A Stay at These Famous Southern California Beach Cottages Isn’t Impossible

Dismal failure is the typical outcome when I try to book a stay at Crystal Cove Beach Cottages in California.

Still, the challenge didn’t deter me from trying. Over the past two years I have been able to stay in seven different chalets through a combination of perseverance, flexibility and a pinch of luck. And it was magical.

Rustic 1920s-1940s bungalow rentals are nestled above an unspoiled stretch of beach between Newport Beach and Laguna Beach. The cottages — some with new or worn paint, others clad in bare wood shingles, and a few surrounded by white picket fences — are part of a funky village that looks like a nearly 100-year-old time warp in Crystal Cove State Beach, a slice of unspoiled coastline.

Crystal Cove State Park has been a special place for me and my family of three, long before I figured out how to hang a cabin. It marked some of the most important moments of my life.

A few days before I gave birth to my daughter, Cora, in 2015, my husband took a photo of my very pregnant figure. Every year since then, at the same time, on the same date and in the same place, he has taken the same photo of me – with Cora now outside. It has become a kind of tradition.

The park marked a milestone for me as a new mother when it became Cora’s first outing. She was only 2 weeks old and until then I was terrified of taking her outside the house.

This is where we forged magical friendships with an impromptu slumber party at the Shell Shack (Cottage #2). On a whim I went to the Crystal Cove Beach Cottage office and arrived at reception just before 11am asking if they had a same day cancellation. They did it. Excitedly, I called my friends Ingrid and Anh, inviting them and their daughters to stay with us for that night. We piled into a large room. The girls were tickled by the Murphy beds and retro kitchen.

Then in March 2020, it was my family’s last hurrah before the first dark days of the pandemic descended upon us. At the time, my friend Anh and I were lounging in the sunny living room of the South Beach Suite (Cottage #16). We looked out of the picture windows overlooking the sandy beach of South Beach. We watched our daughters dance along the shore. We wondered aloud if our lives would change with the new coronavirus, and for how long.

Prior to this I had tried for years to bookmark a cottage on the state website with no success. At some point I gave up, thinking it was a lost cause. But then a friend told me that I might be lucky to check for cancellations from time to time, either online or in person. It’s a dice game but, since I started trying, I’ve been lucky a few times.

After the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in California, the private rooms of Cottages 38, 39 and 29 were converted into full-size cottages for rent. A total of 17 chalets are available for public rental. Prices per night range from $204 for a chalet sleeping two to three up to $288 for a chalet sleeping six to nine – a steal, given that nearby beachfront accommodation can easily cost $500 a night.

To be clear, this is not a fancy resort. Rather the opposite. The rooms are rustic, even worn. There is no room service. If you want your bed made, make it yourself. The kitchens are minimalist. Some cottages have nearly full kitchens, others have mini-fridges. But the charm and history more than make up for it.

Crystal Cove began as a small part of the large estates of rancher James Irvine, who acquired much of Orange County in the late 1800s. Ranch workers were the first to camp at the cove . The 1918 film “Treasure Island” was filmed at Crystal Cove. Filmmakers recreating the South Seas left behind palm fronds and thatched-roof huts.

After the Pacific Coast Highway was completed in 1926, people began appropriating the remains of the movie theater or building their own homes from whatever they could find – including wood from shipwrecks – and a seaside colony was born.

Now all 46 cabins are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and 29 of them have been restored. Restoration of the last 17 North Beach cottages is underway, along with a 650-foot-long boardwalk.

I will always remember our first stay in 2018. I indulged in sitting in a beach chair on the sand and watching then-toddler Cora dance on the shore, chasing seagulls, what ‘she couldn’t pronounce well.

“Hey, souls of the sea. Come here, souls of the sea,” she shouted between bursts of laughter.

The best part was we could just go up to our room when she passed out and I could promise we could be back shortly. No need to deal with little sandy feet before getting back in the car. No need to deal with a grumpy kid on the car ride to Santa Ana. She could just take a nap in our bedroom.

Maybe it was the quirky and historic beach setting? Or was it the fact that I only had to take a few steps and was on the sand? Or that the waves crashing on the sand put me to sleep that night?

All I know is that I’ve been addicted to rating a chalet ever since.

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