THE hottest tickets on sale the last week of April were not for Bruce Springsteen at the Greek or Madonna’s extra show at the Forum. They were for the beach cottages at Orange County’s Crystal Cove State Park.
Up and online at the very hour reservations opened, I clicked and clicked until I got a cabin. Well, a room. With bunk beds. Facing Pacific Coast Highway, not the ocean. Still, I felt lucky. About 16,000 users were trying to secure one of the 13 cottages that morning, according to ReserveAmerica, the park’s booking service.
There clearly was pent-up demand for the limited supply. This stretch between Newport Beach and Laguna Beach became state parkland in 1979, but private lessees held the cottages until 2001. Five years of restoration or reconstruction of the 1930s-era bungalows followed to ready them as rentals.
The funky village clings to the top of the bluff and climbs up from the sand, not quite meeting in the middle. The wood cottages -- some clad in bare cedar shingles, others with new or faded paint -- sweep around with the curve of the cove, a tiny neighborhood that is half-gentrified. To approach it walking up or down the coast is to stumble head-on into a 70-year time warp, into what the National Register of Historic Places recognized as “the last intact California beach vernacular architecture.”
The historic charm and unspoiled coastline come at an irresistible price: from $165 a night for four people. Lodge rooms like mine, which share common living spaces, cost as little as $60 for two people.
I had never been to Crystal Cove before checking in on the Fourth of July, about a week after the cottages opened. It has changed my idea of Southern California beaches. This is not the wide, groomed strands of Venice or Redondo or Balboa Island. The cove is intimate, tucked below a 40-foot bluff, invisible from the nearby highway. The golden sand slopes slowly into the Pacific. I found mussel shells the size of hand trowels. The water is so clear that one morning, I watched an orange garibaldi dart around offshore, the front of each wave like a pane of glass.
I’m no beach expert. I arrived somewhat under-prepared for the surfside lifestyle, with no folding chair or umbrella. (These were supposed to be available for a fee but weren’t yet.) Even with a hat, snacks, a super-size bottle of sunscreen and a spy novel, I did occasionally have to leave the beach.
My room was in the Beachcomber’s Lodge, one of the three cottages on the bluff that operate like hostels, with shared bathrooms and kitchens, and other common spaces.
The rooms are MYOB -- Make Your Own Bed -- and the sheets and towels were waiting in neat, folded stacks on each bunk. The room I had reserved in the back had two sets of bunk beds and one high window. I suspected it was the least-desirable room in our lodge and confirmed that the next morning when I awoke to the sound of cars rather than waves.
The dorm rooms are designed as sleeping quarters, not living space. Unfortunately, Beachcomber’s Lodge didn’t have any lounging options. The kitchen, decorated with fishing nets and glass floats, was dominated by a large square table ringed by wood benches.
Crystal Cove Alliance, the nonprofit that operates as the concessionaire of the cottages, had only 10 weeks between signing its contract and opening day. So some rooms -- like the future living room of our Beachcomber’s Lodge -- were still unfurnished. I looked enviously at my neighbors in Long Board Lodge, with its cozy living room with rattan furniture and leaf-print cushions.
Still, whenever I got grumpy, I chanted this mantra: For $60, I could be at the Anaheim Buena Park Days Inn.
I expected a crowd in my five-room lodge, but I hardly saw my lodgemates. A few were on the deck the first morning. The next evening, I found a family from Huntington Beach cooking on a George Foreman grill at 9 o’clock. They had just arrived and had a reservation for only one night.
Everyone was so eager to see the cottages that many took whatever reservation they could get, even a dorm room for one night. I’d say three days, though, really lets the salubrious sea air lull you into the state of relaxation I call 9-90: when you can sleep until 9 a.m. and still manage a 90-minute nap in the afternoon.
The early years
CRYSTAL COVE started out as a sliver of the vast holdings of rancher James Irvine, who acquired a piece of Orange County 8 miles long and 22 miles wide in the late 1800s. Ranch workers were among the first to camp at the cove. Moviemakers who came to re-create the South Seas left behind palm trees and thatched shacks.
The first cottage was built in 1925 for the manager overseeing campsite rentals. And once PCH opened the next year, there were plenty of campers, most in tents on the sand. Some built one-room cabins the next year after lumber from a wrecked boat washed ashore, and more building followed through the 1930s.
The cottages were leased, and turnover was rare. Many cottages were handed down within families. After the state bought the land from Irvine Co. for $32.6 million in 1979, longtime residents went to court and fought hard to stay. They reached a settlement.
The cove’s turnover to California State Parks was not without drawbacks. Beach tent camping was already long gone, but now so too are the bonfires (no open flames, even in the cottage kitchens) and luaus that stretched into the night. The beach closes at 10 p.m.
In each room is a copy of the coffee table book “Crystal Cove Cottages: Islands in Time on the California Coast” that chronicles the area’s heyday, from the 1930s to the 1960s. It left me with the impression that “the more the merrier” ruled the day.
