Travel & Hotels

Coronado: Calling All Kids

I grew up on the East Coast. When I was a child, summer holidays meant taking the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard or cruising up the coast of Maine to stay in one of the region’s white-shingled, grand Victorian resorts. These were places that looked like lavish wedding cakes on the outside, but were spacious, dark and cool on the inside, with plenty of places for children to play hide and seek while the parents relaxed with a good book. The staff in these resorts was there season after season, returning felt like a reunion with long-lost-relatives who spoiled you rotten: the chef who would set up make-your-own-sundaes poolside; the youth counselors who would oversee scavenger hunts for sand dollars, starfish and other beachy treasures; the bartender who made sure that while mom & dad were relaxing with gin & tonics in the lounge, the kids had Shirley Temples and Roy Rogers with maraschino cherries on top.

Coming to the Hotel del Coronado on holiday with my five-year-old son, my best friend, and her six-year-old, then, felt like coming home. (We decided to leave the husbands at home!)  After years of family vacations on the West Coast in newly-built, faux-Italianate mega resorts, the Hotel del Coronado offered a sense of timelessness, history, and true grandeur that had been lacking at other vacation spots. Our love affair with the “Del”, as it is commonly referred to, began the second we arrived. While dining on hot dogs and fries al fresco on the Sun Deck Grill, the boys spotted two enormous, fantastical sand castles on the beach. “Look!” they shouted, they’re making castles that look like our castle!  “Our castle”, we learned, was what the boys would call the Del for the remainder of our visit.

After lunch, we excitedly made our way to the guest swimming pool area, where the Del’s head surfing instructor, Stingray Steve, got us suited up with wet suits and surfboards. We were skeptical, to say the least, about our ability to master the task of staying upright on a surfboard in under two hours. My son, especially, was terrified, but Stingray Steve immediately put us at ease and instilled us with confidence. “Just pretend like you’re hula dancing,” he said.

It turns out the gentle waves at the Hotel Del Coronado are perfect for learning to surf. Though it was not without some struggle and lots of encouraging coaching from Stingray Steve, within the first hour we were riding the waves. The young ones were particularly adept at surfing — perhaps because their low centers of gravity made balancing a breeze. The two-hour lesson whizzed by, and by the end the boys were begging for more time.

But we had lots more to see and do. After spending two hours in ice-cold water, we moms were ready for a visit to the spa. I intended to relax my sore muscles and thaw out my chilled bones with a luxurious “Shell Coronado Massage”, a luxurious treatment using gently heated tiger clamshells to usher the body into a complete state of relaxation. My friend enjoyed the “Vitamin Sea” facial, designed to refresh and restore skin using an algae mask to protect repair cell damage and encourage new cell growth — perfect for sun-damaged, weather-worn, dehydrated skin.

And where were the boys while their moms retreated into the sanctuary of the Del’s seaside spa? Happily ensconced at Kidtopia, the Del’s on-site childcare facility for kids ages 4 to 12. Kidtopia features beach-themed rooms for crafts and playtime, high-tech entertainment stations with computers, movie-time media and a Dance Dance Revolution Game. The counselors at Kidtopia also coordinate fun and educational activities such as scavenger hunts, sandcastle contests, beach Olympics, luaus and more. On this particular afternoon, our boys spent their time at Kidtopia outdoors painting watercolor beach scenes. When we collected the boys following our respite at the spa, they were happily splattered with colorful paint and brimming with pride over their new works of art.

The Hotel del Coronado offers numerous fine and family-friendly dining venues, but for dinner we decided to head off site to the popular, and very touristy, Coronado Ferry Landing for dinner. Common wisdom would have it that the more popular a tourist spot, the more watered-down the restaurant fare will be, but our choice for dinner, Lil’ Piggy’s Bar-B-Q, serves some of the most delicious, authentic Memphis-style smoked brisket, pork and chicken this side of the Mississippi, along with an epic selection of micro-brew beers! (The boys enjoyed lemonade and “pig’s tails”- crispy, seasoned curly fries.)

