Most San Diegans cross the bridge to Coronado to go to the beach. No surprise since it consistently ranks in the top ten in the U.S. (www.drbeach.org/top10beaches.html) In fact, this year Coronado’s beach was ranked # 1. But there is another great reason to make a weekend getaway to Coronado--its colorful history.
Recently my husband and I made the 20-minute trip from our home in La Mesa across the bridge and through town to one of the most historic properties on the island – the El Cordova Hotel. Built in 1902 as a mansion for Elisha Babcock, one of the original developers of the Hotel del Coronado, the El Cordova was converted into a hotel in 1930, and has been expanded several times since. The property is perfectly situated to explore more of the Park’s history, while also providing easy access (two blocks) to the acclaimed beach.
Wending our way through a flower-filled courtyard, we checked into our room. I wasn’t expecting much because the hotel’s prices are very reasonable for such a great location, and because it is an older property. But I was pleasantly surprised. With fresh paint, new carpet and modern bathroom fixtures and a flat-screen TV, the place exceeded my expectations. The rooms have new window-mounted air-conditioners that work well. Two windows in our room overlooked a charming outdoor corridor of boutique shops.
After settling in, we decided to go for an early dinner at Miguel’s Cocina in the hotel courtyard, afterwards taking a leisurely stroll along the beach for sunset. The next morning we headed to Le Creperie for breakfast. The hotel gave us vouchers for either a continental breakfast served in the lobby, or a discount on a served breakfast in this French-themed restaurant on the property.
My husband said checking into the El Cordova is like walking back into the 1940s; all that’s needed to complete the picture is a fedora and a pack of Lucky Strikes. His comment made me think of World War II. I tried to imagine what it must have felt like to live here after the bombing of Pearl Harbor with all the military activity taking place on North Island, barbed wire along the beaches, Civil Defense drills, scrap metal drives, Victory Gardens and USO dances at the Hotel Del.
Recently I worked on a consulting project for the Coronado Historical Association. To complement an exhibit called Coronado on the Frontline: 1942-45, I helped develop a souvenir newspaper, filled with actual excerpts from two Coronado papers published in 1942. The publication is given away to visitors touring the WWII exhibit now on view at the Coronado Museum of History & Art.
The museum is a great place for anyone interested in the history of Coronado. There are displays on everything from the building of the Hotel Del in the late 1800s, to the birth of naval aviation and the development of major U.S. Navy (and briefly Army) bases after the turn of the 20th century. The island has drawn famous people to its shores since the beginning. People like Glenn Curtiss, Charlie Chaplin and Frank Baum, the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson (the woman he left the British throne for), Marilyn Monroe and more than a few U.S. presidents.
My husband I wanted to know more, so we stopped by the Museum Store to pick up a $3.95 booklet called “Coronado’s Architectural Gems,” and began our own self-guided tour. We rode bikes along picturesque back streets, experiencing breathtaking views of the ocean and San Diego Bay, while learning more about the island’s history.
We stopped for lunch at the Coronado Ferry Landing, a themed shopping center with art galleries and restaurants, including several with good take-out options. Nearby grassy areas are perfect for picnicking while gazing at the San Diego skyline and the constant parade of ships and boats on San Diego Bay.
Back at the hotel by late afternoon, we went for a dip in the pool and noticed other guests preparing to barbecue on one of the four built-in grills in the courtyard. Instead, we decided to have a drink at the historic Babcock and Story bar across the street at the Hotel del Coronado before walking to a nearby restaurant on Orange Avenue.
Our last morning in Coronado, we had breakfast at Clayton’s Coffee Shop, just a few blocks from our hotel. This classic eatery has been open since 1941. With an old-fashioned U-shaped lunch counter in the center and mini-juke boxes in vinyl-lined booths along the side, locals and tourists alike love this place, lining up around the block on busy weekends to get in.
Any time after Labor Day is perfect for spending a few days on the Enchanted Island. The weather is great, hotel rates drop after high tourist season ends and the beach is much less crowded. But there are two other good reasons to visit Coronado right now: the free, two-day Coronado Art Walk event at the Ferry Landing on September 15 & 16 (www.coronadoartwalk.org), and the WWII exhibit Coronado on the Frontline, which will be leaving the Museum in early October (www.coronadohistory.org).
With a twinge of sadness, I checked us out of our room at the El Cordova, but made a vow to spend another history-based “staycation” in Coronado soon. In early November, an exhibit about the Kingston Trio opens at the Museum of History & Art (one of the original members, Nick Reynolds, got his musical start in Coronado in the 1950s). Gee, I wonder what it was like in this town during the 50s and early 60s? Hmmm….