The vibe now is more sedate, and I’m sure that appeals to some visitors. Perhaps when the new Beachcomber Cafe opens (Aug. 1 in Cottage 15) and hoists the cocktail hour martini flag, the cove will regain some of its social life.
Castles in the sand
ALREADY, though, the summer days have a laid-back rhythm. The first umbrella arrives on the beach at 9 a.m. From my deck -- and by the first morning I’d already begun to think of it as mine -- I watch the temporary cove-ites pop out of their cottages and stake out the sand closest to their front doors. Lunchtime brings a migration back to the cottages or up the long staircase to Ruby’s Shake Shack for thick $4 date shakes or an albacore tuna salad sandwich. (Only cold food is available now; hamburgers and the like will be added in January.)
About 3 p.m., the time of the changing of the lifeguards, the waves lay siege to the sandcastles. When the inevitable destruction occurs, kids squeal with disappointment and delight.
When the day visitors pack up about 5 p.m., the ocean temperature is just right for me. The boogie boarders are out in force, too, riding waves that break close in. The water moves with force here, and more than once I was thrown tail over teakettle trying to bodysurf.
Dinner hour presented a problem. With the Beachcomber Cafe just taking delivery of its stove, dining out meant leaving the cove. The car was a 10-minute walk under PCH through a beach-access tunnel. And to cross the highway was to leave the bubble that is Crystal Cove and face the suburban onslaught of faux turrets and tile roofs marching down the hillsides.
Inside the cove, it’s the hillsides that are tumbling down around the remaining cottages. The torrential rains of 2005 brought dirt and rock up to the back door of some, including the one made famous by the 1988 movie “Beaches.” Retaining walls took a big hunk of the $12 million spent fixing the first 22 cottages. (Besides the rentals, there are check-in cabins, event space, a visitor’s center, a store, the restaurant, a marine research center and park staff housing.) The Crystal Cove Alliance is mounting a fund-raising campaign to preserve the remaining 24.
Clearly there’s local interest. At the entrance to Los Trancos parking lot is a handwritten sign: “No ‘Just seeing the cottages’ OR ‘Visiting friends at cottages’ without paying.” Those who balk at the $10 parking fee sometimes dart down from the Shake Shack to sneak a peek.
What everyone wants, of course, is a reservation. It is not hopeless. Each month, 30 more days open up. And cancellations happen.
I broke from my 9-90 plan the last day to get in one early walk on the beach. On my way to the staircase, I passed two boys, about 8, outside their cottage. They had a kid-size metal detector and were awkwardly scanning each other’s pockets for hidden treasure.
Treasure? It’s right here, boys. Look around.
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A slice of Orange County beach life
From downtown Los Angeles, it’s about 50 miles to Crystal Cove State Beach. There are several ways to get there, but the simplest is to take Interstate 5 south to Irvine, then California 133 south to Laguna Beach. When 133 hits the Pacific Coast Highway, go north for about four miles to Crystal Cove/Los Trancos. To check in only, turn left on Crystal Cove.
WHERE TO STAY:
Crystal Cove Beach Cottages, 35 Crystal Cove, Newport Coast, CA 92657; (949) 497-0900, www.crystalcovebeachcottages.org. Reservations for cottages open up one month at a time, seven months in advance. So 8 a.m. Aug. 1 is the time to reserve for February. Individual cottages cost $165-$175 for four people, plus $30 for each additional person. Lodge rooms cost $60 for two people, plus $20 for each additional person. Pre-register with booking agency ReserveAmerica at www.reserveamerica.com to book online. California State Parks reservations is at (800) 444-PARK (7275).
WHERE TO EAT:
Food can be an issue. Most cabins lack stove tops, although all have microwaves and refrigerators. Barbecue grills must have self-contained gas canisters and can be used only in approved locations.
Ruby’s Shake Shack, 7703 E. Coast Highway, Newport Coast; (949) 464-0100. The shack has sandwiches, shakes and malts. Open 7 a.m.-7 p.m. daily through summer, with reduced hours after that.
Beachcomber Cafe, No. 15 Crystal Cove, Newport Coast; (949) 376-6900. New restaurant on the beach to be operated by Ruby’s. Menu to include seafood and organic fare. Full cocktail bar. Open 7 a.m.-10 p.m. daily after Aug. 1.
Pomodoro, Newport Coast Shopping Center, 21133 Newport Coast Drive, Newport Coast; (949) 759-1303. Tasty pasta and salads that are a good value in a pleasant setting. About four miles from Crystal Cove. Dinner for two, $45.
TO LEARN MORE:
Crystal Cove Alliance, 3535 E. Coast Highway, No. 360, Corona del Mar, CA 92625; (949) 640-5220, www.crystalcovealliance.org. The nonprofit led the charge to save the beach cottages and now is the park’s concessionaire.
-- Robin Rauzi