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Elaine, the Road Sage

The Hotel Del

Everyone should spend a few days at the Hotel Del. This Victorian castle in the sand, on San Diego's cozy Coronado peninsula, is the stuff of dreams, and certainly of comfort. The hotel, built in 1887, is a confection of red turrets, endless verandas and countless windows that face the sea. "White and ornate as a wedding cake…clean polished and trim as a ship," is how the hotel described itself many years ago. And it's still true today. Reasoning that I need a few days of relaxation, I head for the Del. I think back to that little girl (was her name Eloise?) who got lost at New York's Plaza Hotel and spent several days wandering and exploring that fabled property. So what if I'm a little older? That childlike wonder is within me, too, waiting to be rekindled at the Del.

As I cross the Coronado Bay Bridge, I see my castle in the distance. The Del fancies itself home to captains and kings, and it's not mere fancy here. King Edward of England arrived (or so it's believed) while he was still Prince, although most of us remember him as the Duke of Windsor. It's said he met his Duchess, a.k.a. Wallis Warfield Simpson, on Coronado, possibly at the bar of the Del. No matter that Mrs. Simpson was never Queen. She acted like one, and that's good enough.

I head up to my room and delight in the prospect of its ocean view. As I pull back the curtains, I am stunned at the proximity of sand and sea. They're nearly on top of me! The Del is the only property on Coronado (in San Diego?) which is right on the beach. The sand is a light beige and looks soft and clean. The waves lap up on the beach, anointing the sand as if by holy ritual. The sun is shining, the palms are swaying in the breeze and the birds are singing something akin to "tweet tweet." Why did it take me so long to get here? I'm in heaven.

Curious about my new surroundings, I return to the Del's main building, the one with the big(gest) red turret on top. My first stop is The Signature Shop, home to Del paraphernalia and memorabilia. Everything seems to say "Del" on it.

"Is there anything that says 'San Diego?'" a customer asks the smiling saleswoman.

"Well, no," the saleswoman replies, "but they do say 'Del.'"

This is The Signature Shop, after all. I check out T-shirts, sweatshirts, towels and robes. They all have one Del insignia or another. There are lots of candles, too. Scented candles. I sniff them all.

The lobby at the Del is a study in dark wood, crowned by a stunning chandelier. This light show reigns over a gorgeous bouquet of fresh flowers. I sneak a peek at the legendary Crown Room, with its row of small chandeliers in the shape of a crown. Perhaps the idea here is to make you feel like queen for a day. It's working. As I head out to the pool, I see kids swimming and splashing even though it's maybe 65 degrees. I start to get Goosebumps. I head back to The Signature Shop and buy a sweatshirt.

Eager to satisfy my curiosity, I sign on for the hotel tour. The Del offers two property tours a day, one at eleven in the morning and the other at 1 PM. I'm on the afternoon jaunt, along with a couple from San Francisco and a couple from Tennessee. Our affable guide is the wife of a Navy man and they both live on Coronado. I'd swear she's missing a garden party in order to educate us. We learn that the hotel was built by Elisha Babcock and H.L. Story in 1887 and that they bought the property (all 4,100 acres) for a mere $110,000. It cost them a million to build the place, but so what? It's gorgeous. The grandfather clock around the corner from the front desk is the only original piece left in the Del, and a beauty it is. Our guide informs us that the hotel's woodwork is the real (as in original) deal and that Thomas Edison did not flick the first switch at this electric venue, as has long been rumored. We step into the Crown Room and learn that the copious amount of wood in it is oiled daily so it won't split. Thank goodness! L. Frank Baum, who wrote "The Wizard of Oz," is responsible for the design of the crown-shaped chandeliers. Yep, the Del could be a kissin' cousin of Emerald City.

Our little group steps into the birdcage elevator in the Del's lobby and heads for the second floor. We alight on a balcony that overlooks the lobby. Here, we learn, is where wives used to wait for their husbands to return from all-day fishing or hunting expeditions. The waiting women busied themselves with knitting, gossip and other womanly pursuits. Why they weren't sunning themselves on the beach I'll never know.

Tour complete, I head to the Ocean Terrace for a spot of lunch. One of a handful of restaurants at the Del, the Ocean Terrace, as its name suggests, looks out to the sea. The tennis courts are directly below, where a few game souls flail away in the afternoon sun. A spirited game of beach volleyball is taking place in the distance, two teams of manly men jumping and spiking and high-fiving. I order the pasta and linger over my plate, the better to catch a few rays. Clearly, I'm not tough enough for this, since I soon fall asleep. I don't realize this until nearly an hour later, when I suddenly wake up and see that I'm the only one left on the terrace. My waiter brings me the bill and smiles. So do I.

