Southern California’s Iconic Grand Dame: The Hotel Del Coronado

If you are looking to have a beachfront hotel experience in one of Southern California’s most storied properties, all the while fronting the Pacific Ocean, then here are few reasons why The Hotel Del Coronado should be on your radar for your next weekend get-a-way or visit to the best, I mean west coast.

A past like no other

Few properties anywhere in the U.S. have a history like Hotel Del.  Indiana businessman Elisha Babcock, Jr., and Illinoian Hampton Story had big dreams and made them a reality out west. Just 11 months following construction’s commencement, at a time when Southern California had neither sufficient manpower, nor plentiful raw materials, Hotel Del opened in 1888.  One of the largest buildings outside NYC to have electric lights, its architecture was novel then and remains so – an unusual marriage of an over-the-top royal wedding cake to a massive ocean liner, complete with turrets, towers, and dormers.

In 1890 King David Kalakaua of the then Kingdom of Hawai’i, became the first head of state to visit Hotel Del, followed in 1891 by the forgettable U.S. President Benjamin Harrison.

Hotel Del quickly became the heart and pulse of San Diego society and in 1920, when the mayor hosted his daughter’s debutante ball, England’s Prince of Wales was on hand for the festivities. Charles Lindbergh was feted following his 1927 successful transatlantic flight. Even during the Depression and WWII Hotel Del managed to stay open. The list of leaders that followed King Kalakaua is a political Who’s Who, including U.S. Presidents Taft, Roosevelt, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush.

Given Coronado’s relative proximity to Tinseltown, Hotel Del was a favorite amongst Hollywood’s movers, shakers, celebrities and wanna-be’s. In 1951 while playing Hotel Del’s Carousel Room (once called the Circus Room), Liberace was discovered and the rest is history. Billy Wilder was a huge Del fan and many scenes of the 1958 film Some Like It Hot starring Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon were filmed here. Hotel Del was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1977.

Location, location, location

On Coronado Island, Hotel Del is just 15-minutes by car or ferry from downtown San Diego and its numerous attractions but feels a world away. San Diego’s International Airport is likewise 15-minutes away. For golf aficionados, it’s pretty much tee time Nirvana with over 80 courses to choose from in the region, including one of the nation’s foremost municipal courses, Torrey Pines. Coronado town is charming and a short stroll from Hotel Del. Cafés, restaurants and beach boutiques line the quaint beach town along Orange Avenue. Lovely homes on Ocean Avenue and surrounding streets – no cookie cutters here – are swoon worthy, especially since no two residences are alike.

For the military and aviation geeks among us, the Armed Services Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives designated San Diego as the “Birthplace of Naval Aviation.” The Naval Air Station North Island established in 1917, and Naval Base Coronado Master Helicopter Base, inhabit an area one mile north of Hotel Del. Just to the south of Hotel Del is another naval station, this one for Navy Seals. In the three days I visited, there was quite a daily showing of low flying aircraft going to and from the bases just yards from the shoreline.

The great thing about Hotel Del is that it’s easy simply to stay put. There are plenty of activities on site. Besides the beach, ocean activities, pools, bicycles, expanded state-of-the-art fitness center with a daily selection of exercise classes, there are historic tours of the property that start on site at the Ice House Museum, ghost tours, self-guided audio tours, and countless stories to hear about. One of my favorites was that L. Frank Baum, who wrote The Wizard of Oz in 1900, and started coming to Hotel Del in 1904, designed the four crown chandeliers in the Grand Ballroom (the fifth is now located in the hotel’s historic Power Plant). Baum took inspiration for these light fixtures from the crown designed for the Cowardly Lion.

There is also a lovely renovated spa with 21 treatment rooms and 25 talented therapists, many of whom have been at Hotel Del for years, and a hair and nail salon. Another great option is the Private Roast, where I was able to relive the sweetest of childhood memories when an attendant lit a fire pit on the sand and brought all the fixings for s’mores.  Proof that some calories are simply sweeter than others.

Modern Beach Vibe Reimagined

 

A massive, $400 Million renovation and development of the property commenced in late 2018 and is nearly completed with only the last phase, the Shore House –comprising 142 individual units including multi-bedroom residences – scheduled to be finished later this year.  Most remarkable about the project, beside the relative speed in completion especially given the pandemic, is that new structures with its modern Nantucket-chic vibe, and all of the property’s renovations have been seamlessly integrated into a welcoming, cohesively designed thematic environment.

We stayed at the Cabanas in a beachside room with an expansive terrace that doubled as a private, beachfront cabana, with an impossibly comfortable daybed, extra seating, and gleefully for chilly nights, an electric firepit. There are few things in life more pleasurable than seeing and hearing the ocean, feeling the fire’s warmth, and enjoying a glass of wine.

Here too, the décor sought to bring the exterior indoors with trellised fabric headboards and frames, calming beechwood walls and deep-sea blue carpets. Rooms are equipped with a large, flat screen television, Kuerig coffee machine, refrigerator and small work area. Bathrooms have large, tiled walk-in showers.

Food matters

Hotel Del is no place to diet, especially with Sundaes, an enticing gourmet gelateria with an assortment of nearly too-pretty-to-eat hand-crafted paleta popsicles and a dishing array of toppings. But never mind, I am a firm believer in the just invented theory that staring intently at the Pacific Ocean burns actual calories. That said, there are several healthy choices at Hotel Del’s many dining options, all of which have stunning ocean views.

Serea’s sea-to-table dining experience with glorious views highlights the talent of Chef JoJo Ruiz. The Baja Kampachi with lime, micro cilantro, dried cherries, nuts and schug, was so fresh it was surely in the ocean hours earlier, and if Christmas had a flavor, this would be it. The grilled octopus with pickled red onions was incredibly tasty and tender, no doubt owing to its several hour sous vide before grilling. The wood grilled Maine lobster was also fantastic, and my husband ate not only Chef Ruiz’s crispy Brussel sprouts with reckless abandon, but also that night’s market vegetables, zucchini. This is the culinary equivalent, spousally speaking of course, of parting the Red Sea.

At Sun Deck, craft cocktails are combined with small plates, salads, and sandwiches, to best enjoy the numerous firepits and stellar sunsets. We particularly enjoyed the California Mezze Plate with herb falafel and lemon hummus and the black sesame tuna with Jalapeno jelly. Shockingly, my husband also devoured the chilled jumbo prawns on green pea gazpacho, even though he swore off anything resembling peas decades ago.

Excellent breakfasts at Sheerwater where traditional items such as house made bakery items, made-to-order eggs and fresh fruits are served on the buffet alongside specialty items, such as exotic Asian fruits, dreamy Mediterranean Shakshuka, and crispy, piquant Chilaquiles.

Babcock & Story Bar, with its one-piece 150-foot mahogany bar, is a delightful watering hole. It’s a place that regardless of how much you enjoy your time there and spirit of choice, you’ll wish the walls could share the many secrets they no doubt have held onto for decades.

If you’re feeling peckish but can’t drag yourself away from the sand, happily the Beach & Taco Shack will satiate with spicy shrimp, steak asada or mushroom vegan tacos and ice-cold beers or margaritas. If you are craving pizza, head to ENO Market & Pizzeria. Try the garlic chicken pizza with garlic confit.

The Lesson Learned

A grand old dame indeed and long part of the Southern California backdrop, Hotel Del has been renovated and reimagined, all the while thankfully keeping its sense of history and locale intact. Fortunately, like a woman of a certain age, grace has been maintained. Equally important, the excellent service at Hotel Del continues.

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