Ever curious and hungry for adventure, Elaine Masters is a passionate traveler and digital storyteller. As founder of Tripwellgal.com she thrives on variety, from following fishing trends to cocktail culture and uncovering unsung destinations. Elaine hunts for stories, pictures, and video across the planet from her San Diego base. A scuba diving and seafood fanatic, she agrees with Helen Keller that, “Life’s an adventure or nothing.”
As you glance across the narrow stretch of water west of downtown San Diego, your gaze lingers on the low-lying shoulder of land that stands between you and the Pacific. It’s the northern end of Coronado Island. While it may be only a ten-minute boat ride away, it’s on another planet from the busy city.
A tall, sweeping bridge curls over the south bay from Highway 5, sloping down onto Coronado. Locals have no problem driving over the water without being distracted by the hypnotic view north to Point Loma or south to Mexico, but it’s a bit more challenging for first-timers.
Coronado isn’t really an island; it’s a peninsula, connected to the mainland by a long beach called the Silver Strand. You can drive up to Coronado proper from a turn-off near Imperial Beach, but the bridge gets you there faster and more easily. It wasn’t always so.
Salesmen, Stars, Wizards, and Kings
American Indians once canoed across the inlet to hunt and fish. Early Californian settlers shuttled over by ferry in the late 1900’s. Today, that tradition survives via water-Taxi services, a regular ferry, and private yachts moored near the city’s hotels and bungalows.
In slower times, the island drew investors interested in creating a getaway for families from Los Angeles. The city’s founding father, John D. Spreckles, erected a vacationers’ tent city a few feet from his sumptuous Hotel Del Coronado. Ever the master of marketing, he filmed families beach-combing and sun-bathing. He used this idyllic footage to sell lots for homes and businesses on the island. Coronado Island, San Diego’s redoubt, was born.
In the twentieth century, most Americans were introduced to the island at the movies. Some Like It Hot starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon, put the island on the map for good. Their characters’ antics in and out of the Hotel Del Coronado are immortalized in frames arranged along the walls.
Presidents and Princes have visited too. Woodrow Wilson, FDR, JFK, LBJ, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton — all have walked the halls. The most notorious visitors were Edward, Prince of Wales, and a local socialite named Wallis Simpson. Nearly a decade later, Edward’s desire to marry this charming divorcée forced him to abdicate the English throne.
The first explorer to map and name the island, Seabastian Vizcaino, arrived in 1602 and called it Coronado, Spanish for ‘Crowned One.’ The Hotel Del’s ballroom, The Crown Room, whose chandeliers were designed by L. Frank Baum, gets its name from this translation.
While Baum was already famous when he and the family took up residence at the hotel, his tenure on the island is commemorated in a quiet house on a roundabout in the village. It’s the home where he spent mornings walking, drinking in the views of Point Loma, and finding the inspiration to write the Wizard of Oz. Today, you can find the house easily. An attached sunroom lures Oz fans up the garden path to peer inside. The walls and shelves are filled with Oz memorabilia. If you go, don’t miss the cranky visage of the Wicked Queen hanging next to the front door transom. The new city library, further down on Orange Avenue, has a wall of art glass emblazoned with Ozian characters as well.
Sailors, Small Batch, Sushi, and Spice
The north end of Coronado crackles to life as fighter jets roar into the sky. The island is also home to a large Navy base. Three ships have been named after the city, and local watering holes fill with sailors and old friends whenever they put in to port. Notably, The Little Club, a quintessential dive bar on northern Orange Avenue, hosts parties for enlisted visitors. Pool tables fill the back room, games fill TV screens, and strong drinks fill glasses. It’s a friendly watering hole any time of year.
There’s plenty of activity along the short 100 block, with several hangouts and restaurants, a brew pub, a deli/liquor store. and a grocery. On the corner, Central Liquor is one of the best spots to pick up submarine sandwiches and picnic drinks, its shelves stocked with the largest wine collection on the island. This is where locals stop before an afternoon rendezvous with friends.
