Orange County, California, is known for all things new—pearly new malls shaped with the modern lines, groundbreaking ceremonies celebrating the look-alike homes of gated communities, young families tooling around Irvine's Great Park.
But Newport Beach's Crystal Cove State Park—a beach hidden below the Pacific Coast Highway—is bent on keeping itself old, making it a must-stop destination for anyone traveling in the area.
Famous for its historic beach cottages, which were built by hand in the 1930s and ’40s, sometimes using pieces of wood and other items that had washed ashore, Crystal Cove is currently entering a new phase of a long-term restoration project that began in the 1990s as an effort to save the cottages from being demolished to make way for a luxury resort.
This phase will include the restoration of 17 uninhabitable cottages, adding to the 29 cottages that have already been restored by the Crystal Cove Alliance, a nonprofit, and the California State Parks, all thanks to private and public funds.
"We're working on some early planning efforts to better understand the complete cost," said Laura Davick, who founded the Crystal Cove Alliance in the 1990s after news had leaked that the state of California, which owns Crystal Cove, had signed a secret deal with a big-time developer. "It's estimated as a $20 million project, which also includes $7 million in infrastructure."
For those unfamiliar with Crystal Cove, the beach is just south of the exclusive Pelican Hill Resort and north of the city of Laguna Beach. Hundreds of acres of canyon lands roll away from it to the east, where local hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders often play on the weekends.
While Crystal Cove is popular among Orange County residents and is often crowded, there's something about it that makes it feel secluded. Perhaps it's because you have to walk down a winding road to get to the cove, which is hidden from drivers on the highway. Perhaps it's because when you enter the cove, you're greeted by several cottages that are reminiscent of something you'd see at summer camp, and they take you back to the carefree days of childhood. Or perhaps it's because the water really does feel warmer at Crystal Cove, no matter how cheesy that sounds.
While 24 of the cottages are currently available for rent at surprisingly reasonable prices, Davick says their popularity makes them difficult to snag. But even if the cottages are tough to come by, that shouldn't stop you from visiting the cove if you ever find yourself in Southern California. In addition to enjoying a sunny day on the sand, cove visitors can check out tide pools and the cove's Education Commons and Film and Media Center, which offer an inside look into how the cove's early residents lived and what California's early beach culture felt like.
Visitors can also dine at the Beachcomber Café, which sits right on the shore and offers menu items such as grilled swordfish tacos and lobster club sandwiches, or they can hike up a long set of stairs to eat at the Shake Shack, which sells hamburgers and shakes. (And which was frequently referred to in the annoying teen television drama "The OC.")
Whatever you decide to do, if you enjoy your day at the cove, consider donating to the Crystal Cove Alliance or becoming a member, which will help ensure that this charming OC spot will always remain old and yet never die.
Tips for your trip:
If you're just making a day trip to the cove, park in the Los Trancos Parking lot on the left-hand side (the canyon side) of the Pacific Coast Highway as you're heading south, right before you reach the cove. The cost for a day is $15, and you can either cross the street and walk down the cove yourself, or take the shuttle.
Davick gives a guided tour of the cove the second Saturday of every month from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Davick grew up on the cove, so she has plenty of insider knowledge, and she also offers tips on how to snag a rental.
The Shake Shack above Crystal Cove is an OC landmark with a tiny parking lot and an omnipresent line of cars waiting their turn for a space. The restaurant chain Ruby's Diner purchased the spot in 2006 from a couple who had run it for decades, effectively rendering the Shake Shack the kind of corporate casualty you so often see in OC. But it's still worth a visit, especially if you like chocolate chip cookie dough shakes, as Ruby's are made with ice cream that's so thick you'll get a headache if you attempt to sip it with a straw. And it still offers date shakes—shakes made with dates—which is what the original Shake Shack became famous for.