A Guide to Vacationing on Coronado Island

Coronado Island San Diego California
Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

San Diego can sometimes be overlooked for sexier Los Angeles or more cosmopolitan San Francisco.

But just inside its harbor, San Diego holds a treasure that neither L.A. nor S.F. can claim: Coronado. It's classified as a resort city inside San Diego County, but Coronado actually sits apart, on its own piece of land.

Though it resembles an island, Coronado is actually a tied island, meaning it's connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of beach. Detached and somewhat sleepy, yet still an easy hop from the mainland, Coronado represents a resort in the true definition of the word: a place set aside for the singular purpose of recreation and repose.

This didn't happen by accident. In 1885, two ambitious Midwesterners, Elisha Babcock and Hampton Story, purchased the entire island with plans to erect a grand, Victorian-style hotel along the beach. And almost 150 years later, Hotel del Coronado is the iconic property that most travelers associate with this picturesque island.

"About 60% of our guests come here to stay here," said Chris Jorgens, chief concierge at the hotel, whose iconic cone-shaped pavilion has come to be synonymous with the island. "We have folks who check in for a seven-night stay and never leave the resort once."

Despite its legendary beaches, Coronado remains unpretentious — it has that leisurely, slowed-down island feel. There's a downtown strip with novelty shops, restaurants, a movie theater, and an art museum, but none of it feels in-your-face. Add to that a biking and running path that circles the whole island, scenic ferry service to and from downtown San Diego, and 1.5 miles of sun-drenched, gloriously uncrowded beachfront, and it's easy to see why Coronado instantly puts visitors in a vacation state of mind.

Getting there is the best part.

The curvilinear, impossibly high San Diego-Coronado Bridge connects the island to downtown San Diego — and it's easily one of the most special parts about visiting here. While the drive itself lasts only a few minutes, along the way you're treated to unique, all-encompassing views of the San Diego skyline, as well as its sprawling shipyard and naval base.

And speaking of that naval base: In order to allow large aircraft carriers to pass under it, the vertigo-inducing bridge clears 200 feet at its highest point, which gives motorists (and passengers) the strange sense that they're driving through the clouds.

It’s a ‘Wizard of Oz’ mecca.

One of Coronado's most famous residents was Frank Baum, the author of "Wizard of Oz." A devoted fan of the island, Baum spent winters regularly here from 1904 to 1910, and incorporated Coronado's rich, verdant scenery into stories like "The Road to Oz" and "The Emerald City."

He even published a poem in 1905 entitled "Coronado: The Queen of Fairyland," which included the lines: "And every day her loveliness shines pure, without a flaw; new charms entrance our every glance and fill our souls with awe!" These days, visitors are able to peek the house where Baum lived, visit an Oz-themed glass art display at the public library, and marvel at a set of chandeliers hanging in the Hotel del Coronado, designed by the author himself.

Classic film fans may also recognize the Hotel del from the "Some Like it Hot," the 1959 Billy Wilder feature starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Marilyn Monroe. The hotel stood in for an East Coast resort.

Marilyn Monroe, as Sugar Kane, meets Tony Curtis, as “Junior,” in a scene from “Some Like It Hot.”
Marilyn Monroe, as Sugar Kane, meets Tony Curtis, as “Junior,” in a scene from “Some Like It Hot.”. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Sleep at a grand seaside resort

While the upper half of Coronado is dominated by the North Island Naval Air Station (and hence, off-limits to visitors), it's the flamboyant, turreted Hotel del Coronado — known by many simply as "The Del" — that's the island's undisputed star. Built entirely of wood in 1887, the resort's iconic red-roof rotunda remains an architectural wonder. (Literal tons of lumber were shipped in from all over the U.S. during the hotel's construction, including rich Illinois white oak, which still frames the lobby to this day.)

Prized for its oceanfront setting, the 757-room Del makes an ideal spot for kicking back and enjoying some undiluted California sun and surf. The hotel opens onto a wide, sandy beach, where you could spend an entire day frolicking around, building sandcastles and soaking up the sun. As a public beach, anyone who wants to show up here, can. Hotel guests enjoy certain perks, though, like access to candy-striped cabanettes, beach butler service and nightly campfires for roasting marshmallows.

See a greener side of San Diego.

As previously mentioned, Coronado is a tied island. In this case, the strip that separates it from San Diego proper is known as Silver Strand State Park, a stunning marine park equipped with beaches, camping facilities, barbecue pits, and even a surfing academy.

Its best feature? The 18.7-mile bike route (which is actually part of a larger 24-mile circuit), on which riders enjoy views of the Pacific Ocean on one side and San Diego Bay on the other.

Venture off the island.

Coronado's waterfront isn't just for beach-going — on the island's southern tip, Glorietta Bay Marina is a one-stop shop for boat rentals, which range from sailing lessons and kayak paddling, to jetskiing, or even chartering a private captain for a sunset sail. Here, you'll get a wider, more adventurous take on the island's unique position as a gateway between the city of San Diego and the Pacific Ocean.

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