Our tummies very full, we decided to walk it off with a late-night stroll along the beach. We couldn’t help being tempted, though, when we saw the crackling fire pits that the Del has set up under the stars. We lingered by the warmth of the fire, toes in the sand, as we roasted marshmallows to make some s’mores. And then it was time for… ghost stories! The boys curled up in our laps, we listened intently as a hotel staffer told us the story of Kate Morgan, the Hotel Del Coronado’s resident ghost.

In 1892, Kate Morgan, a beautiful young woman, checked into the Hotel Del Coronado, awaiting her love. After waiting in vain for days for him to arrive, she was found with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Legend has it that the heartsick ghost of Ms. Morgan remains at the Del to this day. Guests staying in the room she inhabited have reported inexplicable breezes, television sets turning on and off by themselves, even having the covers ripped off their bed in the middle of the night by a ghostly apparition!

Suitably unsettled but too tired from our days’ activities to worry much about ghosts, we retired to our well-appointed ocean-view room. With the doors open to the calm breeze, we drifted off to the sounds of campfire sing-a-longs on the beach. Heaven.

Awaking the next morning to the sight of a pale haze of fog over the ocean, we made our way to breakfast at Sheerwater, where a bountiful breakfast buffet laden with muffins, pastries and other delights got our day off to a delicious start. The boys were thrilled, of course, when our waiter suggested chocolate milk to accompany their cereal. This being a vacation, the mom’s OK’d the treat. (Well, just this once….)

Today we planned to venture out to nearby San Diego, just 2.3 miles over the bridge. The San Diego area is a virtual paradise of kid-friendly attractions, from Legoland to Sea World to the renowned San Diego Zoo. We opted to spend our morning at the zoo, which is located close to downtown San Diego in Balboa Park. Situated on 100 acres, the zoo is home to more than 4,000 animals from around the globe. We started our visit with a 35-minute guided bus tour, which proved to be a very good way to get our bearings and figure out which animals we wanted to re-visit for a closer look.

Everyone — boys and moms—agreed that we needed to spend as much time as possible watching the pandas. In 1996, the San Diego Zoo developed an agreement with China to house two adult pandas and their young offspring. An exhibit area was built for the panda guests, which has since been expanded and renovated and is now called the Giant Panda Research Station. Today the zoo is home to three giant pandas (including their newest panda, Yun Zi, born on August 5, 2009). Nothing could be cuter than watching these fluffy fellows climbing about their deluxe accommodations, munching on vegetation.


Polar bears were also high on our list, so we strolled to the Polar Bear Plunge, a huge indoor-outdoor exhibit. Outdoors, you can watch the bears lumber about in the San Diego sun, but indoors, an underwater viewing room allows visitors to see how gracefully these giants frolic in the water. The bears have even been known to swim right up to the glass to say hello! Educational exhibits teach children about global warming and the effect it’s having on polar bear populations. 4-D models of the Arctic ice from 1989 and 2007 graphically illustrating the gradual destruction of the bears’ natural habitat, and kids can learn how to reduce their carbon footprint to do their part to curb the warming trend.

The kids’ favorite spot, however, was the Reptile House, which shelters approximately 100 species, including cobras, boas, anacondas, rattlesnakes, desert tortoises, Gila monsters and Komodo dragons. The boys loved that their moms were completely grossed out by the creatures.

One could easily spend days at the zoo, but we had lots more to see and do on our short weekend getaway, so we headed next door for lunch at The Prado restaurant in Balboa Park. Located in the House of Hospitality building originally built for the 1915 Pacific California Exposition, The Prado is at the same time a bustling and completely relaxing place. Our patio table offered gorgeous views of the gardens and a quincinera party that was taking place at the same time as our luncheon. One of the few restaurants serving the entire Balboa Park complex, The Prado offers an eclectic variety of dishes. At the urging of our waitress, who insisted it was not to be missed, we tried the Kobe beef sushi roll with asparagus, wasabi cream, tobiko aioli and ponzu dipping sauce as our appetizer. She was right. It was outrageously good. For our main course we tried the fish tacos with marinated mahi mahi, red cabbage-jicama slaw, mango-jalapeno salsa and mango mustard, and a Spanish chorizo pig burger with lean pork, applewood smoked bacon, manchego cheese, piquillo aioli on a brioche bun. Superb. The boys’ palates, of course, were not so adventurous, but they were perfectly content with grilled cheese sandwiches and specialty fresh fruit sodas made with pears, blood oranges & pomegranate, passion fruit and white peaches.

