with stands of California oak and bougainvillea and little groves of prickly pear – a hint of the Golden State before it was ravaged for gold. And then the road makes its final descent, deep through the canyon and ending at sea level with the sparkling ocean splayed out before me and the rest of the world. I turn left, now level with the sea and feeling very much a part of it, and follow Pacific Coast Highway for Dana Point.

In Laguna Beach, I park on PCH and head to Papa’s Tacos for the best fish tacos en route, and then survive another dash back to my car amid traffic. I’m ready for what’s left of Killer Dana, within minutes arriving in Dana Point. Unlike Laguna Beach, Dana Point could not be described as “hard by” the sea. Although just six square miles, it is grand and bold, a Nebuchadnezzar of Champagne as opposed to the split that is Laguna Beach. Here the Coast Highway widens and rises with the land, hundreds of yards from the ocean. In the center of town, the streets that run west toward the sea hint of twilight trysts on the wharf – there is Green Lantern, Golden Lantern, Blue Lantern, Ruby, Amber and Violet. It is hard not to follow them. Golden Lantern descends to the harbor, a serious drop below sky-high cliffs and giant plants that advertise another geologic age.

The town’s namesake, Richard Henry Dana Jr., arrived here on board the Pilgrim, a duplicate of which is now a floating classroom in Dana Point Harbor. He had shipped out of Boston
and headed around Cape Horn for California, toiling as a seaman, and later chronicled the plight of sailors in his novel “Two Years Before the Mast.”

From offshore, he wrote, “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. For several miles the water washes the very base of the hill, or breaks upon ledges and fragments of rocks which run out into the sea. Just where we landed was a small cove, or ‘bight,’ which gave us, at high tide, a few square feet of sand-beach between the sea and the bottom of the hill. This was the only landing place. Directly before us, rose the perpendicular height of four or five hundred feet.”

My land-bound arrival is not as dramatic, but no matter – I timed it with low tide and I’ll be down in the brine myself before the tide returns. I check in at my private hotel, and Jon and I head into town to visit the tide pools near the harbor. The sea anemones sway in response to the currents, fragile dancers available to any rhythm; tiny sand crabs scuttle from one task to the next, never shifting speed; the most exquisite shells – home to minuscule creatures – have tumbled to this salty hollow for my visual delight.

I give thanks and move on. We hike the trail around the Point, spotting some of the birds that hang out on rocky shorelines – a variety of gulls, cormorants, many brown pelicans. Alas, there is no surf today. As the sun makes for 2 o’clock, we head for the wharf to sit in the heat and warm ourselves in the winter air. At Coffee Importers, we each get a cup, find a nice spot at one of the many umbrella-topped tables, and sit and listen and watch. There is the sound of ships’ horns in the distance. I scan the moored boats, always finding solace in the silent reading of their names: Last Call, My Tyme, New Hope, Pure Jazz.

“Want to go for a row? ” Jon says. I immediately sign on, grateful to the far-thinking Dana for his defense of sailors’ rights, and we board Jon’s one-station rowing dory at a nearby slip. I climb on and nestle into the stern. He paddles away from the pier and past the jetties, out to the bait dock where the fishermen stock up in the morning. There are plenty of harbor birds here – great blue herons, snowy egrets, red-breasted mergansers. Atop the dock is a group of sea lions – piled on top of each other like a quarterback sack that’s turned into a love-in – soaking up the sun, waiting for fish. Jon paddles up close. They’re cute, they make funny grunts, they smell.

Now with the sun moving higher, we head toward the harbor mouth, to catch the sun as it begins to sink. I want to see if I can spot the green ray, the last ray of the setting orb. No dice, says the sun, and we head back to port. I’ll try again tomorrow.

That night, I fall asleep to the sound of the winter surf crashing nearby. The next morning, Denise and I take a customary hike through a public access path at the Ritz-Carlton down to Salt Creek Beach, winding past the meandering coastal ice plant. In January and February, migrating gray whales can be observed along this path, and others around Dana Point, as they head down to a lagoon in Mexico to birth their calves.

According to the surf report posted at the beach, the water is 62 degrees, two down from the previous week. There are now lots of exposed boulders at the shore break, reminding all who pass that they lurk just beneath the welcoming sand; as the year ends, the currents suck the sand away from the shore in an annual display of deconstruction. We walk for the north end of the beach, where the tall pampas grass against the cliffs sways in the northwesterly breeze. A pod of dolphins plays out in the surf. A pair of fighter planes from nearby Camp Pendleton dances in the sky. Snowy plovers skitter across the beach into a receding wave.

The sand shifts again.

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