Flying into San Diego at sunset, I realize where its cheesy nickname, “America’s Finest City,” originated. Even after visiting this Southern California beauty numerous times, it never gets old taking in the views of the skyline against the sparkling San Diego Bay. Almost as spectacular as the scenery is the airport, which lies mere minutes from downtown—a planning feat I wish every U.S. city had adopted decades ago.
As I grab a taxi (much quicker than an Uber) and head to my hotel, Pendry San Diego, the landscape shifts from oceanfront to urban. My seventh-floor room, in this chic, 317-room property that still manages to feel boutique, overlooks a bustling nightlife scene in the Gaslamp Quarter below. I can’t catch a glimpse of the water from my window, yet I know it’s there, the last sliver of sunlight glinting off the bay in the distance.
Tomorrow, I’ll be island bound, exploring the 33-square-mile Coronado Island across the bay that’s been a mecca for sophisticated travelers for decades.
The History of Coronado Island
In 1885, two visionary businessmen, Elisha Babcock and Hampton Story, purchased a section of land spanning Coronado (which means “crowned” in Spanish), North Island, and Silver Strand adjacent San Diego for $110,000. Their plan: to construct the finest hotel on the Pacific coast, which would live within a master-planned community along the beach. Lot sales began a year later, going for $500 to $1,600 each, which helped to fund the hotel (today, the median home price in Coronado is $2.4 million).
Hotel del Coronado opened in January 1888 as the largest resort in the world. Around 1900, a community of tents for those who couldn’t afford the opulence of the hotel cropped up south of the property, which would draw some 10,000 people by 1914 to what became known as Tent City. During this time, the island was also becoming an aviation hub; North Island Naval Air Station was commissioned in 1917. (Today, the greater Naval Base Coronado is a consortium of eight Navy installations—so don’t be surprised to see helicopters and flying overhead.) Coronado’s appeal only continued to grow throughout the Golden Age of Hollywood, especially following Marilyn Monroe’s 1959 film, Some Like It Hot, which was filmed at its most famous property.
Coronado Island is now its own resort city within San Diego County and has a population of about 23,700, according to the U.S. Census. Its shining star, Hotel del Coronado, retains all its grandeur as one of the oldest continually operating hotels in the country. It’s more than halfway through a multi-phase, $400 million transformation (to be completed in late 2022) focused on restoration and modernization to help the hotel retain its reputation as a hot spot for visitors and celebrities alike.
Getting There and Getting Around
From downtown San Diego, the easiest and most stylish way to arrive in Coronado is via boat. The Flagship Ferry departs from two different spots downtown: San Diego Convention Center every 30 minutes and Broadway Pier on the hour, for $7 per person each way. It’s best to purchase your tickets online ahead of time (show them on your phone), but you can also use a kiosk at the departure docks for paper tickets. The ride takes less than 15 minutes but provides arresting views of the San Diego skyline. Choose your perch wisely: lower deck for shade (nice when the weather’s hot) or upper deck for the best vantage point for photos (and to soak up the sun on cooler days).
Once you arrive on the island, you can stroll to many of the main shopping areas if you’re wearing good walking shoes. If you’re traveling to Coronado Beach or Hotel de Coronado, though, hail a taxi or call an Uber to take you across the island, as both are a good 30-minute walk from the ferry landing.
If you’re driving to Coronado, all except the driver can enjoy the views of beach and city from the soaring Coronado Bridge, a 2-mile-long passageway on Highway 75 that jumpstarts the thrill of the island. A vintage toll booth will greet you as you arrive landside, but you can glide on through, as actual tolls here are a thing of the past. Drive mindfully around Coronado, where the speed limit is 25 miles per hour and golf carts sometimes share the road with cars. The island has a variety of free and reasonably priced parking options; however, be sure to fuel up before you go: gas was nearly $5.50 a gallon during my visit in September.
Feeling athletic? You can also reach Coronado Island via the Silver Strand bike path, a 10-mile ride that stretches between Coronado and Imperial Beach in South San Diego.
What to Do on Coronado Island
Your first stop on Coronado Island should be Hotel del Coronado—although, once you set foot on the immaculate grounds, I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t want to leave. Despite being 133 years old, the Del (as it’s known locally) is looking better than ever thanks to masterful recent efforts to preserve its history and modernize its offerings. Even if you’re not a guest of the hotel, you can still enjoy its restaurants and boutiques.
