Hidden away on a beach in Southern California, at the foot of a series of sandstone bluffs, out of sight of the famous and heavily trafficked Pacific Coast Highway above, is a relic from California’s seaside past: Crystal Cove Beach Cottages and Historic District.
Once upon a time, back in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, a rather casual movement was afoot on Southern California beaches. Later dubbed “Southern California beach architecture,” it pretty much amounted to an eclectic mix of people — ranging from artists, company executives, squatters, beach bums, Bohemians, and Hollywood types — eying an attractive little beach or cove and pretty much just taking it over. They would piece together cottages of sorts out of salvaged materials, and claim ownership through a loose interpretation of adverse possession — otherwise known as squatters’ rights.
Crystal Cove Cottages and Historic District is one of the last remaining examples of Southern California beach architecture and happily for us, it is being protected, preserved, and lovingly renovated through the combined efforts of the California State Parks system, which owns Crystal Cove, and the Crystal Cove Alliance — and it’s now listed as a Federal Historic District.
Getting to Crystal Cove is not easy as the only parking is across the PCH in the Los Truncos parking lot. To get to the cottages, you can walk through the tunnel that runs under PCH, cross PCH at the traffic signal, or take the comfortable Beachcomber Shuttle for $1 per person — an excellent choice if you have young children with you. Even with the shuttle, however, there will be some walking involved and the cottages and facilities are tucked into the bluffs — often with steps and staircases involved.
But whatever effort it takes to get there, you will be richly rewarded with the charm of this kitschy and quirky throwback of a seaside village. Of the 46 original vintage cottages, 24 have been restored and renovated to the point where they are available for overnight stays. The quirky decor styles range from nautical to Americana, to tropical island, to old-time surf movie. The sizes range from studios to one- and two-bedroom cabins to hostel-style dorms. Each room or cottage is unique and time-warp-vintage-funky as some of their names suggest: Fisherman’s Perch (#37), Painter’s Cottage (#32), Longboard Lodge (#29A), and Shell Shack (#2). Most have a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean, the bluffs, the beach, and the sunsets.
The secret to enjoying a stay in a Crystal Cove Cottage — aside from possessing an enduring love of everything historic — is to know what you’re getting into and to think of it as very comfortable camping with sturdy walls and beds instead of canvas and cots. There’s no television, internet, or phone. Guests make their own beds upon arrival (linens are provided, however) and strip them upon departure. Some of the cabins have shared bathrooms, it’s strictly paper plates and plastic forks, and oftentimes the stove is there for decorative purposes only.
The upside is you have the opportunity to reconnect with friends and loved ones via old-fashioned conversation, games, and walks on the beach. You fall asleep to the soothing rhythm of the waves and the somewhat surprising, but not unpleasant frog song. And you awaken to an empty coastline with dolphins and seals playing in the surf. Life just doesn’t get much better than that.
To make reservations, visit Reserve America online.
By the way, you don’t have to stay at Crystal Cove to enjoy the Historic District, the cottages, the beach, and the tide pools – this slideshow is from a recent visit we made, just for the day. Visit to check it out before you book.
If you’d like to discover Northern California getaways, visit my website, DiscoverNorthernCalifornia.com for day trip getaways and weekend getaways.