A few years ago I was lucky to be a guest at the Hotel Del Coronado. This was my first stay on Coronado and I was so enamored with the grand lady of the island that I never left her grounds.
Fast forward a few years and I have returned. This time I wanted to learn about the history that surrounds this magical island paradise. I discovered the best way to immerse yourself in the days of old is to stay at the Glorietta Bay Inn.
This property has been restored to its majestic origins. The Inn began its life as the “dream home” of John D. Spreckels. Spreckels began investing in the island when his yacht stopped there for supplies in 1887. By the early 1900s he owned all but five parcels on the island, including controlling interest of the Hotel Del Coronado.
I learned all this and more fascinating facts about the island (which is really not an island, but a peninsula) from Gerry MacCartee, a local historian and guide for Coronado Touring.
The walking tour begins at the Glorietta Bay Inn. In the Music Room of the mansion, Gerry begins the tale of an island that was so barren the only people who came to it were wealthy businessmen who hunted jackrabbits. Two of these businessmen, H.L. Story and Elisha Babcock, believing that the railroad was destined for San Diego, began developing the island, starting with the grand resort, until their funds ran out and Spreckels arrived to save the day (and The Del).
From the Glorietta Bay Inn, we crossed the street over to The Del. We paused under one of the large trees visible from the enormous (10,000 square feet!) dining room. This particular tree holds the honor of being the first outdoor-lit Christmas tree in 1904, and it continued to be lit every year until it just became too tall! Looking into the dining room you also notice the ornate crown chandeliers. Inspired by the name Coronado (which translates to “the crowned one”) these shapes can be seen throughout The Del and the island.
The chandeliers were designed by resident L. Frank Baum. Sound familiar? He wrote 14 novels in a series, the most popular being The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Rumor has it that his inspiration for the Emerald City came from The Del.
The island was always the playground of the rich and famous. After all, who else could afford the $2 a night they were charging when the hotel opened? It was also known for its polo fields and stables. Apparently Charlie Chaplin was quite the equestrian and played polo there while shooting films. The hotel was used as a backdrop for movies starting with silents in the early 1900s. One of the most popular ever to be shot on the property was “Some Like it Hot” with Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe.
We also learned the long history of the Naval connection to the island, starting with the development of amphibious flight in 1911 through the training of Navy SEALs that goes on today. The area known as North Island was purchased by the US Government in 1917. Another interesting tidbit — Charles Lindberg started his historic flight from North Island.
Our tour concluded on Orange Ave. Named for the orange trees planted along the avenue, which shortly after had their roots eaten by the jackrabbits (no doubt in an effort to reclaim their land), so there are no actual orange trees on Orange Ave!
Gerry continued to give restaurant suggestions and share information to anyone who inquired further. We stayed and chatted awhile longer; truthfully I could have listened to her for hours! On the walk back to the Glorietta Bay Inn I noticed things I hadn’t before. The symbols of crowns on the street signs, the Emerald City surf and skate shop and McP’s (local hangout for the Navy Seals). I felt less like a tourist and more like a member of this tight-knit community on the crowned island.
The story of our adventures in Coronado will continue next week…stay tuned. If you are heading to the magical island check out sandiego.org/coronado for valuable visitor information.