escape to crystal cove
It’s been almost 2 years since I moved to Orange County from overseas; and after 3 moves, a house remodel, and another major life change which has manifested into one of the biggest and most challenging writing projects of my life, I’m finally ready to get out and explore all that Southern California has to offer. This weekend, I discovered the beaches at the Crystal Cove Historic District on the Newport Coast. Designated on the National Registry of Historic sites, Crystal Cove was once the setting for a number of silent movies as its untouched beauty attracted the attention of Hollywood’s booming silent film industry in the early 1920’s. As early as 1917, film makers discovered that by building small cottages and thatching the rooftops with palms, they could transform the place to look like exotic locations like Hawaii or Tahiti to avoid the expenses of having to shoot on location. The immaculate and expansive sandy shores here are part of the 12.3 acre coastal area of the more than 2,791 acres along the Pacific Coast Highway that comprises the entirety of Crystal Cove State Park.
Driving along PCH, I first noticed the Crystal Cove State Park sign about 20 minutes down from where I started at Huntington Beach. We pulled into the parking lot on the beach, and discovered soon after entering that it was actually the lot for trailers. Apparently, you can reserve a spot here and hitch your trailer right on the beach overlooking the ocean. The park ranger informed us that the parking lot was back up the road and across the street, but it’s not free; “Oh, and there’s a shuttle, but that costs $1.50,” she said. We thanked her for the tips, and drove back up to the highway.
Just a few minutes into our walk along the windy path that takes you to the beach, we saw the tunnel (head to the right at the first end of the path that takes you under the PCH and back over to the beach. I have to admit that when I first heard the ranger say “tunnel”, I immediately thought back to many of the tunnels I’ve taken in other places which were always dirty, dank, and dark, and smelled like urine; but the tunnel to Crystal Cove is actually kind of cute - with cute little murals along both sides on the white walls inside, a little brook of water running along the side, and the bright sunlight beaming through at the end on the other side, it was almost quaint. Once through the tunnel, walkway quickly takes you on a steady incline up and then down to the historic enclave of rustic cottages that dot the coast on the beach, beginning with the ones that they turned into a little gift shop and a restaurant called The Beachcomber. There are also clean public bathrooms conveniently placed from the beginning of the path and throughout the cottage area.
The cottages dotted along the beachside were all very small, cute, and reminiscent of the 30’s and 40’s style of architecture and decor; but we didn’t pay much attention to them because we thought they were privately owned. Later, I found out that the cottages are part of a seaside colony that was built there and around the mouth of Los Trances Creek in the 1930’s & 40’s, and are one of the last remaining examples of early 20th century coastal development in Southern California. Each of them has been restored to its original vintage 30’s-40’s style interior and exterior design, and can be rented throughout the year for about $175-$245 a night, which is pretty affordable, considering most of them sleep at least 4 people to a cabin. At the moment, however, they are booked solid throughout the entire year.
We walked past all of the cottages and further out down the coast. Although it was MLK day, and the weather was beautiful, it wasn’t as crowded as a lot of public beaches usually are, and we were grateful for that. The beach was quiet, pristine, and dotted with beautiful jagged rocks all along the mile-long stretch we explored that afternoon. There were a few tide pools, but they were void of anything but sea water, sand, and an occasional empty clam shell or two. We picked a spot and sat staring at the sea with a backdrop of looming carved cliffs, grand and golden from the sun beaming on their faces, and rolling bushes of evergreens and grass blowing in the cool, salty breeze. Could have sat for days, but hunger called and we hadn’t thought to pack any sustenance, so we headed back to try our luck at the Beachcomber restaurant back at the enclave.
The Beachcomber Cafe is a small restaurant that was built out of a remodel of one of the cottages against the bluffs. It sits right on the sand and faces the ocean, so the view is spectacular; but we couldn’t get a table as it was packed, even at 3pm. But the Bootlegger Bar in the back was less crowded and serves everything on the menu, so we sat right down without having to wait and checked out the menu. The decor in both the restaurant and the bar was definitely Vintage early-to-mid century cottage-slash Tiki hut. The only thing missing was Jimmy Buffet piped in through the house speakers .
On the menu, were the usual suspects - clam chowder, salads, sandwiches, some fish dishes, etc.. with a slight Californian twist here and there. We ordered the Kung Pao Calamari, the Crab & Tuna Tartare with Taro Chips, and the Smoked Bacon, Blue Cheese, Dates & Arugula Flatbread pizza, which were all equally phenomenal in their own rights. The portions were generous, the greens and seafood were very fresh, and the sauces were perfectly seasoned. As for the drinks, I was surprised to find my favorite on the menu - Pimm’s! Theirs was a voluminous pour (just as the Bloody Mary that D ordered) inside a 32oz mason jar, complete with the chunks of cucumber, jumbo strawberries, and orange slices. As we lingered by the bar, rested and fed, I took in the last breath of clean, sea air before it was time to go. The sky was beginning to sport an orange glow - a sign the sun would soon take a bow for the day. It was all so beautiful, so chill, and I was so grateful for the day. The only thing about this place is that it’s kind of the beach for those who have money to splurge on the parking fees, which is a whopping $5 an hour. Just then, the bartender told us that he could validate our parking ticket for up to 3 hours! Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a cheaper way to experience the grandeur of these sands. I know it costs money to keep these parks clean and beautiful; but how do people who don’t have much money experience the resplendence of our nature? It’s a question I’ve wondered often on my visits to other state parks and recreation areas. Since I plan to come to Crystal Cove more often, I’m convinced I will find a solution to make visiting this national treasure more accessible to everyone. That’s a task for next time, which I know will be soon. Very soon…