Stepping into the Crystal Cove cottages is like taking a time machine to a simpler time.
You won’t find a television, radio, phone or even a clock in any of these beachside retreats – even internet connection is spotty. But what you will find is a treasure trove of history and plenty of downtime to build memories with friends, family and loved ones.
“It’s not a luxury hotel. It’s not about that,” said Randy Gamache, project manager for the Crystal Cove Management Company, who gave a sneak peek at some of the newly-renovated North Beach cottages being readied for overnight stays. “The whole idea is to relax, enjoy your family and enjoy the beach. And that’s why it’s so important to us, bringing family and history together.”
Eight newly-renovated units that have been shuttered since 2001 will be up for grabs starting Monday, Nov. 13. But be warned, it will be no easy feat to nab one of these coveted coastal cottages.
The more than two dozen on the south end open since 2006 are among the most in-demand State Parks “campsites,” gobbled up within seconds of reservations opening. The North Beach cottages are expected to be just as hard to reserve for people wanting a unique overnight stay right on the sand.
Here’s what to know if you want to give it a shot:
A month of reservations will open at 8 a.m. on Monday at reservecalifornia.com. The overnight stays start on Nov. 20 through Dec. 20, a soft opening so the Crystal Cove folks can work out any kinks with the newly restored cottages.
Then, by the end of the month – no exact date has been announced – another wave of reservations will open for the period between Dec. 20 through March 1, 2024.
Tip: Be logged in and have your credit card ready to go, know which date and cottage you want and be ready to have very fast fingers right when the clock strikes 8. You might want to have a back up cottage or dates in mind in case the one you want gets scooped up or even enlist friends and family to try for the desired cottages to better your chances.
The first batch of eight units are among 17 cottages expected to all be open by 2026 in a $55-million project that’s doubling what is currently available.
So, why are these cottages so high in demand?
While the beachfront location can’t be beat, it’s more than just the soft sand and glistening blue sea that’s the lure.
Wedged between Newport Beach and Laguna Beach, the area has a storied past.
The tucked away stretch of coast was first used as movie sets for early-era films such as “Treasure Island” in 1918, and the palm-frond huts built by crews were left behind.
When the Pacific Coast Highway was built in the ’20s, tourists started coming down for day trips, some setting up tents and staying overnight.
Some visitors liked it so much they cobbled together makeshift cottages using lumber from capsized ships or finding leftover building materials from projects further inland as the region started to be built up.
The area became even more popular in the postwar era of the ’40s, and for the next few decades a tight-knit community would either live there full-time or use their cottages as family getaways.
The cottages grew and rooms would be added wherever space allowed. Sometimes, a person had to go outside and down a set of stairs to reach the toilet or shower.
The designs – or lack of – gave the cottages what’s called vernacular architecture, meaning there were no plans, specifications or inspections during their build, eventually earning the area its designation as a historical landmark. Few examples of this colorful, creative, makeshift style – once popular along California’s coastline – still exist today, instead most were replaced by stricter building codes and master-planned communities.
“This is a real, true part of history,” Gamache said. “Our main goal is to maintain as much as the historic fabric as we possibly can.”
His job for the past five years has been to make sure each cottage stays true to its original design – it’s been no easy task to refurbish original fixtures, tiles and tubs, or hunt down pieces as close as possible to the vintage versions.
Gamache on a recent day gave a tour of some of the intricate details that might go overlooked, starting in Cottage #6, dubbed the Hawaiian Bungalow.
All of the rust-colored shingles set outside along the front are original from the 1930s, as are the white scallop accents under the window.
“People had a sense of style back in the day,” he said.
The floors in this cottage are original, except for the kitchen, but that area has the original poppy red color just as it did in the ’30s.
Other elements had to be changed, functionally, like this cottage’s original shower required walking outside and down a staircase and has been altered for the privacy of guests. Structural beams had to be added to the ceilings, as did sprinklers, to meet fire codes.
Rustic Retreat #8 is among Gamache’s favorites, he said, with tattered “ghost pictures” cut from magazines still lining the bedroom wall.
“It will, over time, disappear. There’s nothing we can do about it,” he said, adding they are going to place Plexiglas over them to try and slow the process.
Look on the side of the kitchen sink for hidden, colorful jellybean tiles, a small detail most people will miss.
“If I don’t point them out, people wouldn’t know because they are not looking for them,” Gamache said. “That’s what I love.”
Little Grass Shack #7 has its original white tub, mirror and towel bar used by a family that passed the cottage down through generations.
One detail not to be missed is the growth chart written on the bedroom door by John Adamson and wife, Diane, whose family had owned the cottage since 1939.
It shows son Tristen’s height through the years as he got older – right up until July 1, 2001, seven days before the family was evicted by State Parks so the cottages could be transformed into a public overnight destination, a favored plan over proposals for a mega luxury hotel that was defeated by longtime residents and other opponents.
Adamson spends his retirement years working at the cottages in guest services for the Crystal Cove Conservancy, slowly watching his old home come back to life. He reminisced about how his son grew up on the beach, learning to swim and surf in their front yard, and how he and his wife would enjoy nightly sunset cocktails on the deck looking out at the sea.
It’s a nostalgic seaside story many of the residents shared: catching abalone and lobster for that night’s dinner, toasting to the martini flag at sunset, stealing kisses on the sand with summer flings.
And now, it’s time for the next chapter of Crystal Cove to allow more people to make even more memories to cherish.
“Hopefully, they will see what it was like to live here and they can experience that, if they are lucky enough,” Adamson said. “I’m hoping they’ll see what this little slice of heaven was like all those years ago and how the families lived. I hope they’ll take away some of the history of Crystal Cove with them.”
Want a peak at the newly renovated cottages? There will be a North Beach Open House event for the public from 2 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 12, to get a glimpse inside. Go to crystalcove.org to RSVP.