The view from the deck of the old wooden shack is a sweeping panorama of unspoiled Southern California sand and waves below a low cliff dotted with similarly ramshackle dwellings.
We are accustomed to an Orange County coastline stripped of its humble past. Yet here is a reminder of that lost world.
Founded by squatters in the 1920s, Crystal Cove was favored by Prohibition-era rumrunners who landed their illegal cargo here in the dark of night. Itinerant plein air painters immortalized this hidden beach and claimed it as their home.
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By the 1980s, the state of California was on a mission to “clean up” the dangerously decrepit community. Descendants of the founders fought back. Just when it appeared certain everything would be razed so that a massive hotel development could rise, the Laguna Beach community and other neighbors raised the funds necessary to preserve this tattered love note from California’s past.
We lifted our glasses of rum punch in honor of our friend Jennifer’s grandmother who once owned the cottage where we had gathered for cocktails. The particular privilege of growing up in such an unaffected oceanfront retreat has never been lost on our friend. She loves the fact that it remains exactly as she enjoyed it 50 years ago and now is available to everyone.
Of the 46 cottages in Crystal Cove, so far 29 have been restored. Two- and three-bedroom houses with full kitchens rent for less than $250 a night.
They were built for a nickel, says Harry Helling, president of the nonprofit Crystal Cove Alliance, which manages the California State Parks property. Renovating them without disturbing their original look costs as much as $750,000 each.
It’s “vernacular” architecture, he explains, a fancy term for using whatever is available to build a community. Most of the cottages were cobbled together from flotsam that washed ashore. A fancy teak bathroom sink was discovered in one home, a prize probably stripped from a shipwrecked sailboat.
Earthquake-proofing walls made out of 80-year-old pilfered highway billboards can be a challenge, says Helling.
Crystal Cove guests can skip the cooking and enjoy breakfast, lunch and dinner at the Beachcomber Cafe. An inviting broad, wooden terrace overlooks the ocean for al fresco dining.
View from the tasting cottage at Crystal Cove. Credit: Corie Brown
As the sun sinks low in the sky, families continue to play on the beach. Lovers return from strolling along the more than three miles of state park beach. No one rushes. We savor the moment with a Dark and Stormy made with Gosling’s Black Seal rum.
It is the only rum you can use if you are making a proper Dark and Stormy, Helling insists. In researching the history of the cove, the Prohibition-era cocktail culture has become a centerpiece of the Beachcomber’s bar service. Rum is the favored spirit.
He treats us to four of his concoctions. The cocktail hour ends as the sun sinks below the horizon. We amble over to the Beachcomber for a starlit dinner.
Four rum cocktail recipes, courtesy of Harry Helling.
Paradise Rum Swizzle
With a nod to the Barbados drink whisked with the stem of a native plant, Helling uses Rhum Barbancourt from Haiti. The swizzle sticks are Crystal Cove driftwood.
2 ounce Rhum Barbancourt
1 ounce fresh honeydew juice
1 ounce coconut water
½ ounce fresh lemon juice
½ ounce simple syrup (1 part water to 1 part sugar)
4 dashes of Angostura bitters
Pack a glass with crushed ice, swizzle rum, syrup and juices, top with bitters and sprig of mint.
Helling adapted this recipe from the one served at Campbell Apartment, a 1920s apartment-turned-bar in New York City’s Grand Central Station. It is made by the pitcherful.
12 ounce Pusser’s British Navy Rum
3 ounces Grand Marnier
2 ounces fresh lime juice
20 ounces mango juice and water (1:1)
6 ounces cranberry juice
Shake with ice, strain and float champagne on top with a pineapple garni.
Dark and Stormy
Invented in Bermuda just after World War I, Dark ‘n’ Stormy is a trademark-protected cocktail of rum and ginger beer. Helling adds lime juice — and so changes the spelling of the cocktail.
2 ounce Gosling’s Black Seal Bermuda Black Rum
4 ounce ginger beer
½ ounce fresh lime juice
Pour the ginger beer into a glassful of cracked ice and then add the Gosling’s topped with lime juice. Garnish with a fresh lime wedge.
Barrel Aged Rum Manhattan
It is increasingly popular to age rum in an oak cask to make a sipping drink. Helling served one from Venezuela.
2 ounces Ron Anejo Pampero Aniversario
1 ounce Carpano Antica Formula vermouth
½ ounce homemade bay leaf bitters
Pour the rum over an oversized ice cube in a short glass and stir with vermouth and bitters. Garnish with rum marinated blueberries and a flamed orange peel.
Main photo: Dark and Stormy rum cocktail at Crystal Cove. Credit: Chris Fager