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Orange County Crush

Mariner's Village can't really compare with the cove itself, but this cluster of shops and restaurants is worth a stroll. Stop at one of the cafés (make sure you choose one with an outdoor patio) and have a latte-- the air off the marina tends to be a little chilly, so you'll probably want some warming up.

Down on the water floats the Pilgrim, a ship modeled after the brig on which Dana first arrived. It's run by the Orange County Marine Institute (24200 Dana Point Harbor Dr.; 714/496-2274)-- a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching about life below the ocean's surface.

As the sun sets over the water, the dock lights sparkle and everything takes on an otherworldly glow. Stop for a beer at Turk's (26789 Golden Lantern Way; 714/496-9028), a bar with what might just be the world's last free jukebox.

The best view is from the Blue Lantern Inn (34343 Street of the Blue Lantern; 800/950-1236 or 714/661-1304, fax 714/496-1483; doubles from $140), up on the cliffs. At first glance, the lobby's teddy bears-- you can "adopt" one-- may send off your twee alarm. Fear not: the rooms are cool and calm, and some have terraces or balconies. The romance is up to you.

These may not be the area's top restaurants (those tend to be serious, stuffy, and stuck near business parks), but they're the local favorites.

Café Zoolu 860 Glenneyre, Laguna Beach; 714/494-6825; dinner for two $50. On a recent visit, at 6:30 p.m. on a Thursday, there was just one table available-- even the counter seats had been reserved. Forget atmosphere (the salt and pepper shakers are Trader Vic's cast-offs) and focus on the food. The famous swordfish special-- mesquite-grilled, served with a lemon caper sauce, and on the menu 99 percent of the time-- is so big it threatens to put swordfish on the endangered-species list.

Bistro 201 3333 W. Pacific Coast Hwy., Newport Beach; 714/631-1551; dinner for two $60. The façade is unpromising (the sign below the restaurant's says dentistry), as is the location, on a stretch of P.C.H. littered with surf-and-turf joints advertising "Hawaiian seafood." But the ambitious fare, such as salmon rolled in crisp potato crust with vegetable ragošt and basil sauce, is good enough to distract you from the harbor lights.

Ruby's Lunch for two $15. You can hardly throw a beach ball around here without hitting a Ruby's; these forties-style diners (sure, the retro diner is a cliché-- so what?) sit at the end of almost every pier. The burgers are juicy, the salads big, the onion rings irresistible. The branch on the Balboa Pier has rooftop seating that is exquisitely simple: blue sky, white walls, blue sea. It's like a Greek villa that serves chili fries.

Taco Loco 640 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach; 714/497-1635; lunch for two $12. El Burrito Jr. 909 Ocean Ave., Seal Beach; 310/431-8483, lunch for two $12; no credit cards. The battle for best tacos ends in a tie: Taco Loco wins for its hippy-dippy atmosphere (it claims to be the country's first solar-powered restaurant) and its array of yuppiefied fillings, from calamari to lobster to blackened mushroom. But who wants to eat a taco while listening to cars roar by?El Burrito Jr. delivers the real thing: tasty cheek-tingling carne asada tacos.

The best time to go to Balboa Island, a taste of Nantucket in Newport Harbor, is lunchtime. There are three reasons to take the ferry (as opposed to the bridge): it's just a five-minute ride; there are precious few ferries left in southern California; and it costs only 35 cents. As soon as you get off, you'll see a nothing of a building that houses Island Grill (500 S. Bay Front; 714/ 673-1186). Step up to the take-out window and order a $3.95 Balboa burger-- a beach burger par excellence, with bacon, cheese, grilled onions, and avocado (this is California, after all).

A stroll around the island-- actually, the islands, for wedged up against Balboa proper is Little Balboa-- takes about an hour. Pretend you're in the market for a summer house. Would you prefer a Cape Cod bungalow or a sleek eighties temple?Take a look at the benches by the shore-- most have plaques dedicating them to locals ("For Buster Hammond who so loved the sea, his family, and friends, and was the best mud-ball thrower on Balboa Island"). And keep your eyes on the water. You may spot a seal sunbathing on a buoy-- or on some unlucky person's boat.

Marine Avenue, the commercial strip, runs through the island's interior. You'll find a lot of the usual vacation-town junk-- batiks, coral jewelry, T-shirts-- as well as Dad's (318 Marine Ave.; 714/673-8686), a doughnut shop and bakery. Try a Balboa bar (hard to believe, but not everything here is prefixed with the word Balboa), an ice cream bar dipped in chocolate, then rubbed in whatever topping you desire.


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