Instead of a ribbon-cutting, they raised a martini flag. Instead of leaving mints on guestroom pillows, they sprinkled the vacation cottages with fake lobsters, diving helmets and seashell artwork.
On Monday, state park officials unveiled what might be their most unusual seaside attraction ‹ Crystal Cove State Park Historic District, a once-ragtag enclave of Depression-era beachfront cottages refurbished into cozy lodgings.
Normally, California beach parks offer little more than tent or RV camping, said state park spokesman Roy Stearns. "It's the first time we've done something like this."
So when reservations opened April 27 for 13 of Crystal Cove's cottages, nestled along the coast between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach, officials weren't sure what would happen.
Within four hours, the first five months were booked solid. The number of reservation requests set a state park system record. "It was stunning," Stearns said.
Guests began checking in Monday afternoon as a phalanx of journalists chronicled their every step, from unpacking luggage to dipping their toes in the surf. When Mike Fages of Temecula looked up from the registration book, he found a TV camera 6 inches from his face.
Officials spent two years and $14 million refurbishing 22 of the 46 cottages, which were built between 1920 and 1940.
Mostly invisible from Coast Highway, the funky village sprawls out along the bottom of a bluff, amid a thicket of plants, flowers and crashing waves. To get there, visitors park across the street and hike down a gently winding trail.
Eventually, a 1933 Chevrolet school bus will offer shuttle service to the site.
The cottages, which rent for an average $165 per night, are decorated with antiques, old refrigerators and curios designed to evoke the area's bygone days.
One bungalow features a coffee table made from a lobster trap, with a fake crustacean inside. Another, nicknamed the Diver's Shack, contains a copper diving helmet.
Other units are decorated with oars, rubber flippers, historic photos and collages made from seashells.
"We feel like we've been transported to another place and time," said Rita Stenlund of Huntington Beach, one of the first guests.
Officials said their goal was to re-create Crystal Cove as it existed from 1935 to 1955 ‹ except for the microwave ovens now in each unit.
Not every cottage is available for lodging. One is being turned into a restaurant, the Beachcomber Cafe, which the Ruby's restaurant chain will operate. It is scheduled to open in August. Ruby's also recently took over the Shake Shack, a longtime roadside food stand perched on a bluff top above the beach.
The cafe will revive a Crystal Cove tradition by hoisting a martini flag every day at 4 p.m.
Some would-be traditions are also planned. One bungalow has been converted into a marine research lab. Another was turned into gift shop.
Because the gift store operates within a state park, every item it sells must be educational or have an ocean theme. Thus, the jewelry is made from beach glass or pearls. Bottle openers are shaped like dolphins.
Some Crystal Cove cottages began as movie sets in the 1920s and '30s. Stories differ on whether others were built by vacationers who rented the land or by squatters who constructed their cottages from shipwreck scraps that floated ashore.
In 1979, the state parks department bought the land from the Irvine Co. and spent the next two decades trying to evict the residents, many of whom had rented the houses for decades and had added amenities such as satellite dishes, hot tubs and modern kitchens.
The last residents left in 2001.
Officials contemplated turning the area into a luxury hotel, but Crystal Cove resident Laura Davick spearheaded a campaign to preserve the cottages, which are regarded as the last example of early California beach colony architecture.
Her group, the Crystal Cove Alliance, recently took over the concession contract for the site, partnering with Ruby's to run the restaurants.
It could cost as much as $15 million to fix up the remaining 24 cottages, Stearns said. If a parks bond measure passes in November, "this is one of the highest priorities in the park system," he said.
Most of the overnight guests Monday were Southern Californians, but one flew in from Chicago.
"I come out here three times a year on business," Jim Masterson said. But after surveying the surroundings, he wasn't sure how much work he'd get done. "I'm thinking about not going in tomorrow," he confessed.
[Clips from original newspaper articles appear here for educational purposes and purposes of comment, rather than commercial purposes. They are reprinted under the fair use doctrine of international copyright law. Copyright Los Angeles Times]
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