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Finding comfort and joy at San Diego’s Hotel Del

For most people, the holiday season is a time to stay home, snug, warm and surrounded by the familiar. Lately, though, I’ve traveled in December. Last year it was a German Christmas market cruise on the Rhine River; the year before that, I visited New York City for, among other things, the tree at Rockefeller Center.

Winter travelers sometimes reap benefits such as low airfares or hotel deals, but my trips, to be perfectly honest, were a search for the Christmas spirit. Born and raised in colder climes, I had despaired of finding it under Southern California’s palm trees and hot blue skies.

The holiday state of mind is hard to define -- part peace on Earth, part cinnamon smell. You know it when you get it. It tends to come all in a rush and uncontained, so it’s usually difficult, even futile, to seek it out.

I certainly wasn’t looking for it a few weeks ago on a quick trip to San Diego, where I went to see an exhibit at the Aerospace Museum in Balboa Park. I’d never much liked San Diego, which looks to me more like a theme park than a city and was the scene of a painful personal episode long ago.

This time, I had a cold accompanied by the kind of mental inertia that renders dull even the stunning Pacific coast around Camp Pendleton on Interstate 5. Besides the exhibit, I had nothing to look forward to.

My boss had told me to stay in a chain motel on the highway if it got too late to make it home that day. But in my heart of hearts, that seemed a terrible way to waste an overnight away from home of which we only have so many in our lives, every one a chance for bliss in some amazing hotel.

The Hotel del Coronado hovered in my mind as I drove south from L.A. I’d never stayed there but knew about it from the 1959 Billy Wilder movie “Some Like It Hot,” which was filmed partly at the hotel.

Storied, elegant, traditional, the Del opened on Coronado Island (actually a 5.3-square-mile peninsula west of downtown San Diego) in 1888 and is one of a handful of grandes dames in the West such as the Fairmont Empress in Victoria, Canada, and the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park.

Before leaving home, I’d checked the rates, which started at $200, an indulgence to be sure. But the traditional holiday “Lighting of the Del” was scheduled for the early December night I would be there.

I must confess that I also have a hotel fetish. I thrill at the idea of taking a bath in a tub I didn’t clean, hanging my breakfast order on the doorknob and watching TV in bed. My German-Lutheran mother would have told me that such trifles aren’t worth much. But Christmas was coming, and I knew that -- CDs, bath salts and sweaters aside -- no one would give me the joyous, frivolous thing I really wanted, besides me.

I had two hours to kill before my appointment when downtown San Diego appeared on the horizon, a little like Emerald City, I fancied this time. So I kept driving until I reached the gracefully arching 2.3-mile bridge that leads over the bay to Coronado. At its crest, I could see the low roofs of Coronado village and the Pacific beyond, then -- Thar she blew! -- the Del, all russet turrets, towers and white wood wings stretched out on the beach like a Victorian beauty in a decorous bathing costume.

On the oceanfront Windsor Lawn, workmen were erecting a stage for that night’s festivities. Gulls were screeching. The December sunshine was warm and gentle, though tourists who had come to gaze at the Del were wearing mittens, a mark of thin Southern California blood or white Christmas wistfulness.

I marched straight to the coffered wood lobby, which had a 30-foot Christmas tree in the center. It was dressed in 3,500 ornaments, 15,000 lights and 700 yards of ribbon. At the front desk, a clerk offered me a AAA “American Treasure” package for the night at $235, including buffet breakfast for two, an illustrated history book about the Del and a $7 parking credit. I booked it.

My spacious room on the fourth floor had a bay window overlooking the parking lot and the ocean, a regal king bed, white terrycloth robes in the walk-in closet and a small but attractive bath, stocked with subtly sea-scented toiletries. Satisfied, I dumped my bag and went off to the museum, where, while learning about the history of commercial aviation, I kept puzzling over how to eat two buffet breakfasts and wear both robes.

By the time I returned, the lighting ceremony had begun and the hotel was crowded with families celebrating the first rites of the season at the Del. Munchkins from local elementary schools were shrieking carols onstage.

I got a libation at Babcock & Story, a woody, sophisticated bar named for the hotel’s founders, where I overheard a young man in high spirits say to a solitary elderly patron, “You’re my kind of woman, drinking cognac.” That made me unaccountably happy.

Only when the pink ball of the sun sank into the ocean, Santa appeared on a balcony high atop the hotel and 50,000 white lights were switched on, floodlighting every cunning corner of the building’s joinery, did I recognize what that happiness was: the Christmas spirit coming on strong, with no assistance from snow, sleighs, mufflers and hot mulled cider.

Later, I curled up in bed to watch Marilyn Monroe as Sugar Kane Kowalczyk in “Some Like It Hot.” And driving home the next day, I finally felt, after five years, fully comfortable in Southern California, as familiar with the towns I passed along I-5 -- Oceanside, San Clemente, Irvine, Downey -- as I once had been with those along Interstate 95 in New England.

Sometimes you have to travel to learn how to count your blessings.

Hotel del Coronado, 1500 Orange Ave., Coronado, CA 92118; (800) 468-3533, www.hoteldel.com.


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