When I was a young Girl Scout, I always looked forward to our annual spring horseback outing at Crystal Cove.
The stables were high on the bluffs, above the wide, sandy beach and we would enjoy a late afternoon ride watching the sun set in the distance behind Catalina Island. The beach was only accessible by following worn dirt trails to the nearly empty beach below. Further south, we would walk past the homes that sat right on the beach of Crystal Cove. I always pictured them as permanent fixtures for the few lucky families that lived there.
A Destination for Day Trippers and Movie Studios
At the time, Crystal Cove was owned by the Irvine Company which had widespread ranches and farms in Orange County, California. Employees and friends of the Irvine Company, and local artists, started visiting the secluded spot in the 1920s. When the Pacific Coast Highway was completed in 1926, it connected the towns of Corona Del Mar and Laguna Beach and made access to Crystal Cove much easier.
Before long, it became a destination for day trippers driving through the area.
A couple of site managers for the Irvine Company who also happened to be movie location scouts named the site Crystal Cove. Soon, the movie studios discovered this ideal location and used it to film tropical settings. But when the filming was done, the studios often left planted palm trees, thatched huts and other structures they had used to enhance their “sets”.
Today, a large number of these leftover gifts of vegetation and buildings remain. Some of the movies filmed here on location include Son of Tarzan (1920), Treasure Island (1934), To Have and To Hold (1944) and Beaches(1982). In fact, the cottage filmed in Beaches is now a media center for visitors to the Cove.
Summer Vacation Cottages
Crystal Cove quickly became a favorite summer and weekend escape with annual leases available for the summer seasons. Early tent cabins soon gave way to more traditional cottages and cabins. By 1939 there were 47 permanent structures and tent cabins on the South beach.
After WWII, the area enjoyed its zenith as a summer vacation destination throughout the ’50s until 1962, when the Irvine Company ended the summer tent leases due to increased public health and safety issues. The cottages then became full-time residences and ended the historical boom of the previous decades.
In 1971, the Irvine Company proposed a plan to develop the area to include 10 resort hotels and several thousand rental units. The outcry from the longtime residents of Crystal Cove and local environmental organizations was enough to prevent these plans from further progress, and the Crystal Cove Conservancy was initiated. Several years later in 1979, the Irvine Company sold the land to the State of California as parkland as part of their larger development plans.
With the possibility of the Crystal Cove community being destroyed, it was nominated and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This action helped spur more proactive community interest in protecting the community and natural aspects of the land for the proposed state park.
In 1997, the State signed a 60-year contract with private developers to convert the cottages into a luxury resort.
As a result, the Crystal Cove Alliance was formed by a third generation Cove resident, Laura Davick. Davick, who lived in Cottage #2 from the ages of 1 to 40, was instrumental in saving and restoring the historic site, especially in 2001.
The Crystal Cove Alliance and the Coalition of Historic District Preservation stepped up their efforts to stop the construction and voice their opposition to the plan. Thankfully, 2 million was used to fund a concession contract used by the California Coastal Conservancy to buy-out of the resort developers.
Since then, 29 cottages have been restored with 17 more awaiting rehabilitation. The Crystal Cove Conservancy is currently raising $23 million and renting the rehabilitated cottages.
Renting one is as easy as logging onto the ReserveCalifornia.com website but be warned – there is a 6-month wait period. It’s tricky knowing you can only rent for seven-days each year but what a coo when you do.
The rates range from $36 per night in a dorm-style cottage with a private room, to $250 for an individual cottage. All accommodations are on the beach and provide amazing views of the Pacific Ocean. This truly is an accessible retreat for all budgets.
Each cottage has its own special history. For example, The Soda Shack is a quaint, one-bedroom cabin painted in white and red. It has a small kitchen, totally restored to working condition while retaining the 1940s fire engine red refrigerator and period cabinetry.
Named The Soda Shack because in its heyday, this cottage served as the local store for the area, selling sodas, ice, ice cream and various sundries necessary to the beach community. Photos of that time of the shopkeepers and store are hung inside. Likewise, many of the other cottages have original artwork and furnishings from the era, all lovingly restored, making each one unique.
The Historic District of Crystal Cove is a gift for generations to come.
Walking these pristine beaches and along the bluff top trails where you can sight whales spouting and dolphins jumping in the surf is a favorite past time for me. The many protected tide pools and gentle surf are also treasured by our community and it’s visitors.