Coronado Island is not really an island, but don’t tell the locals. Technically, it’s a peninsula bounded on the north by Naval Air Station North Island and on the south by a training center for Navy SEALs. In the middle resides the iconic Hotel Del Coronado, a national treasure boasting one of the finest beaches in America.
Built in the 1880s by a couple of Chicago guys, Elisha Babcock and Hampton Story, who dreamed of creating “the talk of the Western world,” they succeeded in transforming the vast desolate beach from a playground for jackrabbits and coyotes to a Victorian seaside resort unparalleled in luxury and architectural drama.
It has served as a playground for sixteen U.S. presidents and countless celebrities, such as Charles Lindbergh, Thomas Edison, Babe Ruth, Wallis Simpson, Jack Dempsey and Orville Redenbacher. Thousands of business folks have delighted to combine barefoot pleasure with corporate meetings, and families have soaked up the endless sunshine and 18 miles of expansive white beaches. There’s also a resident ghost, Kate Morgan of Room 3372, and Marilyn Monroe frolicking on the beach in the 1958 hysterical, cross-dressing comedy romp Some Like It Hot.
I’ve heard some say it’s tired. I say I’d be tired, too, if I were 132 years old. But actually, it’s not.
A multimillion-dollar renovation of guestrooms in the original building is where you want to be for sleek furnishings and flat-screened TVs among crisp white linens retaining the period style. Other major enhancements include the award-winning Spa; Kidtopia, a beach-centered facility for kids; Vibz, a teen lounge; 1500 Ocean, “the Del’s” formal dining room with the Pacific Ocean in full view; and the laid-back Sheerwater for perusing your newspaper over a sumptuous brunch or a “fish by the sea” dinner.
What makes “the Del” so special, why throngs of people come here (and, believe me, it’s crowded) are the antiquities. Edison oversaw the installation of electric lighting in the hotel, the largest building outside of New York City to use electric lighting. L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz, designed the crown chandeliers in the dining room. It’s said that “the Del” was the inspiration for his Emerald City of Oz.
A towering crystal chandelier takes your breath away as you enter from blazing sunlight into the dark, all-wooden lobby of this timber palace. Wooden balconies with rattan chairs grace each guestroom in the original building. I stood every evening holding the railing of my balcony, gazing at the legendary orange turrets lit as if by magic against the night sky. Under my hand I could feel the layers and layers of paint applied over the years to keep all in tip-top shape.
The somewhat uneven wooden floors made me think of sunbathers in various periods of swim attire making their way back from a day at the beach. By far, my favorite antiquity was Andrew, the adorable elevator operator who for 32 years has spent his life going up and down on the 122-year-old Otis lobby elevator — No. 61, to be exact. Just one of the original Otis elevators still working at “the Del.”
Yes, there are other hotels on Coronado Island. But don’t. Experience the enchantment of a gentler time at “the Del” and then wander the island streets for some excellent dining: Leroy’s Kitchen, Miguel’s Cocina, The Tavern, Nicky Rottens Bar & Burger Joint, Mistral at Loews, Tartine Bistro, Brigantine or MooTime Creamery for a quick ice cream sundae.
Go back in time and experience the incomparable luxury and history of the grandest “grande dame” of all, the Hotel Del Coronado — aptly described by Travel + Leisure as “an amusement park without the rides.”