Say Goodbye to Hollywood – Coronado is the new film set of California.
Forget self help books – it seems chick lit has been the guiding force in my life. Marian Keyes’ The Other Side of the Story is to blame for me wanting to go into publishing – even when I later found out that the literary agent with a sports car is not exactly a true reflection on the industry. And it was because of The California Club by Belinda Jones that I found myself looking at Coronado for the ‘beach’ portion of our dual-centered holiday to California (the other ‘centre’ was San Francisco – more to come on that!). Partly set on the island, the book made Coronado seem like an idyllic destination for a beach holiday: all sea, sun, and and surfers. And fortunately Jones’ book turned out to be a little (lot) more realistic than Keyes’!*
That said, it seems quite fitting that I first came across Coronado in fiction. There is something a little bit unreal about the ‘island’ (it’s an island in name only, connected to the mainland by a slither of land). The setting is straight from a film set with an almost ‘if Disney were to open a beach resort it would be something like this’ feeling. Pastel coloured houses are adorned by pleated, semicircular American flags. Away from the main road, streets seem almost devoid of cars. Surfers and lifeguards say ‘dude’ and ‘man’.
And that’s just the beginning. Our favourite eatery on the island was Clayton’s Coffee Shop, a diner and relic of the 1950’s (reviewed in more depth here). Our B&B, The Cherokee Lodge, was so-called because of the roses that adorned its perfect garden (also complete with flagpole sporting the Stars & Stripes). Even getting onto the island is an unreal experience. As you ascend to the top of Coronado Bridge, the road almost appears to disappear from underneath the vehicle. During one memorable bus trip one of our fellow bus passengers was so captivated by the experience that he actually stood up in some kind of salutation as we reached the bridge’s peak. Though I suspect he may have been drinking.
But if most of Coronado is a film set then the actors must live in the eye-popping mansions that line the beachfront. One of which boasted an RV that looked like it had more floor space than my house!
The Cherokee Lodge. And the garden’s not even in full bloom yet!
And then there’s the incredible (apparently the second best in the States), where wet sand genuinely sparkles in the right light and plants line the edges, giving it a natural feel. Besides its appearance, there are two reasons that Coronado Beach is unlike many others. Firstly, because – due to its vast width and length – there is plenty of space for everyone, even when we were there in June. We never felt uncomfortably close to anyone around us – definitely nothing like the sardine-tin like beaches you often see representing tourist spots. Though it’s advisable to avoid the area in front of the Hotel del Coronado as the majority of beachfront hotels are situated at this end, making this part of the beach feel more crowded and, well, touristy. A five-ten minute walk away not only provides more space, but also to a taste of (enviable) local life on the island. From surfing schools for pre-teens to families meeting to lunch to groups of friends singing to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar; these tasters of how locals live life remind you that you’re not actually on a film set. Just be warned – occasionally you’ll find yourself sharing the beach with some of its less desirable inhabitants. One day we can down to the warning ‘Lots of jellyfish: shuffle feet’.
The second reason that Coronado Beach is unique? Every so often you get treated to the sight of an army jet coming into to land, the cockpit so close that you can almost make out the expression on the pilot’s face. Although we knew that half of the island was an army base, we hadn’t expected to get quite so close to the action!
The said, this is about as close to ‘action’ as you’re likely to get on Coronado. Compact and picturesque, it is the perfect location to take in at a leisurely pace, either on foot or by bicycle (bikes can be hired from either end of the island, at Holland’s Bicycles, Bikes and Beyond or the excellently named Wheel Fun Rentals). The marina provides some good photo opportunities, while halfway up Orange Avenue we found Spreckel’s Park the perfect place to stop for a picnic bought for a local supermarket. The park also has a play area to entertain any kids (big or little) you may be travelling with, while in the summer a series of concerts provide a more grown up form of entertainment on Sunday evenings. If you’re really desperate for an adrenalin hit but don’t feel like joining the runners and surfers, then you could always try hunting for the ghost of Kate Morgan, said to have haunted Hotel del Coronado since 1892. Legend has it that nobody’s quite sure whether she committed suicide or was murdered.
Even if ghosts aren’t your thing, the ‘Hotel Del’ is worth investigating (or, if you have the money, staying in) – not only is it a landmark on the island, but its oak-panelled reception and extravagant chandeliers are a sight worth seeing as you imagine the days when the likes of Marilyn Monroe were guests here. Oh, and it’s also one of the settings for The California Club – so if, like me, you were drawn to the island thanks to Belinda Jones, you’ll be able to put a face to the setting and see that it’s as perfect as the book describes!
It’s also worth making a stop in the Babcock Bar for a drink. It might not be cheap – on average a beer is $7, wine sits between $8.50 and $14 for a glass, and cocktails come in at $12.50+, but the Key Lime Pie cocktail in particular is worth saving for and savouring (Graham crackers around the rim of the glass!). Sat with our drinks overlooking the ocean (it’s ground floor, but you can still see the beach), the bar’s ukulele player/singer provided the perfect soundtrack to the evening.
The ‘Hotel Del’ from the beach
All of this sounding a little too laid back? The bright lights of San Diego are within easy reach. You could hire a car to get around the area, but the good public transport systems in both Coronado and San Diego make this unnecessary. Instead, you can get a bus or ferry, both of which will take you into central San Diego. From either drop-off point it is easy to either get further public transport or walk to your final destination. Some suggestions for these can be found here. But fun as San Diego is, I can’t pretend that I didn’t enjoy coming back to the calm and quiet of Coronado, and the feeling of really getting away from the ‘real world’.
Would I fly 11 hours from Britain just to go to Coronado and San Diego? Probably not – it’s just that bit too expensive and a bit far away. But if you’re in California then it’s definitely worth a visit. Situated just two hours from Los Angeles and easily accessible with new direct flight routes from London, it’s a feasible destination to either start or end a roadtrip down Route 101. We also found it to be the perfect compliment to San Francisco on our dual centred holiday, with flights between the two very quick and cheap. (Oh, and for what it’s worth, most Californians told us we’d done the right thing by choosing San Diego and Coronado over Los Angeles. Though seeing as most of these locals were either from San Diego or San Francisco (the latter of which allegedly has a bit of a rivallry with LA) then they might not be the most trustworthy of sources.)
If you want bars, clubs and action, you’re probably better off making Coronado a day trip and staying in central San Diego. But if you want a relaxing, escapist holiday and beautiful beaches then Coronado comes highly recommended.
Coronado Bay Bridge. Photo: Yuni, WikiSpaces, Bridge Notes
*That’s not to say that you shouldn’t read The Other Side of the Story. All of Keyes’ books are pretty awesome. Just, um, take it with a pinch of salt.