Head to California’s Orange County coast for a classic beach-cottage vacation.
Writer Kelly Brown Tomas
1 of 8Photographer Shelley Metcalf
Life at Crystal Cove is slow and soulful. Ocean waves sweep toward a solitary lifeguard chair as the setting sun casts a fiery glow on its orange seat. Beachgoers remain planted in the sand, relishing the last rays of light. And a sense of simplicity surrounds the cove’s vintage cottages. They’re not even visible from the blufftop highway that snakes down the Southern California coast.
2 of 8Photographer J. Christopher Laumi
Now part of Crystal Cove State Park’s historic district, this rustic beachside community sits in contrast to the surrounding multimillion-dollar houses. For travelers, there’s good news: In June 2006, the park completed renovations on enough cottages to welcome new visitors.
3 of 8Photographer Shelley Metcalf
When Temecula, California, resident Mike Fages heard that the grand opening was set, he reserved a coveted cottage just feet from the water. As he relaxes on the beach with his wife and four children, Mike looks like a typical American dad from a classic issue of Life. “Looking at the Crystal Cove Cottages book took me back to being a kid. Now so many people can experience what it was like,” he says.
4 of 8Courtesy of Crystal Cove
Preservation champion Laura Davick knows Crystal Cove’s history better than most. Her parents met and spent their early married years here, and as a child Laura called one of these cottages home. The bungalows she prizes offer a glimpse of life during California’s Golden Age, when this area sparkled with lush orange groves and pristine beaches. Early Hollywood filmmakers used the coast as the site of several “South Seas” films, including 1917’s Treasure Island.
5 of 8Photographer J. Christopher Laumi
The stretch between San Diego and Los Angeles became a state park in 1979, but the cottages remained privately owned until 2001. After nonprofit groups and local residents joined to halt plans for a resort here, the Crystal Cove Alliance and California State Parks rebuilt and restored 22 of 46 cottages. Thirteen now host overnight guests; restoration of the remainder is under way.
6 of 8Photographer Roger Davies
The cove traditionally offered a low-key lifestyle, and the same is true today. You won’t find extravagant baths, DVD players, or even TVs. Instead, unassuming sleeping quarters and lounging areas prevail. Completed and planned accommodations range from private cottages to dorm-style bungalows with communal living areas. The cove encourages a community atmosphere with friendly card games and no-fuss meals.
7 of 8Photographer Shelley Metcalf
From Kelvinator refrigerators to Hawaiian-theme bedspreads, the relaxed coastal setting of Laura’s childhood comes to life here. Laura, her team, and California State Parks staff re-created the style with one goal: “When people walk out of the parking lot, they check into a period between 1935 and 1955,” she says. As a bonus, the community charges affordable prices as retro as the decor. “We put journals in the cottages,” Laura says. “Over and over again people describe it as heaven on Earth. They spend time with their families. They get back to the basics.”
8 of 8Photographer Shelley Metcalf
Sleep in: Crystal Cove State Park; crystalcovestatepark.com. Crystal Cove Beach Cottages; crystalcovebeachcottages.org. Cottage rates start at $165 for four people; dorm-style lodging rates start at $60 for two people. Cabins may be booked six months in advance. New reservations are available the first of each month at 8 a.m. You must register with ReserveAmerica for reservations; 800/444-7275 or reserveamerica.com.
Local hangouts: Ruby’s Shake Shack, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily during the summer; 949/464-0100. Beachcomber Café, 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. daily; 949/376-6900 or thebeachcombercafe.com.
How to help: For more information, to order a copy of Crystal Cove Cottages: Islands in Time on the California Coast ($35), or to become a member of the Crystal Cove Alliance, call 949/376-6200 or visit crystalcovealliance.org.