Take a break from California's theme parks at a beach that takes you back to simpler times.

Share story

After two days of powering through Disneyland, I needed a quiet beach and a big drink.

A trip to Crystal Cove State Park, on a tip from a California-to-Seattle transplant, fulfilled all my anti-chaos needs.

Just off the Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach, Crystal Cove is a quaint historic district anchored by a peaceful beach. Built as a seaside colony in the 1930s & ’40s, the vibe transports you to a simpler time, when all you needed for a swell vacation was a beach blanket, pail and shovel, and a nice cocktail.

The park also contains campsites and more than 17 miles of hiking trails to explore. But my friends and I were taking a one-day break from roller coasters and crowds, so we focused on wandering the small historic district — and getting that drink.

The area consists of seaside cabins built against the surrounding bluffs, many of which have been restored as rentals or restaurants. Another has been transformed into a lovely gift shop featuring local art and ’40s-style beach items, with proceeds helping to support renovations.

For the perfect day-trip escape, arrive early (say, 10-ish) and immediately get on the waitlist for The Beachcomber for lunch. The café provides a pager so you can head to the beach and explore the tide pools. Or, if it’s not yet warm enough for lounging, explore the education commons, cultural center and rotating exhibition cottages to learn about the colony’s history and the local marine life.

The Crystal Cove gift shop features local art and ’40s-style beach items. (Crystal Cove Alliance)
The Crystal Cove gift shop features local art and ’40s-style beach items. (Crystal Cove Alliance)

Once you’re called, enjoy the café’s vintage cocktails (including a mai tai big enough to share — or not) and California classics, focusing on seafood with a South Pacific twist. The Beachcomber is right on the beach and every table has a view.

After lunch, take a cat nap in the sun or look for beach glass and agates before trying a little body surfing or boogie boarding in the afternoon sun. A stand on the beach rents umbrellas, boogie boards and beach chairs during the summer months.

After a day at Crystal Cove, you’ll be relaxed and ready to head back to the theme parks. But, let’s just keep this hidden gem between you and me, so I have a chance at landing a cabin reservation for next year.