Oh, the Tales They Tell in Coronado

Oh, the Tales They Tell in Coronado
Coronado Island resident Nancy Cobb, left, leads a historical walking tour, which includes the Spreckels mansion, now the Glorietta Bay Inn. (DON TORMEY / LAT)
The tour guide held up a 1901 photo that was instantly recognizable but nonetheless befuddling. Surely that was the Hotel del Coronado in the distance, its unmistakable Victorian cupolas rising above the Pacific shore.

But in the foreground, where 15-story condominium towers now cast a shadow toward the Hotel Del's red-roofed whimsy, the grainy picture showed something different: Tent City.

For $4.50 per week, the oceanfront view came with all the basics a vacationer needed: canvas roof and walls, bed, dresser, washbasin and flush toilets. Never mind that the sewer drained right offshore.

And never mind the Hotel Del and its guest list of the rich and famous. For the vacationing masses--more than 10,000 guests a year at its peak--Tent City defined the Coronado experience from 1900 to 1939. Before the town welcomed the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe and "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" author L. Frank Baum, this emerald city looked a lot like sixth-grade camp.

My education on Coronado's past began with a walking tour last fall. With the help of an entertaining guide and some historic photos, the town's story came into sharper focus. It's a tale of entrepreneurs seeking riches, royals chasing love and a construction crew so intent on building the West's most magnificent resort in record time that they didn't bother with blueprints.

I arrived one Friday night with sketchy plans of my own, lured by a good deal at the Coronado Island Marriott Resort. I checked in late, just in time for a full night's rest. That proved important since the next day started with my sole planned activity, a tour de force named Nancy Cobb.

Cobb leads a 90-minute walking tour of Coronado at 11 a.m. Tuesdays and Saturdays (reservations, [619] 435-5993). On Thursdays a colleague gives the same tour, which begins at the 100-room Glorietta Bay Inn, the former mansion of John D. Spreckels, son of sugar baron Claus Spreckels.

The chatty Cobb blitzed through 460 years of Coronado history for me and nine others, starting with the day Spanish explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo anchored in San Diego Bay in 1542 and ending with her commentary on the recently completed $55-million restoration of the Hotel Del. In between we heard some fact, some fiction and a whole lot of gossip.

Long before connecting swampland was filled in, Coronado was actually part of two islands owned by Josefa Bandini and Don Pedro Carrillo, who were granted the land in 1846 as a wedding gift from Pío Pico, the last Mexican governor of California. The happy couple did what many sensible newlyweds do with useless gifts: They exchanged it. Bezer Simmons, a ship captain, got the islands, and the couple received $1,000.

Years and owners passed, as did experiments in growing wheat and establishing a whaling station. But with no fresh water and little rain, the land held few prospects.

Then the dreamers arrived. In 1885, telephone executive Elisha Babcock Jr. and piano company founder Hampton Story bought the land with partners for $110,000, certain they could turn barren soil into Shangri-La: tracts of homes and a luxury hotel, all blessed with breezes and sunshine.

At this point the island still had no name, so local newspapers held a reader contest.

Among the options presented to Babcock and Story: Shining Shore. Welcome City. Hiawatha. Belulah.

They chose Coronado, from the Spanish meaning "the crowned one," because their resort was to be king of the West. The owners then turned their attention to the jewel in their crown, the Hotel Del.

Near the hotel site, a planing mill and ironworks were built quickly, as was a kiln that turned out 150,000 bricks a day, by one estimate.

A 3,000-foot pipeline under the bay brought fresh water from San Diego. So much lumber was floated on rafts from San Francisco and the Pacific Northwest--a million feet were on site at one point--that smoking was banned.

Eleven months after construction began, the Hotel Del welcomed its first guests.

Building a first-class hotel from the ground up--as well as homes, streets, a ferry landing and recreation facilities--drove the project deeply into the red. When the finances went sour, sugar heir John Spreckels stepped in.

In 1889, a year after the hotel opened, Spreckels and his brothers bought a controlling interest in Babcock and Story's company. They spruced up the hotel, dredged a proper ferry landing and built a racetrack, an ostrich farm and a labyrinth for guests.

