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With the beach at your doorstep

WESTERN TRAVEL | WEEKEND ESCAPE

The renovated cottages at Crystal Cove have opened to high demand, with modest prices and an idyllic setting.

July 23, 2006|Robin Rauzi | Times Staff Writer

Crystal Cove State Park — 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.

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