A Victorian Lady by the Sea
San Diego's elegant Hotel Del Coronado combines the grace of a bygone era with contemporary comfort
by Danielle M. Clarneaux
The Glory Days
If you didn't sail off to Europe for the season back in 1890, (and if you were rich, of course), you hitched your luxurious, private railway car to a train and headed west to California. Your destination: Hotel Del Coronado, with perhaps a few lengthy stops at other lavish "railroad resorts" along the way.
You couldn't go much further west. The Hotel Del Coronado opened in 1888 on the tip of the Coronado peninsula that juts into the Pacific Ocean, forming the western boundary of San Diego Bay. The Victorian-inspired hotel was built by two mid-western businessmen who dreamed that their creation would become the "talk of the western world." The elegant, Victorian-inspired hotel was originally promoted as a hunting and fishing resort, where both game and marine life were abundant and the accommodating chef would gladly prepare the guests' catch of the day.
For those who desired more leisurely pursuits, the hotel offered bowling, billiards, croquet, boating, archery, golf and, of course, fine dining. And not by candlelight. The Del, as it was dubbed, was at the forefront of technology, having the distinction of being the largest building in the country to have electric lights. There were telephones, though not yet in the guest rooms, elevators, a fire alarm system, and, quite rare, bathrooms with water pressure.
In the 1900s, the hotel debuted such innovations as a school for the children of long-terms guests and "Tent City," which served the newly emerging middle class. Located just south of The Del, it offered modest tent and bungalow accommodations at reasonable rates.
The Roaring Twenties brought party time to the hotel, along with world-renowned celebrities and political figures including Charlie Chaplin, England's Prince of Wales and Charles Lindbergh, who was honored at the hotel after his historic solo transatlantic flight in 1927. The war, however, quickly put a damper on the hedonistic atmosphere. Blackout laws went into effect, and the Navy commandeered part of the hotel for housing. But couples still danced at The Del, still married at The Del, and still honeymooned at The Del. And when the war was over, they celebrated at The Del.
Nineteenth-century hotels went into decline during the war, and many never recovered. Even with peace declared, America was looking towards all things new that sparkled with the future: new cars, drive-ins—and motels. The Del, however, persevered, even taking in residential guests to help remain solvent.
The "Grand Lady By the Sea" proved she had not lost her luster when in 1958 Hollywood director Billy Wilder set his comedy Some Like It Hot , starring Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, at The Del. The American Film Institute recently recognized the movie as the best comedy of all times. Over the years, dozens and dozens of movies and television shows have been filmed at the picturesque hotel, along with many celebrity guests enjoying its hospitality during respites from work.
By the late '60s and into the '70s there was renewed interest in historical landmarks, and The Del received the attention she deserved and was selected as a national historic landmark in 1977. She was brought back to her former glory, with her gabled, red-tiled roof, manicured grounds and balconies overlooking the magnificence of the Pacific. Since that time, every president since Lyndon Johnson has been a guest at the hotel.
An historic Victorian hotel would not be quite in character without a ghost to haunt its corridors. Guests, employees and even paranormal researchers have reported supernatural occurrences at The Del, all thought to be related to the death of a beautiful but mysterious young woman, Kate Morgan, who stayed at the hotel in November 1892. Five days after she checked in, the woman, in her mid-20s, was found dead on a staircase leading to the beach. She had a gunshot to the head, and it was assumed she had taken her own life.
Since then, there's been flickering lights, televisions that turn on and off, dramatic shifts in room temperature, odd scents, unexplained voices, billowing curtains despite closed windows, and objects moving by themselves. Over the years some have even claimed to see the ghost of Kate Morgan herself.
The Del Updated
This spring, the 113-year-old hotel unveiled a dramatic $55 million restoration which includes an oceanfront lawn, new seaside restaurants, bar, retail venue and redesigned Victorian rooms.