A walk along the beach restores my equilibrium, but the cool breeze soon chases me to my room. No matter, because my balcony affords a bird's-eye view of one of the most beautiful sunsets I've ever seen. The sinking orb is framed by two palm trees a few feet in front of me. I grab my camera and snap away. Once the dance of dusk is complete, I plot my next move: picnic. In my room. I've been dying to plop on the bed with all its pillows (I count seven) and sink in, surrounded by books and magazines and the remote for the TV. I call room service first, ordering the fruit and cheese plate and a bottle of wine. Now it's time to channel surf. I expect to find a few movies from which to choose, but the Del throws me a curve. The movie selections are divided into several categories: action, comedy/family and drama. Oh, and adult. As I click away, I find that there are twelve movies to choose from in each category, nearly fifty movies in all. Great news -- sorta. It's tough to make up your mind between that many movies, especially when you know you have the energy to watch but one. I choose a Mel Gibson thriller and struggle to stay awake. No matter, I'm in heaven. Make that the Del.

* * * * *

I wake up at the crack of dawn (8 AM for me) and jump out of bed (huh?) in my haste to get to my balcony. As I fling aside the curtains, the light is almost blinding. The sand glistens in the early morning sunlight while the waves continue their lapping serenade. A little bird visits my balcony and seems oblivious to my presence. A few eager souls are already walking along the beach but my gaze soon shifts to the regiment of buff guys running closer to the sea. They are all wearing short navy shorts and are running bare-chested. Make that buff-chested. These hunky specimens probably belong to the U.S. Navy base further up the road and have chosen my particular beach to tantalize and titillate me, or at least to inspire me to run. It works. I put on my running gear and head out to the beach.

There's something special about an early-morning run. You're not surrounded by a lot of people, so it's nice and quiet. Even the birds are still asleep, or so it seems. A few sandpipers skitter along the packed, damp stretch of sand that I call my own. The sand along my beach has been combed in a smooth, undulating pattern. My body undulates as well, a rhythmic series of steps that have me breathing deeply as I take in the scene. I run for what seems to be several miles until a fellow in fatigues and sporting a silver badge commands me to turn around. "You have to go the other way!" he booms. I shrug my shoulders and head back to where I began.

Although my morning exercise regimen does nothing to encourage my appetite, I head for the Del's breakfast buffet. The Del's Sunday brunch buffet is world famous. It's only Wednesday. No matter, I'm anxious to ogle the wares. The breakfast buffet is served in the Crown Room, another terrific reason to check out this morning repast. As I stroll into the Oz-like setting, I see a serpentine table in the middle of the room. Spread along its length are foodstuffs guaranteed to please the eye -- and prime the palate. I see pitchers of fruit smoothies and an apricot and prune concoction in a sugary syrup. It smells surprisingly good. There are cereals and granola alongside a fresh fruit display, and an egg station with cheeses and assorted omelet pleasers -- and a toqued chef to make them all great. A baked ham sits proudly under a heat lamp. There are scads of pastries as well as the trio of guacamole, sour cream and salsa, presumably for the eggs and not the sweets. I see waffles with warm maple syrup, whipped cream and shiny strawberries. Peeking into a row of silver-topped trays, I find bacon, sausage, blintzes, biscuits and gravy, potatoes and corned beef and hash. And more eggs, scrambled this time. If this is what the Del can do on Wednesdays, I can hardly imagine the Sunday repast. I sit down at a table and catch my breath while plotting my strategy.

My waiter, Rey, comes over and recites the buffet offerings in short order. I try to get him to save his breath but it's hopeless. Rey further informs me that there are fresh juices available, including "fresh o.j."

"Would you like some orange juice?" Rey asks, clearly eager to be of service.

I'm afraid to say no so I take a glass, although I'm thinking ahead to the strawberry smoothie. Rey also brings me a pitcher of hot coffee with 2% milk, exactly what I wanted.

I make my way over to the chow line and sample the smoothie. It's divine. Next up is a visit to the egg chef for the omelet of my dreams. I order a cheese, onion and shrimp omelet and the chef makes small talk with me while he flips and folds, all the while calling me "Miss." It's charming. Chef oeuf beckons me to try the salsa and sour cream, so I oblige. I also try a few potatoes and the biscuits and gravy (just one). My plate is full, though not obscenely full in that American-at-a-buffet sort of way. I return to my table and enjoy my breakfast while reading USA Today, which is surprisingly readable on this day. Although I'm eating the kind of breakfast food I've had a thousand and one times, it tastes better than ever here at the Del. I look up at the crown chandeliers and out the picture windows to the perfectly landscaped grounds. Rey asks me if I want more juice. Despite the level of activity in this cavernous room, I somehow feel as if I'm having a private breakfast. I stay for what seems like forever and enjoy every special minute.

