Our new “Getting Away” series, a collection of vacation ideas that go beyond the norm. This month, we visit the peaceful tranquility of Crystal Cove, CA.
Visualize the impossible: A mellow southern California vacation where you step back in time in a secluded beachside bungalow without ever having to venture near any part of Los Angeles or its nightmarish tangle of freeways. That’s what you’ll find when you book your cottage at Crystal Cove State Park.
Once you land at the easy to navigate Orange County airport, hop in your rental car and you’re less than 10 miles away from Crystal Cove, a Lilliputian beach stacked with a ramshackled mishmash of cottages that bring to mind Popeye’s village in the Robin Williams film. Crystal Cove boasts a rich and racy history that goes back to the early 1900s when its gently curved beach, not four miles long, stood in for exotic, tropical locations at the bidding of movie studios. The beachside movie set came complete with thatched-roof shacks. Over time, those shacks morphed into 46 slightly more permanent dwellings, many of which were constructed by hand with materials locally salvaged, including some lumber retrieved from a local shipwreck. Thanks to a tireless group of dedicated preservationists, each cottage remains standing, some a bit more sure footed than others.
Now owned by the California State Parks, Crystal Cove came close to transitioning from an enchanted speck of yesteryear into a luxury eco-resort. Luckily those plans were quashed and, today, over 20 of the cottages have been painstakingly restored, some with original furnishings. Studios, one and two-bedroom cottages and hostel-style dorm rooms are now available as affordable rentals. One of the cabins was transformed into the thriving Beachcomber Cafe and bar at the water’s edge. On the north side of the cove, you can see some of the original structures waiting their turn at a makeover as soon as the funds are raised.
Note that while the area is secluded, and the cottages have been restored, this place is packed in high season, and the rentals are charming but rustic. If your grandparents had a casual, little bare bones place at the beach, this would be it.
Situated below the Pacific Coast Highway, at the base of a jagged bluff, between Newport to the north and Laguna Beach directly south, Crystal Cove has a lot to offer visitors. The state park provides miles of back country trails for biking and hiking. The area also is ideal for surfing and diving, not to mention dolphin and whale watching.
There’s plenty to do within a fairly short distance from Crystal Cove. Head south on the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), and in just under five minutes you’ll hit Husky Boy Burgers, a local landmark at the north end of Laguna Beach. Grab some burgers and the best fried zucchini you’ll find anywhere and make your way across the street to Heisler Park, a meandering stretch of green space perched on a winding bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, where you’ll enjoy a cheap meal and a billion dollar view. Follow the bluff on foot, and in a few minutes you’ll be in the village area of Laguna Beach, which is known for its many art galleries, boutiques, eateries and bars.
You can stay on the PCH as you continue through the string of southern Orange County beach towns. At Dana Point, turn in to the harbor and follow the twisty road to the top where you’ll find a small visitor center overlooking spectacular harbor views. You can take a short hike along the private path at the center to get a closer look at the ocean, and some magnificent oceanfront homes. If you’re here during whale watching season, the Dana Point Harbor offers plenty of excursions.
When you get to San Clemente, once home to the California White House under President Nixon, you can check out the coastal trail, the pier and the village beach where the cluster of Spanish-style buildings are clad in crisp white stucco topped with brick-red roof tiles.
The beach route stops for a bit at San Clemente, which is the last town in south Orange County, before you have to get on Interstate 5 as you enter San Diego County and drive through the beach area of the massive Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.
Once you pass the base, you now have an even longer string of beach towns available to you. Oceanside offers a gritty 60s vibe and claims the California Surf Museum, while Carlsbad, Encinitas, Cardiff-by-the-Sea and Solana Beach run together with more stunning sea views, plenty of eclectic shops and a fair share of brew pubs and casual seafood and Mexican eateries.
In the affluent seaside community of Del Mar you’ll find the tony thoroughbred race track “where the turf meets the surf,” which Bing Crosby helped to found. Next door to Del Mar, in La Jolla, golfers will want to take in the renowned Torrey Pines Golf Course on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. Even the golf shop offers spectacular water views.
If you want to spend an afternoon in La Jolla without breaking the bank, pack a lunch and head for the Torrey Pines Gliderport, where you can watch people dash off the cliffs and soar over the ocean. Established in 1930, it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is considered the Kitty Hawk of the West.
Of course you’ll have to venture down to the ritzy village of La Jolla, which easily brings to mind Cannes. While in the village, drive up the curvy road to Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial, where on a clear day you can take in 360-degree views of San Diego. As a side note, fans of Dr. Seuss should know that the author lived in a home at the top of Mt. Soledad, where his widow still resides.