Re-energized and ready to explore some more, we walked just a few steps from The Prado to San Diego’s Museum of Natural History. The Museum dates back to 1874, when a group of amateur naturalists founded the San Diego Society of Natural History. Today the museum is immense; it houses dozens of exhibits to promote understanding of the evolution and diversity of southern California and to inspire visitors to respect nature and the environment. The exhibits are ever changing and on our visit we explored a fantastic display of fossils that had plenty of hands-on activities for the boys.

With our time in San Diego and Coronado limited to one weekend, we were unable to take advantage of all that San Diego’s Balboa Park had to offer, but visitors to San Diego would be well advised to carve out plenty of time to explore its 1,200 acres, making it the nation’s largest urban cultural park. The park is home to 15 museums, several performing arts venues, and many other cultural attractions, including the San Diego Air and Space Museum, the San Diego Museum of Art, the Japanese Friendship Garden and the Centro Cultural de la Raza, which features Mexican, Indigenous, Chicano and Latino art exhibitions, performances and educational programs. A 7-day passport or day passes can be purchased that provides admission to 14 Balboa Park attractions; visit for information.

Our last night in Coronado was slated for the adults — my friend and I arranged through the hotel for babysitting, while we made our way to the nearby Leroy’s Kitchen + Lounge, located on Coronado’s main drag, Orange Avenue. With a commitment to local, fresh, seasonal ingredients, Leroy’s is a sophisticated and delicious departure from standard island fare. We indulged in bacon-pepper prawns with mascarpone polenta and hot red pepper jelly, Mano de Leon diver scallops with asparagus risotto, beech mushroom and asparagus coulis, and a perfectly cooked Niman Ranch ribeye steak. Leroy’s house-made sangria, made with Grand Marnier, St. Germain Elderflower liqueur, fresh fruit and red wine, complimented our meal perfectly. As you might guess there’s also a wide selection of wines and craft beer available.

We awoke with the grim realization that it was almost time to leave paradise; but not before one last hurrah. We threw on our exercise gear and headed to the Del’s on-site bike and surrey rental shop, PeDels. A blissful, sunny Sunday morning was spent pedaling around the island, past boatyards, playgrounds and idyllic golf courses. We stopped at the Rhinoceros Café & Grille, a local favorite, for a scrumptious brunch of chilaquiles “Rhinoceros” (a Mexican specialty with tortilla, eggs, onion green chili and cheese in a Mexican red sauce served over potatoes) and orange-cranberry Mimosas.   We also were sure to try the “Rhinoceros biscuits”, which were to die for!

Before we departed, we stopped by the Del’s colorful, fun on-site toy store, Blue Octopus, to pick up a souvenir from our trip, and the on-site candy store, Spreckels, for some treats for the road.  As we packed our bags into our car, I asked my son if he enjoyed his time at the Del. “Mom — it was the best time EVER!” he replied. “I want to come here EVERY week!” Perhaps, just perhaps, we have finally found our West Coast home away from home at the Del.

When You Go:

The Hotel Del Coronado

1500 Orange Avenue, Coronado CA 92118, 800-HOTELDEL;

The hotel can arrange surfing lessons, spa treatments, bicycle rentals, Kidtopia activities for kids, s’mores on the beach, and more for its guests.

Lil’ Piggy’s Bar-B-Q at Ferry Landing
1201 First Street, Coronado, CA 92118, 619-552-02017

San Diego Zoo
Balboa Park

The Prado Restaurant at Balboa Park
1449 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101, 619-557-9441

San Diego Natural History Museum
1788 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92010, (619) 232-3821

Leroy’s Kitchen + Lounge
1015 Orange Avenue, Coronado, CA 92118, 619-522-6890

Rhinoceros Café & Grill
1166 Orange Avenue, Coronado CA 92118, 619-322-9807


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