When I visited, I made a beeline for the Sun Deck, a prime spot for people-watching and ocean gazing in the afternoons or at sunset. One of several dining options at the Del that’s been redesigned in the past year, it offers front-row seating to the Pacific Ocean (including some around cozy firepits), delectable food (try the California mezze plate with whipped goat cheese, lemon hummus, spinach falafel, and local organic vegetables) and refreshing signature cocktails, beer and wine. The giant s’mores cookie dessert is tempting, but for something a bit lighter, pop into Sundaes for a paleta. You can customize these popsicle treats with your own toppings (think mango with Tajin seasoning and chamoy sauce).
Shops at The Del are open to all, and it’s a delight to peruse the curated selections of beach-chic attire and decor that line the lower level beneath the main hotel. They’re bright and fresh, newly revamped as part of the transformation, and a contrast to the dark woods above in the lobby. You can pick up stylish pieces like artful Slowtide beach towels, luxe pool floats and fringed umbrellas (a nod to old Hollywood glamour) from shops like Weekends and Beachouse before hitting the sand just steps from the hotel, or stock up on summery tableware and deliciously scented candles to take home.
Carve out downtime to relax in rocking chairs on the hotel’s front porch, which was prominently featured in Some Like It Hot, later lost, and now brand new again. In August, the Del revealed a restoration of its original porch veranda complete with the traditional Haint blue ceiling and Queen Calafia stained glass windows. Inside, the lobby has been brought back to life, with its intricate woodwork re-stained to its original color, a new hand-blown glass chandelier installed, and the birdcage elevator upgraded to modern standards. A round Kelly-green seating area in the center is a focal point, as is the hand-painted silk wallpaper surrounding the front desk. The lobby’s not without a few contemporary touches, however, such as a refreshing new signature scent.
If you are visiting in the off-season, the Del offers resort day passes (typically Labor Day through early June) that grant you access to the pool (newly renovated with 12 luxury cabanas), Marilyn Monroe-inspired spa and newly expanded fitness center. For a small fee, you can even take a spin class on the beach.
Shop and Eat on Orange Avenue
A 10-minute walk from the Del is Orange Avenue, the charming main shopping district in Coronado. With dozens of quaint restaurants and one-of-a-kind shops, it’s easy to fill an entire afternoon here. A few favorites I discovered on my visit were Seaside Papery, perfect for unique gifts and cute notebooks; Française, a beautifully curated collection of Parisian home goods; The Henry, with delectable pastries and coffee; and Little Frenchie, an excellent bistro for happy hour with Champagne and cheese.
Ogle Dream Homes
Coronado Island is filled with high-end homes and cottages, many with beautiful gardens and Victorian details that will have you wanting to check out listings. Even if you’re not ready to fork over a few million dollars for a small house, it’s great fun to walk the residential streets and pick out your favorites, imagining what it would be like to reside on Coronado.
You’d be remiss to visit Coronado Island and not stick your toes in the sand. Pack a beach bag with your swimsuit and head to Coronado Beach, which spans for almost two miles. And no, it’s not your eyes playing tricks: the sand here really does sparkle, thanks to its mineral mica content. You don’t have to be a Hollywood star to see that this island is truly golden. If you’re up for adventure, the waves here are tame enough for beginner surfers, and you can find various options for lessons.
Where to Stay on Coronado Island
If a day visit to the Del leaves you wanting to spend the night (or, if you’re like me, several weeks), there are plenty of accommodations options at the hotel to suit your style. Find traditional rooms in the main building; new poolside suites in The Cabanas neighborhood; and modern digs in The Views, a shiny new-build on the beach that feels more Mexican resort than historic hotel.
There’s also the more upscale, private Beach Village, which has a residential feel and has undergone a rejuvenation of its own. And in mid-2022, Shore House at the Del was introduced as an all-new collection of residential villas that serve as a resort within the resort, complete with its own pool. Other upscale hotels on the island include Loews Coronado Bay Resort and Coronado Island Marriott Resort & Spa.
While my visit to Coronado Island was only a day trip this time, I was grateful for the quiet ferry ride back across the bay to take in the sunset and feel the cool ocean breeze on my skin. (If you’re planning to head back to downtown San Diego in the evening, be sure to check ferry times so you’re not stuck on the island after dark.)
As I headed back to the Pendry, picking up my stride to match the energetic pace of the Gaslamp Quarter on a Thursday evening, I felt a new appreciation for the easygoing island vibes I’d just experienced. The most perfect part of a visit to San Diego, with Coronado mere minutes from downtown, is that you can experience the best of both worlds.