Relaxing al fresco on a San Diego harbor isle
An outdoor concert and scenic walks along the bay are highlights of a stay on mile-long Shelter Island.
Shelter Pointe Hotel on the western tip of the peninsula is bordered on three sides by water, with a sandy no-swim beach area. (Fred Greaves / For the Times)
"There is no bad seat at Humphrey's," he said, referring to the Humphrey's Concerts by the Bay arena on San Diego's Shelter Island. He pointed out that concert parking was free in lots across the street. Besides, he said, "You'll get your money's worth."
A few hours later, I understood what he meant. From my middle-row seat, I could make out the Grammy- and Pulitzer Prize-winning jazz artist's every raised eyebrow as he coaxed melodies from his trumpet. The sound system was extraordinarily good for an outdoor venue, and the palm trees framing the stage seemed to sway with the music, creating an intimate environment far removed from the city lights and noise.
The Humphrey's summer concert series is a 23-year-old tradition on Shelter Island, a mile-long peninsula west of downtown. The 1,300-plus-seat venue hosts an eclectic mix of performers every June through October. This year's lineup includes India.Arie, David Byrne, the Doobie Brothers and Liza Minnelli.
After snagging tickets for the Marsalis concert, my husband, John, and I decided to build a weekend on Shelter Island around the event last month. Half a dozen resorts are in the area, and our post-concert time could be filled with poolside lounging, walks along the bay front and meals at seafood restaurants. Nothing measured up to Friday night's performance, but the weekend did turn out to be a fun, hassle-free way to experience San Diego from a different vantage point.
Shelter Island was little more than a sandbar bordering San Diego's yacht harbor until developers shaped a peninsula out of dredged material in the early 1950s. Hotels started popping up soon after, but the area gained its only inkling of fame as the host of the America's Cup sailing race from 1988 to 1995.
The nautical theme still prevails, and the peninsula's ambience and vacation-minded spirit remind me of a less-crowded version of Marina del Rey.
The summer concerts are on the grounds of a tiki-themed hotel, Humphrey's Half Moon Inn & Suites. We were more drawn to the 206-room Shelter Pointe Hotel, on the western tip of the peninsula facing Point Loma and surrounded on three sides by water. Shelter Pointe — formerly the exclusive Kona Kai Club, another tiki-themed hotel once owned by Hollywood mogul Jack Warner — was bought in 1998 by Pacifica Hotel Co., which operates a string of properties along the California coast. It gave Shelter Pointe a $3-million face-lift in 2001, with most of the money going into the rooms and lobby.
When I checked in late Friday afternoon, the desk clerk amiably granted my request to upgrade from a first-floor room to a third-floor room overlooking San Diego Bay — without charge and without knowing I was on assignment. Two pools, a playground and a sandy no-swimming beach area give the place a resort feel and attract families with small kids.
Our standard room had two queen-size beds and was decorated in muted gold, green and brown, with tropical touches such as pineapple-shaped lamps and rattan headboards. My only complaints were the lack of space and the balcony's uncomfortable plastic chairs, which didn't measure up to the view they delivered.
The brochure rate was $139 plus tax a night, but an auto-club discount knocked it down to $119 plus tax. (Current rates may be higher.) We avoided a $10-a-day parking fee by leaving the car along Shelter Island Drive, an easy walk from our room and just as secure as the hotel's unattended outdoor lot.
From our room, we could get to a jogging path — no bicycles, roller skates or skateboards allowed — that ran along the southern rim of the island, providing views of the San Diego skyline and Coronado. Dotted with picnic tables, bougainvillea-draped pergolas and bronze sculptures, it runs past a T-shaped fishing pier, children's playground and larger-than-life memorial to the fleet of tuna fishermen from San Diego Bay. It was a great place to combine mild exercise with people-watching, and we traversed it often during the weekend.
Meals are hit and miss
The only time we took the car out was Saturday morning, when we visited nearby Cabrillo National Monument, a 160-acre park on Point Loma commemorating the arrival of explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542. A 10-minute uphill drive and $5 admission fee granted us 360-degree views of the Pacific, San Diego Bay and Mexico. Shelter Island looked almost like the sandbar it had been.
On the way back to the hotel, we stopped for lunch at Point Loma Seafoods, a chaotic fish market just off Shelter Island Drive. After jockeying for a place in line at the counter, we took our sandwiches — flaky Alaskan halibut fillets on fresh sourdough bread — outside to a table overlooking the marina, pleased with the food and the unhurried atmosphere.
Other meals on Shelter Island were less impressive. Chicken quesadillas and crab-stuffed mushrooms at Humphrey's bar were run-of-the mill fare. (The restaurant's separate full-dinner menu, which attracted a brisk pre-concert business, might have proved more satisfying.) Also mediocre were the poached eggs and waffles at the Red Sails Inn, a popular breakfast spot with a patio overlooking the marina. The food wasn't awful; it just wasn't tastier than anything we could have made in our own kitchen.
Dinner on Saturday at the Bali Hai restaurant on the eastern tip of the island was better, although we were more impressed by the UFO-like circular dining room and views of downtown San Diego than by our meals: lobster tails in black bean sauce and a stir-fry of red curry chicken and eggplant.
Bali Hai, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, was one of the first commercial establishments on Shelter Island, and remnants of its heyday as a mai tai-flowing entertainment palace remain. Its walls are covered with carved tikis and maps of the South Pacific, and a 5-foot statue of its headhunter mascot, Mr. Bali Hai, greets patrons at the entrance.
As we strolled back to our hotel on the other end of the peninsula, we witnessed a robust level of activity despite the late hour. Groups huddled around the remnants of bonfires that had been roaring on the beach earlier that night. Fishermen hunched near rocks by the pier with their rods in place. A man on guitar serenaded his companion on a bench.
Across the street, songs from the '80s blasted from the bar at Humphrey's — "She's a Bad Mama Jama" is apparently still a big crowd pleaser — reminding us that as much as the area may try to appeal to modern tastes, it isn't ready to let go of its colorful, slightly hokey past.