The first impression of The Del, with its signature red roof, is of undeniable luxury. Grand steps lead into the cool, dark oak, balconied lobby, softly lit by a massive crystal chandelier. Past the lobby you step into a central courtyard, rimmed by palms and other lush greens surrounding a gazebo with a matching red roof. Pathways lead to the Galleria, featuring two dozen shops, and to the hotel's various restaurants, the patio surrounding the swimming pool, the new Windsor Lawn, and, furthest to the west, the hotel's private beach fronting the Pacific.
Accommodations at The Del range from impeccable suites in the Victorian building to stylish rooms in the contemporary seven-story Ocean Towers and the poolside California Cabanas. And for that occasion demanding sheer extravagance, the 2,000-square-foot Beach House affords spacious privacy along with the romantic legacy left by its previous guest, Marilyn Monroe.
The newly refurbished Victorian suites hint at The Del's historic heritage, with ceiling fans stirring the sea breeze that flirts through the rooms. Deep, four-poster beds are dressed in cool greens, while the three spacious walk-in closets accommodate even the most expansive (or expensive) of wardrobes. Special touches make a guest feel pampered, such as the hotel's private brand of luxury bath products, a lavishly stocked mini-bar, and plush terry robes that will take you from bath to the pool or spa.
No matter where you are at The Del, the Pacific Ocean beckons, and your options to enjoy it are plentiful. A water-facing balcony is sheer heaven, where you can sink into the comfortable deck furniture, sip a glass of the hotel's private label chardonnay and watch with a contented sigh as the sun slips below the sea.
No balcony? Not to worry. The Del offers various ocean vantage points including a large raised patio by the pool, cozy benches along the new emerald green Windsor lawn—or shuck your sandals and stroll down to the surf. Some might find the Pacific a bit brisk for a full-body swim, but it's hard to resist at least a wade. For warmer waters, head to the huge pool, which has been enhanced to include a large whirlpool, two additional lap lanes and the latest in technology and lighting. The newly renovated oceanfront Spa and Fitness Center has been expanded and opened up with windows to the sea. Although you can zone out to one of the six television sets while you work out, you'll no doubt find the view of the Pacific much more mesmerizing.
While you're enjoying the spa, the kids will be well entertained with fully supervised activities that are fun and educational. As an offshoot of the original Tent City that functioned for 40 years, the Tent Tykes Camp and Tent City Camp offer age-appropriate activities, such as sandcastle building, tide pool exploring and teen kayaking and surfing lessons.
Dining at The Del
From the casual to the elegant, the dining choice is yours. To take the edge off your appetite while you're enjoying the sun and sand, there's the Cabana Bar, Boardwalk Caf?, Sun Deck Bar & Grill and the Splash Bar & Deli. The Sheerwater is The Del's new seaside restaurant offering outdoor dining terraces warmed by giant fireplaces. Here the cuisine is California coastal, with signature entrees prepared in the exhibition oven. Also featured are afternoon tapas.
The Babcock & Story Bar was named after The Del's founders, Elisha Babcock and H.L. Story. Taking center stage is the original 46-foot handcrafted bar that was brought by ship from Philadelphia around Cape Horn in 1888. B&S Bar offers signature margaritas, blended tropical drinks, premium wines, appetizers, afternoon tapas and seasonal entertainment.
The Prince of Wales is the resort's fine dining restaurant offering both intimate indoor and scenic outdoor terraced dining. Chef Matthew Van Marter combines classic cuisine with innovative interpretations in his seasonally inspired cuisine. The five-course tasting menu provides an opportunity to enjoy the range of Van Marter's talents along with selected fine wines. A jazz pianist entertains nightly.
A stunning grand ballroom and the Crown room are among the extensive facilities available for weddings, meetings and other special occasions.
With its distinctive architecture, its superb service, and its elegant ambiance against the backdrop of the Pacific, the Del Coronado is the perfect hotel in which to create your own history.