Or else they just might gather at the family-friendly Coronado Brewing Company. One of the first artisanal breweries in San Diego, it’s famous for its small batch labels and awards. The Coastwise IPA just won the national IPA competition. It makes a fine companion on a sunny, island day, while the barrel-aged, German-chocolate Stout offers a smooth finish to an evening of playful rambling.
Hungry for more? Then stop in at Saiko Sushi where some of the freshest food in San Diego is served. The drink menu includes a fine innovation: you can order one of several sake flights, depending on which flavor profile you prefer. Owner Antony Pasquale is one of a trio of Southern California Sake Sommeliers, and delights in introducing visitors to the finest new imports.
Next door at Fonda Don Diego, South American inspired foods burden the tables, and the Jalapeño Margaritas have just the right hint of spice.
Parks, Piers, Pizza, and Patios
There are several parks on the island where locals gather for concerts and picnics. (The local newspaper, The Coronado Eagle and Journal, has a calendar full of events.) At Spreckles Park, the Coronado Promenade Concert Gazebo is swimming with music during the summer. Crowds stroll the lawns as art groups host exhibitions, and the annual Flower Show blossoms. Another small park, with one of the best views on the island, sits at the north end of Orange Avenue. It’s a perfect perch for watching ships and sailing boats pass, and admiring the shifting light as it reflects off of the San Diego high rises across the channel.
The Flagship Ferry pier is a few blocks from Orange Avenue, and crossing the inlet by boat makes a lovely afternoon excursion for locals and travelers alike. A few hotels and B&Bs are available for longer-term visits. Many visitors bring their bikes over for the day, or rent them in the Landing Village. The island is easy to maneuver, with wide, flat streets and little traffic off the main drag. A bike store also rents many wheeled options from carts to scooters.
There are souvenir shops, ice cream and pizza parlors as well as several fine dining spots perfect for brunch or romantic dinners. The small beach next to the pier clamors with kids on hot days. Claim a bench seat and enjoy afternoon concerts on the green. On Tuesday afternoons, take care of your week’s shopping with fresh vegetables and fruits, flowers, nuts, eggs, and oils at the oldest Farmer’s Market in the area, with the best seasonal harvests from across the Southland. You can’t miss the white tents in the parking lot next to Il Fornaio.
Most island visitors arrive via the bridge and turn south, away from the ferry landing, when they reach Orange Avenue. That’s how Spreckles designed the traffic flow: everything leading to his big hotel. But as you travel south towards the Silver Strand, you roll through one of the California’s prettiest downtown villages. Tastes have changed over the decades, and a few new restaurants and menus chase the trends, but the characters of the storefronts have stayed true to earlier times. The Coronado Historical Association guards the island’s legacy with rotating exhibits and interactive displays.
Across the street, Clayton’s Coffee Shop is a folksy classic. The retro theme begins in the doorway as you slip past the jukebox. Music stations still blare out old favorites from seats around the long U-shaped counter, while huge slices of pie and burgers, home-made and satisfying American comfort food, fill plates and tummies. If there’s a line out front, walk around the corner to the window for a quick take-away meal.
Moo Time is another throwback, with traditional as well as updated ice cream flavors chilling behind the glass cases. Hand-rolled cones, sundaes, and milkshakes are thick with ice cream made from scratch. You can’t miss the life-sized Elvis and cow statues out front.
Across the street, Cafe 1134 serves espresso drinks and bistro fare. Craving a bit of shade and quiet? Step through to the patio out back.
At Island Pasta Company the pizza is a gooey, crisp delight, but Brant and Carol Sarber make noodles daily that keep locals raving and returning.
If you’re looking for some entertainment, there are several theaters on the island. The Coronado Vintage Theater has re-opened after a multi-million dollar renovation which restored the Art Deco interior and signage. A film festival calls the Vintage home, and there are daily matinées. In the village, enjoy a drink between acts at the Lamb’s Players Theater. The original street performers moved in twenty-five years ago, but today the tiny space echoes with popular musicals, comedies, and cabarets.
Locals know Coronado Island well, and today those admiring the quiet island from downtown San Diego can dip into the vintage charms, delicious discoveries, beaches, and festivities just a few minutes away. When John. D. Spreckles laid out plans for developing this little getaway, could he possibly have imagined how vibrant and fun it would be for generations to come?