Fun, Easy Day Trip: San Diego’s Hotel del Coronado & Beach
Enjoy Coronado Island’s attractions via a world-class bridge. The iconic Hotel del Coronado is on a top U.S. beach and it’s definitely worth a day trip.
There were never two more opposite concepts in San Diego: the Hotel del Coronado and Tent City.
Well, hold on, because they’re not actually in San Diego. They’re on Coronado Island, a separate political entity. In fact, Coronado Island is not actually an island, it’s a peninsula connected to San Diego proper by a seven-mile isthmus called the Silver Strand.
Coronado Island’s crown jewel: the Hotel del Coronado
The Hotel Del, as it is affectionately known, was one of the first structures on the island, having been built only of lumber in 1888. It is said to be – at 680 rooms – one of the largest wooden buildings in Calfornia. Superlatives abound. Presidents and royalty have stayed there. The movie, “Some Like It Hot,” starring Marilyn Monroe, was filmed there.
The hotel is a small city unto itself. It had electricity and gas from the very beginning. Even Thomas Edison was involved in the construction. He inspected the country’s very first electrically lighted outdoor Christmas trees there in 1904. There were elevators and telephones. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1977. It has five restaurants. And numerous shops.
Naturally, it occupies a prominent place right on the beach facing the Pacific Ocean. In 2008 the “Los Angeles Times” named Coronado Island’s 18-mile shoreline the number four best beach in the U.S. The hotel naturally offers surfing classes though the waves are small here as compared with many other western beaches.
It’s a grand, somewhat flat beach. But in late February the water temperature, at 64F, was warmer than the air temperature at 58F. No one was in the water but a surfer on his board. He was wearing a wet suit.
The view off to the north was of Point Loma and out to sea was an aircraft carrier. It’s part of a very large U.S. Navy installation called Naval Air Station North Island. Superlatives, which we spoke of at the Hotel Del, abound. It is the home port to two aircraft carriers: USS Carl Vinson and USS Ronald Reagan. With all the ships in port, the population of the station is nearly 35,000 active duty military, reserve military, and civilian personnel.
And the station has a history: The station’s first commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Earl W. Spencer, Jr., USN, added a degree of celebrity to North Island. His wife was Wallis Warfield, a prominent socialite who was to remarry twice. She finally became the Duchess of Windsor, for whom King Edward VIII gave up his throne in 1936. It was rumored but later said not to be true by the duchess and the duke that they first met at the Hotel Del.
Tent City’s gone but Tent City Restaurant survives
Then by contrast there was Tent City. It was an enterprise started by Hotel Del owner John D. Spreckels as an alternative to the high-priced hotel rooms at the Hotel Del. The tents were semi-permanent structures, some with amenities. Tent City opened in June of 1900 and officially closed in 1939.
It’s namesake, Tent City Restaurant, which opened in June 2002, is all that remains of this popular way of being on the beach on Coronado island at a reasonable price. The restaurant is in the heart of Coronado’s business district. It describes its menu as “‘California Eclectic’ with a focus on freshness.” The soups were the best part of our lunch. We had clam chowder, always on the menu, with generous pieces of clam New England style, in a creamy base. There was also a lentil soup, more like a stew with big pieces of carrot with good seasonings. It’s possible for two to get out of there for about $20, tax and tip included, by choosing the soup and half sandwich deal. That way, you can sample the variety of Tent City Restaurant has to offer.
Don’t forget to go next door to Coronado Historical Association And Museum Of History And Art. Actually, they and Tent City Restaurant share the same building. The association has a very nice, if small, museum with excellent displays. There’s a suggested donation of $4. And the volunteers behind the desk are ever so nice and quite knowledgeable.
Orange Avenue is one of the main drags of this rectangular, island, street system but there’s whimsy with circles and angled streets. Shops include a used bookstore across the street from and a drugstore next door to the historical association. And of course, there are many, many more restaurants and cafes. Central Drug Store, there since 1893, still offers about the same sort of thing, I imagine. At 1106 Orange Ave., it now offers postcards at five for a dollar.
Arriving and getting away with a view from 220 feet above the island – and above San Diego
Like most in San Diego, you’ll probably drive to all these interesting places that have deep roots in the history of the West. So you’ll go across the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge. It has superlatives of its own. The 2.1-mile-long bridge boasted the longest box girder in the world until it was surpassed by a bridge in Chongqing, China, in 2008. This bridge opened in 1969 and was built high enough – 220 feet – to let an empty, oil-fired, aircraft carrier pass under it.
And that’s high enough for a splendid view of Coronado Island and downtown San Diego.