Crystal Cove State Park Historic District: The secret paradise that might be California's biggest accommodation bargain

Love shacks. I really do. Still, I'm nonplussed when Anaheim friends suggest seeing beach shacks instead of hopping over to Catalina Island for the day. Nevertheless we jump in their car – it's as big as a whale – and soon we're headin' on down to the shacks along the Newport Coast.

Turns out my friends know me better than I know myself. From the moment we arrive at Crystal Cove, parking on the inland side of the Pacific Coast Highway and ducking through a tunnel to time-travel back to a nostalgic era of California surf culture, I'm smitten. Somehow 46 historic cottages – spilling higgledy-piggledy down a bluff in front of the Pacific Ocean – have miraculously escaped the clutches of developers.

The 29 restored cottages rock a retro yet very specific 1935-55 vibe: think mid-century décor, daybeds on enclosed porches, exposed-beam ceilings, kitchen cabinets salvaged from shipwrecks, names such as Hideho and no televisions. Collectively known as the Crystal Cove State Park Historic District, this cluster of cottages is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the last intact example of early California vernacular beach architecture. One cottage, the un-rentable number 13 at the far southern end, is even Hollywood-famous after starring in the 1988 Bette Midler movie, Beaches.

The land was once part of a sprawling ranch occupying about a third of today's Orange County. It's still unknown whether ranch employees or motion-picture people first discovered the picturesque cove. Around 1917, Hollywood started planting palm trees so the cove could double as a South Seas paradise. In 1920, an early version of Treasure Island became the first commercial movie filmed at Crystal Cove. By 1925, the ranch hired a Hollywood technical director to manage summer tent-campers and co-ordinate filming locations.

Regulars built themselves shelters, kit cabins and cottages, effectively becoming squatters lapping up five-star ocean views. Laura Davick, founder of the Crystal Cove Conservancy (CCC), today's iteration of the organisation that helped save and restore Crystal Cove, is a third-generation "Cove-ite". Her family began tent-camping at the cove in 1937, just before the ranch started formalising leases. Her parents met there in 1940 and lived in Cottage number 2 from 1961 until 2001 when all private leases expired and residents had to leave. Orange County officials had banned new cabins and building extensions back in 1939, effectively preserving the community as a time capsule.

The post-World War II years were the heyday for Cove-ites and visitors, until the County banned tent-camping and day-use in 1962. More trouble was looming in paradise. The land was sold to the state to become parkland, but in 1997 the state inked a deal with developers that would see the cottages replaced with a luxury resort. That's when Davick and others rallied to stop the development. They succeeded, launching into a multi-million-dollar, phased restoration of the cottages and infrastructure. In 2006, the first overnight guests checked in. More cottages were restored between 2009 and 2011; work is underway to fix the final 17 dilapidated cottages.

CCC president and chief executive, Kate Wheeler, says "it's a bit of a secret hideaway – as you're driving past on the highway, you don't really get a sense of what's there". Still, enough people know that a strategy is required to score a reservation at what might be southern California's biggest accommodation bargain. Wheeler's tip is to be persistent. For Australians, this will involve checking the website at ungodly hours as reservations open daily at 8am LA time for dates six months in advance. You can also set up a notification for cancellations or walk in at 11am to check cancellations for that night.

Wheeler says Crystal Cove's appeal is that it allows people "to step away from their hectic lives... It's not a steeped-in-luxury experience," she says. "It's an experience where you hear the waves all night long and can sit out on your deck and enjoy a glass of wine with friends."

TRIP NOTES

STAY

Crystal Cove is between Newport and Laguna beaches, an hour's drive from LA International Airport (LAX). Rent a room in a cottage (from $US37 a night for two people) or an entire cottage (from $US185 for three or four people up to $US261 for nine people). Eat at The Beachcomber cafe, catch a movie during summer or take the founder's tour (third Sunday of each month except December, noon-2pm). See crystalcove.org; reservations at reservecalifornia.com

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Traveller.com.au/california

Katrina Lobley travelled with assistance from Brand USA.

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