Camp Coronado, later known as Tent City, followed. Tents offered modern conveniences such as electricity, provided by the hotel's mammoth generator. Japanese gardens, a public library, a band pavilion, tennis courts, a Ferris wheel and a children's carousel (today turning in Balboa Park) kept the masses entertained. But 39 years after opening, Tent City closed, a victim of shifting tastes. America's growing love of cars and the burgeoning construction of roads and highways spawned an intimidating, newfangled competitor: the motel.

We followed Cobb from the old Spreckels mansion to the Hotel Del. Through monolithic picture windows, we could see the vast Crown-Coronet dining room, the sugar-pine ceiling held up with neither pillars nor nails (strictly tongue-and-groove joints) and lighted with Baum-designed chandeliers shaped like king's crowns.

The royal treatment brought notables, and as we strolled around the hotel, we tried to imagine the days when Chaplin played polo, when Hollywood types like novelist and screenwriter Anita Loos ("Gentlemen Prefer Blondes") camped out at Tent City and when muckraker Upton Sinclair wintered here in a house on J Avenue.

The hotel was party central, welcoming Mae West, John Barrymore, Babe Ruth, Al Jolson and Ruby Keeler and such dignitaries as President Franklin Roosevelt and Edward, Prince of Wales.

We walked past the hotel's Prince of Wales restaurant and the expansive Windsor Lawn, then marched on along Ocean Boulevard, where the Del was renovating two cottages on the beach into guestrooms. The eight units, next to the beach house where Marilyn Monroe stayed during the filming of "Some Like It Hot," have since opened with peak weekend rates starting at $1,650 per night.

We reached the nondescript house where L. Frank Baum spent his winters, partying at the Hotel Del by night and crafting the adventures of Dorothy and Toto by day. (He wrote six "Oz" books here in all.) Across the street in Star Park, Cobb pulled out a sweet black-and-white photo of the author at this spot, reading a book to a ring of smiling schoolchildren.

Cobb's yellow brick road had come to an end, but a couple of blocks away I found more history at the Coronado Historical Society's Museum of History and Art (, open daily. The space is a jewel box of artifacts documenting Coronado since its diamond-in-the-rough days: early maps detailing Babcock and Story's dream; 1927 newspaper clippings reporting Charles Lindbergh's departure from Coronado to New York, where he continued on to Paris on his historic transatlantic flight; and a photo of President Richard Nixon in 1970, when he held the first state dinner outside the White House for Mexican President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz at the Hotel Del.

My dinner that night at Chez Loma, a converted 1889 home near the museum, was stately too: Normandy onion soup, baked with a layer of Gruyère; boeuf bourguignon, burgundy-braised sirloin and mushrooms over pasta; and for dessert, crème caramel.

Sunday morning I explored the Marriott, a low-slung complex of nicely furnished rooms set amid gardens and ponds. (Nightly rates at the time of my visit started at $139 plus tax; weekend rates this spring and summer start at $229.) The gentle splash of fountains was the only noticeable sound in a remarkably quiet complex.

After a workout and massage at the hotel spa, I pulled on my in-line skates and wobbled along the waterfront promenade backing the resort. The rest of the afternoon was crammed with Coronado attractions: a ferry ride across the bay to San Diego and back; a walk past the shops on the main drag, Orange Avenue; a drive along Silver Strand State Beach, the slender strip connecting Coronado to south San Diego.

The highlight, though, was at the Hotel Del, where I had lunch on the rear terrace with two San Diego friends, Matt and Liz Fitzsimons. The menu at the hotel's Sheerwater restaurant consisted of crab cakes, a chicken wrap with roasted peppers and asadero cheese, and crispy taro with wok-seared vegetables, all matched with a view of sand, surf and sky.

With a table overlooking the Windsor Lawn, it was easy to feel like royalty. And by the time we were ready to leave, Babcock and Story's dream didn't seem so farfetched after all.


Craig Nakano is an assistant editor in the Travel section.