Day two at the Del is my designated beach/pool/read day. In other words, I intend to veg. It's much warmer today, so I start to entertain visions of a full-on tan. On my way out to the pool, I encounter a couple blissfully rocking in a pair of white wicker chairs. It turns out they're on their honeymoon.

"This is so romantic," she coos.

The southern belle's wedding ring sparkles in the sunlight.

Finally poolside, I pull out my trusty beach read (Charles Kuralt's America) and settle into a white chaise. White definitely looks good next to the blue skies which surround you at the Del. A little girl named Charlie is walking back and forth near the pool, a pink bandana wrapped tightly around her head. She'd be considered a frou-frou homegirl in East L.A. if she were a bit older. Charlie's parents ask her to come over in a delightful British accent. Charlie smiles. Everyone is smiling at the Del, perhaps because the sun is warm, the breeze tickles and this castle-by-the-sea is their newfound home, at least for a day.

My mission in the late afternoon is to head into town, since it's Cinco de Mayo. I'm eager to explore this Mexican fiesta in the environs of San Diego's Old Town, a Mexican outpost from way back when. The Del makes limousine service available to its guests (for a price), so I splurge and ride in style. Arriving in Old Town, the first thing I see is Jack and Guilio's Italian Restaurant, with a Szechuan restaurant further up the block. Hmm. Soon, however, I hear "La Cucaracha" and know I'm in the right place.

I make my way over to the Old Town Mexican Café, or OTMC to the locals. This venerable spot hosts the biggest Cinco de Mayo party in town, something which other establishments might choose to dispute. They'd be wrong. At the OTMC, the adjacent parking lot has been transformed into fiesta central, a gaggle of gringos sipping margaritas and downing Corona beers. Further into the OTMC's barrio, a food station is doling out burritos and tacos by the boatload. Everyone seems to be having a ball, and it's only 5 PM. The sun is blazing, making my sunburned shoulders yearn for a splash of Corona beer. I cruise on over to the tequila tent, where shots are being poured for well-heeled drinkers. A blonde Amazon has just finished a $100 shot, courtesy of a tall, dark and handsome stranger.

"It's my birthday," she purrs.

A trip to the ladies room brings me face-to-face with more blondes, two in particular. These twin towers of flaxen hair are diligently brushing their Rapunzel-like tresses, over and over and over. They pull out their lipstick from tiny purses and carefully apply. Like mirror images, they both brush some more and reapply their lipstick. They're even wearing identical little black dresses, pulled tightly over Pamela Anderson-like breasts. As they walk out, I notice two little X's over one of the large breasts and surmise that these must be the Dos Equis girls, the kind of mannequins hired by beer companies to stimulate sales. Or something.

Back outside, a five-piece mariachi band plays, about six guys short. Turns out they are short, but wonderfully in tune. The OTMC fiesta continues to pack 'em in, a succession of blonde goddesses parading by the reviewing stand of handsome hombres. The Budweiser beer guy bends my ear, telling me that Bud is the #1 beer sold in Mexico and the #1 beer drunk by Mexicans everywhere. I don't want to believe it. Hoisting my margarita, I say "adios" and make my way over to the woman selling margarita earrings. Her name is Tamara and she's made dangly little earrings in the shape of a margarita glass (and lime green) out of expanded PVC. I ask Tamara about the Dos Equis women and get an earful.

"You should have seen the Corona woman in this teeny yellow dress and the Tequiza woman in a lime green mini! Jeez. The Corona woman has never had a beer in her life. She was soooo skinny."

And blonde. I talk to a few more folks at the OTMC and conclude that while the food is so-so, the tortillas are the best in town. I order two soft-tortilla tacos at the food line and inhale them both.

A walk around Old Town leads me to the Bazaar del Mundo, a series of shops and restaurants around a lush green courtyard. The place is a riot of color, piñatas and ponchos that are almost blinding in the late-day sun. A group of native dancers twists and turns to the loud music and hand clapping of the impromptu audience. I search for a place to sit and have a drink and finally find it at Casa de Pico, a popular Old Town restaurant. My efforts to enter, however, are stalled with the discovery of a line that is nearly 200 people long. One hungry fellow near the back of the line is eating take-out Mexican while he waits. I make my way through the rest of the Bazaar and return to the OTMC for one last look. It's more crowded than ever. The mariachis are now up to seven. I head for the trolley and take it to the Gaslamp Quarter, San Diego's answer to New Orleans' French Quarter. Nothing much seems to be going on here. I stumble onto a place called Las Fajitas Authentic Mexican Cuisine, and since no self-respecting Mexican would be caught dead eating a fajita, I head home. To the Del.

