If you arrive on Coronado Island by car, park as soon as you can. You’ll avoid a crush of traffic, and you might catch the waft of jasmine and sea salt as you stroll to your destination.
My husband and I came to Coronado Island, Calif., with plans to use it as a base for exploring San Diego. The San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park and the Gaslamp District are only a few miles from the island. Shortly after we arrived, though, we began erasing items from our to-do list so that we could spend more time on Coronado. We rambled past oceanfront mansions and perfectly kept cottages in the 70-degree air. Lush blooms poked and tumbled from every corner.
Coronado is about 12 blocks from north to south and only slightly wider from east to west, making it an ideal place to explore on foot or by bike, and there’s plenty to see beyond the white picket fences.
We rented a condo just off Orange Avenue, which is the town’s main dining and shopping area. Even renting two months in advance of our June trip, I found that only a smattering of choices remained. The island has several hotels and inns, including the immense Hotel del Coronado, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, but rental properties tend to be the less expensive option.
The biggest draw here, aside from the moderate weather, is Central Beach, which stretches for two miles along the island’s southern side. It’s consistently ranked one of the best U.S. beaches for families. Morning clouds and fog are common on the island, so we saved our beach visits for the sunny afternoons. My husband and 4-year-old daughter waded into the bracing water, which had a temperature in the mid-60s. My husband insisted that the water was comfortable after a few minutes. I chose not to find out.
The Hotel del Coronado stands imposingly at the southern end of the beach. It was one of the largest resorts in the world when it opened in 1888, and it has welcomed presidents and celebrities. The hotel is worth a visit even if you don’t have $400 to stay a night. Admire the immense chandelier in the wood-paneled lobby, grab a drink at the swanky Babcock & Story Bar or catch a glimpse of the way the wealthy do beach weddings.
Several shops rent bicycles, and the island’s bike path and wide streets make this a better method of transportation than cars during the busy summer months.
Near the hotel, we passed one family after another on surrey bicycles. These contraptions are a take-off of a Fred Flintstone car, with pedals for two or four, a steering wheel and a fringed canopy on top. I brought up the idea of renting one repeatedly, and my husband — a wiser soul than I — kept suggesting alternate activities. Finally, during our last morning on Coronado, he relented, and we paid $25 for an hour with the bike.
Now we aren’t Olympians by any means, and we did have our 35-pound daughter to haul, but we are two youngish people in fine shape. I gave a firm push on the pedals to get moving, and the bike barely budged. My husband and I were both gasping and dripping by the end, and yet, I laughed the entire time. Every family we passed was instantly smitten and asked where they, too, could rent a surrey bike.
The northern half of Coronado is home to the Naval Air Station North Island. Thousands of servicemen and women live on the base, and thousands more commute to the island each day for work. Helicopters and jets often roar past Central Beach for training exercises, and on one afternoon, I watched a helicopter hover above the ocean as a servicemember rappelled into the water.
When the sand has been washed off, Coronado has several parks that are great for a picnic or a stroll. In the center of town, Spreckels Park has abundant trees, a playground and free concerts on Sunday evenings. Both Centennial Park, on the island’s northern side, and Coronado Tidelands Park, on the southeastern side, offer views across the bay to the San Diego skyline. We walked to Centennial Park one night after dinner and watched a sailboat regatta swoosh past. The park abuts the Coronado Ferry landing, where boats leave every hour for downtown San Diego.
Rainy days are rare in Coronado, but if one arrives, the public library (640 Orange Ave.) is worth a visit. The children’s area is expansive, with puzzles, a play house and a toy train that chugs past the upper shelves of books. The library has a collection of historical memorabilia from the Hotel del Coronado, including an opening day guest book signed by the Rothschild family.
As with so much else in Coronado, dining is often done al fresco, so children and dogs are welcome even at some nicer restaurants. We found homemade pastries and a good selection of salads and sandwiches at Tartine (1106 First St.).
Our dinner at the Italian restaurant Sapori (120 Orange Ave.) was wonderful, if a little too languorous for our 4-year-old. My husband and I fought over the offerings on the abundant antipasto plate, particularly the pickled vegetables.
One evening, we followed a walk on the beach with a visit to Nado Gelato (1017 C Ave.). The subtle sweetness of the panna cotta gelato was a perfect finish to the day.
Given all of the time we spent on the island, we did miss out on quite a few San Diego sites. I didn’t feel the least bit short-changed.