Coronado hovers off the coast of San Diego like some sort of pricey, patinated Alcatraz. Until 1969, when the bridge opened, life here puttered along at the pace of the trolleys that once shuttled visitors from ferries to the island's grand hotel.
The bridge changed Coronado's rhythms but not its soul. To this day, Coronado remains a city in a bottle--nautical and of another time.
It still prides itself on a relaxed pace. The destination you may know--wide beaches, sparkling sunsets--is temptation enough. But the real, slightly quirky Coronado--its treasure hunts, its concerts under the stars, its funky diners--is worth exploring too.
Tradition takes over on Thursdays with the opening bell of Coronado's garage sales. These elaborate sales are the stuff of legend, where you'll find wares as diverse as antiques and big-screen TVs. The bounty stems from the city's very identity, a mix of longtime mansion-dwellers and Navy families unloading their belongings as they prepare to ship out.
"The garage sales are a way of life," says Joe Ditler of the Coronado Museum of History and Art. "There is treasure to be found. I mean, there are fights that break out" over merchandise.Fisticuffs over coffee tables aside, Coronado is a beachy, gentrified little town where you can let the older kids roam while entertaining the young ones with rides along 15 miles of dedicated bike paths. For a moment, you'll think you've arrived at Mayberry by the bay. On summer Sundays in Spreckels Park, locals and visitors gather for band concerts. The city still holds a homespun Fourth of July parade, and Santa arrives by firetruck in December.
Most activity, including people-watching, takes place in Orange Avenue's cluster of cafes and shops, on the way to the legendary 120-year-old Hotel del Coronado.
Along the street, pizzerias, pubs and the popular Brigantine Seafood Restaurant sit shoulder to shoulder. Ditch the crowds and try the Fish Co., a block north, where owner and chef Bob Shultz offers an assortment of expertly cooked fresh fish (Pacific snapper, mahi-mahi and salmon) at lunch and dinner. And locals swear by the three-egg special at the Night & Day Cafe at 847 Orange Ave., (also known as the Greasy Spoon).
Watersports are big here all year round. A block off Orange is that wide Coronado beach, one of the best family beaches in the West. At the bay, small-powerboat rentals start at $94 an hour; kayaks, $18 an hour (Seaforth Boat Rentals,  437-1514).
Though the Hotel Del is a default destination for many visitors, the Glorietta Bay Inn across the street also offers elegant digs while maintaining a great family vibe. Housed in an Italian Renaissance mansion, this place is as spit-polished as the uniform buttons at the nearby naval base.
First impression: The 100-year-old inn is just too fancy for your 4-year-old. The reality: The hotel's newer wings consist of roomy one- and two-bedroom suites that work well for families. This year is the centennial of the mansion's completion, and the hotel is marking the occasion with special summer activities for children, including reptile shows, face painting and a Fourth of July barbecue.
WHERE TO STAY
Glorietta Bay Inn, 1630 Glorietta Blvd.; (800) 283-9383, www.gloriettabayinn.com. Real elegance at mid- level prices. The one- bedroom suites start at $260 a night; rooms in the mansion start at about $285 a night. Hotel del Coronado, 1500 Orange Ave.; (800) 468-3533, www.hoteldel.com. Timeless oceanfront resort with a world-class spa. Doubles from $255.
WHERE TO EAT
The Brigantine Seafood Restaurant, 1333 Orange Ave.; (619) 435-4166, www.brigantine.com. Casual seafood house popular with locals and visitors. The Fish Co., 1007 C Ave.; (619) 435-3945. Nothing too fancy, just fresh sea fare, properly cooked; lunch from $10, dinner from $15.
TO LEARN MORE
Coronado Museum of History and Art (and visitor center), 1100 Orange Ave., (619) 437-8788, offers maps, schedules and directions, plus three galleries dedicated to the island's history, which includes visits by Thomas Edison and Marilyn Monroe.