* * * * *

Day Three at the Del. I head out for another morning run. This may be the most perfect time of day at the Del, even if I am splitting hairs. Once again, the tide is waaay out and dogs are frolicking in the soft waves, their owners cautiously dipping their toes in the cool surf. The sky? The bluest blue. I pass the buff boys in their navy shorts, tattooed biceps glistening with sweat. Soon I encounter a fellow in fatigues who is chatting up a middle-aged couple. His shirt sports a patch that reads "U.S. Navy Seabees." Below that is his name: "Higbee." It rhymes. I ask Seabee Higbee what's going on.

"There's live fire going on here so you're gonna have to turn around."

"Live fire?" I reply. "Then why aren't there any signs?"

"That's why I'm here," Higbee tells me.

"Well, why weren't you here yesterday?"

Higbee eyes me squarely and points in the direction of a chain-link fence so far off to the side that I'm not sure anyone has ever noticed it. The realization that I could have been a casualty of war (games) at the Del is a scary one. I make a U-turn and head for the safe confines of my home-away-from-home.

My goal on this day is to be Zen. Walking back across the sand, I take slow, measured steps, breathing in the sea air and feeling thankful for my good fortune. I'm at the Del. That in itself is Zen. My first order of business is to visit the semi-annual sale at the hotel's Galleria Shops, an occasional event that just happens to coincide with my visit. Zen, however, this is not -- this sale is right out of Filene's Basement, countless tables splattered with T-shirts, sweatshirts and crockery. Girl that I am, I try to find a bargain. The prices are low indeed, but the merch is already picked over, even though I arrived a mere fifteen minutes into the sale. I opt for Zen and head for the buffet.

Duly fortified, I make my way over to the pool and ask the smiling attendant if I can rent a bike. I figure the answer will be yes, since the row of shiny one-speeds are dying for some company. I get a map of Coronado and am told that an easy five-mile loop will afford suitable views. The attendant picks a bike that is just the right height and as I sit on it, I nearly pedal into the pool, having forgotten that the proper braking strategy for a one-speed is with the feet and not the hands. The attendant points me in the right direction and sends me on my way.

Coronado is quaint in a Martha's Vineyard-sort of way. The place looks green and smells green and everything is on a wonderfully human scale. I start to see why the Duchess of Windsor chose to live here -- this place is really nice! If I lived in San Diego, I'd live on Coronado, too. I pass the Dias Alegres apartment complex, well aware that its name translates to "happy days." The Crown Garden Club is meeting on someone's idyllic front lawn, while flowers and flags (American, of course) flutter in the breeze. Gardeners are everywhere. A sailboat plies the smooth waters in the distance. I complete the loop and return my bicycle, having mastered the art of foot braking.

A stroll along Orange Avenue, Coronado's main drag, is next on my agenda. (Is an agenda really Zen?) I pass Island Pasta and the Bank of Coronado, all whitewashed columns and Jeffersonian style. I'm transported into Plums, one of those stores that reeks of potpourri and is irresistible to women. I count eight women in the store -- and one man. He's buying a gift for a woman, an American country gewgaw which she definitely doesn't need but will love having. Plums is filled to the brim with candles and cards and gardening books, colorful coffee mugs and more serving platters than the law should allow. I succumb to Plums' wiles and buy a candle and two cards. I pass Sea Shirts and In Good Taste, a shop for chocoholics. Up next is Café 1134, the coffeehouse we all wish we had back home. La Provence also smells of potpourri, so I wander inside. Four women here and no men. One woman cradles a teeny tiny dog in her arms. I make no purchases.

As I continue down Orange, I conclude that San Diego must have more blondes per capita than any other city in America. This fact alone compels me to strut my brunette stuff. As I wander into Starbucks for a frappuccino (it's hot outside!), I notice that the furniture in this Starbucks is much better than what I've seen in their other stores. Cushy couches and overstuffed chairs abound, in shades of burgundy, green and gold. Rich. Like Coronado. I take my frappuccino outside and pass Island Wok and Island Barbers. This makes no sense at all since Coronado is a peninsula, not an island. Island Carpets. Island Cleaners. At Island Surf, I ask the woman behind the counter if she knows that Coronado is not an Island.

"Yeah," she tells me. "They started doing that in the last ten years or so. I think it's for the tourists."

I start to feel bad for the tourists who don't know any better. But then again, they may not care. I stop into a bookstore whose name I don't even notice (Island Books?) and spend the next hour and a half perusing the stacks. This is the perfect stop, since my shoulders are too raw for the noonday sun.

Once back at the Del, it's time to pack. I throw open the curtains of my taupe-colored room and gaze longingly at the sea. It soothes me. Like the Del.

The Hotel Del Coronado is at 1500 Orange Avenue, Coronado, California. (619) 435-6611 or (800) HOTEL-DEL. Rates are reasonable, considering how much you get. Just do it.


© 1999 Elaine Sosa
San Francisco, California
May 7, 1999

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