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San Diego Bay is shaped roughly like an upside-down, backwards letter J. Coronado forms the loop of the J. Unlike Downtown San Diego across the bay, Coronado has always been an exclusive and affluent city— separate from San Diego— that has never known urban decay. Residents like to call Coronado an “island,” but they’re stretching the truth a bit. The Silver Strand, a very narrow isthmus, runs south from the “island” for 10 kilometers to form the west side of the bay. If Coronado’s civic marketeers were interested in truth in advertising, they couldn’t do better than to adopt the literal translation of the Latin peninsula as their slogan: “Almost an Island.”
Some books give fanciful accounts of Coronado being named for its Indian inhabitants who supposedly wore feathered headdresses that resembled crowns, or for the 16th century explorer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado who explored what is now the American Southwest in search of the mythical Seven Golden Cities of Cíbola. But Coronado was actually one of the many places Sebastian Vizcaíno named for Catholic saints. While sailing up the coast on in 1602, he spotted what looked like four islands. He named them las Yslas Coronadas, for the four “crowned” 3rd century Christian stone carvers who incurred the wrath of the Roman emperor by refusing to make an idol, thereby earning martyrdom and subsequent sainthood.
Coronado exemplifies the twin pillars of San Diego’s economy, the Navy and tourism. The north half of the “island” is off limits to the public. It contains the North Island Naval Air Station, so named because its 23,000 hectares occupy what was originally a separate North Coronado Island. During World War II the Navy filled in Spanish Bight, the channel between it and Coronado. The southern half of the island is like most of Southern California’s beach cities, an enclave of expensive homes that becomes thronged with vacationers during the summer tourist season. The isthmus south of the “island” is similarly divided between a Naval Amphibious Base and Silver Strand State Beach.
Coronado was uninhabited when Elisha Babcock and Hampton Story bought it in 1885. With the opening of a new railroad line, they thought they could make a lot of money by developing a resort. The Hotel del Coronado opened in 1888 as the high-end anchor of the new development. A tent city surrounded the hotel during the summer vacation season for ordinary folks who couldn’t afford “The Del.” Those who could afford it included L. Frank Baum (author of The Wizard of Oz), Charles Lindbergh, Ronald Reagan, 13 other Presidents, and Edward, Prince of Wales (subsequently known as King Edward VIII, who abdicated to marry an American divorcée). Now a National Historical Landmark, The Del has become all but synonymous with Coronado.
The distinctive architecture of red-tiled cupolas and turrets was apparently meant to invoke the grandeur of European fairy-tale castles, so that upper-crust guests from around the world would feel right at home. But unlike those European castles, the original structure was built entirely of wood. The hotel has been a setting for a number of movies, notably Some Like It Hot in 1959.
Today one need not be a celebrity or head of state to stay at the
Hotel Del Coronado. Its current corporate owners officially welcome
meetings and conferences, as well as vacationing families, couples, and
seniors (though as usual, the promotional materials completely ignore
the solo vacationer). But if you expect an authentic Victorian
experience you might be disappointed. To the original 399 rooms, the
hotel’s various owners over the years have added 289 rooms in rather
undistinguished expansion annexes. Coronado has other accommodations
that, while not cheap, offer better value. You can then “experience”
The Del and all its Victorian charms by simply visiting it— preferably
on foot, since The Del charges a princely price for parking.
Coronado is a fine “base” for visiting San Diego, particularly in the off season when reduced crowds mean reduced hotel rates (and reduced waiting at poorly-synchronized traffic signals). The “island” is small enough so that the amenities of a beachside resort town are within walking distance.
The Coronado Bay Bridge provides convenient access to the “mainland.” The bridge is 3.4 kilometers long and over 60 meters high, enough for the tallest Navy ships to sail under it. Its unusual open design provides a great unobstructed view, but unfortunately there’s no place to stop and enjoy it. The bridge is open exclusively to motor vehicles, except for once a year when bicyclists can sign up to ride across it as part of a special 40-kilometer fundraising tour. Although pedestrian access is strictly prohibited, it’s nonetheless the third most “popular” bridge for suicides in the United States. You can safely view the bridge close-up at Coronado Tidelands Regional Park, where you might also see colorful small boats tied down on the beach.
Until the bridge opened in 1969, the only easy way to get to Downtown was by ferry boat (the road through Silver Strand south of Coronado was and is inconvenient for commuters). With loss of its monopoly, the ferry shut down for 18 years until it was resurrected as a tourist attraction. The ferry gives visitors staying in Coronado the best way to “commute” Downtown. It provides an inexpensive scenic mini-cruise on the bay, and it avoids all the hassles of Downtown driving and parking.
The San Diego ferry terminal is at the end of Broadway near the
cruise ship terminal, within walking distance of most Downtown
attractions. The Coronado terminal is at Ferry Landing Marketplace, a
complex of shops and restaurants built in 1987 when the ferry resumed
service. The Ferry Landing has some of the best views of the San Diego
skyline, especially at sunset.