The southern origin of California’s Highway 1 winds through some gorgeous locations, like beach town and whale-watching mecca Dana Point. The town has been wooing whale- and dolphin-watchers and water lovers for generations, earning the designation of Dolphin & Whale Watching Capital of the World®. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the right-breaking waves that tended to form here could produce 12-foot surf breaks known as Killer Dana. A short walk away, California’s first surf shop was opened in 1954 by Orange County local Hobie Alter.
Today, you’ll still find a Hobie Surf Shop on this stretch of Highway 1, two blocks from where the original one was located, plus boutiques and eateries, as well as Baby Beach, Strand Beach, and Salt Creek Beach, as you continue north. Otherwise, the town very much revolves around the harbor, which, when it was constructed in 1966, tamed Killer Dana and created Doheny State Beach. Though a celebrated surfing spot was lost, the formation of the harbor also resulted in abundant options for kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, sports fishing, and whale-watching.
Indeed, you can spot giant mammals breaching and frolicking in the waves year-round. Migrating grey whales are seen from November through April, then blue whales from April through October, along with sightings of humpbacks, orcas, fin whales, and minke whales. Take a paddleboard ride—the harbor’s waveless anchorage is especially kind to first-timers—and you might also spot pods of dolphins, sea lions, and seals. There are also several companies that offer dolphin- and whale-watching cruises. Captain Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Watching Safari will take you out on a high-speed catamaran that is equipped with Eye-to-Eye Underwater Viewing Pods, which will give you the sensation of swimming underwater with the big fish. Come during the holiday season to double the viewings out on the water: One of the town’s biggest events of the year is December’s Dana Point Harbor Boat Parade of Lights.
Many of Dana Point’s hotels and eateries sit on cliffs above the harbor (like the Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort and the Blue Lantern Inn) or on the water itself, such as the sustainable and locally sourced seafood offered at Waterman’s Harbor, or the mesquite-grilled fresh catches at The Harbor Grill. For a classic view, stroll along the Bluff Top Trail and, while looking out over the water for whales, check out the statue honoring 19th-century hide droghers—tradesmen who literally tossed hides over the cliffs to merchant ships anchored below. And if you’re looking for an ultra-luxe experience, check in at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, a longtime Dana Point oceanfront institution.
Insider tip: Check for music festivals, surfing competitions, and more on the Visit Dana Point upcoming events calendar.