Pause here for a moment. Listen for the stories that this 46-foot hunk of polished wood can surely tell. It traveled by ship around Cape Horn in 1888 - just 25 years after President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address - to provide a splash of stately elegance to a resort being constructed on a barren spit of land in San Diego Bay.
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Hotel del Coronado
It has bid good night to 10 American presidents who bedded down beneath its signature red-turreted roof. It is believed to have germinated a romance that brought down a future British monarch. It was the backdrop for the cinematic frolic of cross-dressing Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis and glamorous Marilyn Monroe in "Some Like It Hot." And it harbors at least one ghost that has made itself quite comfortable
This heritage provides a powerful lure for travelers seeking lodging in San Diego. But that, in itself, probably wouldn't have been enough to remain viable in the competitive luxury hotel industry. The Hotel Del (as it is affectionately called) and other grand dame resorts have learned that today's travelers may want to revel in the history and traditions of a venerable property, but they don't want to wrestle with Victorian-era toilet levers or be shut up in cavelike public rooms.
In recent years, the Del undertook renovations that responded tastefully to the requirements of the modern hotel guest.
Tennis courts that obscured a view of !dlim!!text!the ocean from the hotel were ripped out and reconstructed elsewhere, opening up space for an inviting swath of greenery called the Windsor Lawn. Solid walls were replaced with windows and glass doors so that restaurant and bar spaces could be opened to sunlight and ocean breezes. Air conditioning was added to rooms that had been stifling in the summer months (wealthy early visitors didn't have to worry about it, since they only came for "the season," from Thanksgiving to Easter). Cottages were created to appeal to affluent sticklers for privacy. And ancient, sagging timbers were shored up with steel.
"They had to retrofit it (as a condition of the renovation permits)," said Nancy Cobb, a Coronado history enthusiast who leads an exceptional walking tour of the area. "In doing so, I think it really, really helped that we're going to see that hotel forever now. I think there was some question about it. It had been redwood. Now they have steel I-beams and L-beams in it, above the dining room and at strategic locations throughout the lower level."
The improvements are expected to continue under the Del's new owners, CNL Hospitality Properties of Orlando, Fla., and KSL Resorts of La Quinta, who bought the hotel last month.
A labor dispute percolated out of the sale, as an employees union protested the new owners' failure to retain some workers. An informational picket line will be set up near the hotel on special occasions, said union spokeswoman Molly Rhodes. Todd Shallan, the hotel's new vice president and general manager, said, "It's restricted to be off-property, on the sidewalk; we don't anticipate that affecting guests."
The Hotel Del's improvements were begun by Lowe Enterprises, the previous owner, and Shallan said, "We anticipate picking that up where it left off ... to make sure it is the jewel it always has been."
The hotel was certainly overdue for the work. It was built entirely of wood, and in 19th-century haste - the entire thing went up in 11 months. Wood was installed green, so that it would be resistant to fire, and as it dried it often bowed. Ascend the historic, bird-cage elevator to the second floor and you'll see a balcony rail that bends dramatically in an inverted U. Floors throughout the hotel also slope this way and that.
The speed of the construction, however, also accounts for a good bit of the hotel's charm. The architecture is "asymmetrical, very whimsical," said Christine DeCurtis of the concierge staff as she conducted one of the regularly scheduled tours for guests. (Alas, the popular public tours were discontinued, deemed intrusive to guests.)
DeCurtis led us into the Garden Patio and noted that one side of the hotel is three stories, the other five stories. Roof lines are irregular, and stray turrets, cupolas and dormers protrude without any sense of order. Guest rooms come in all shapes and sizes. "The architects were just a step ahead of the builders," she said.
Today's guests and visitors can enjoy a delicate balancing of the old and new at the Del. On a Sunday afternoon, we peeked in at the Palm Court to observe waitresses in long-sleeved, ruffle-necked blouses and floor-length skirts conducting a formal tea service. As we descended a staircase and wandered outside, we were jolted into the raucous present as a rock band played at the Sun Deck Grill and kids splashed exuberantly in the pool.
As the sun set, there was a gradual transition back to Victorian refinement as a guitarist plucked classical selections outside the Sheerwater restaurant - where most of the diners requested outdoor tables.
Whether you're just strolling though this area or pausing for a drink or a bite to eat, the view is positively mesmerizing: across the lawn and a powdered-sugar beach to the crashing rollers of the Pacific and the bony headlands of Point Loma in the distance.
Before the renovations, said hotel spokeswoman Alisha Young, "there was a definite disconnect with the ocean. Now we're taking advantage of the location we always had but had never (showcased)."
Indeed, Elisha Babcock and H.L. Story picked a prime location for a hotel after buying the 4,000-acre Coronado peninsula for $110,000 in 1885. Although the ocean wasn't the main focus of the hotel - the Del doesn't face the water, and an interior garden is a stronger point of focus than is the sea - today's guests can reach the acres of soft sand and generally gentle shore break in just a few steps.
That also defines much of the appeal for families. In the Del's early days, children, their nannies and unescorted females were shunted off to a separate dining room, but today this is one family-friendly property. Baby strollers are everywhere. The pool reverberates with childish squeals. Kids race to the waffle station at the breakfast buffet. A shack renting bikes and beach gear is a hive of activity.
But neither are adults neglected. In the evenings, John Cain plays standards and jazz tunes on the piano of the Palm Court, a restful setting just off the wood-paneled, book-lined lobby. And the Del's fine-dining restaurant, the Prince of Wales, belies the adage that hotel restaurants don't have to be exceptional because of the constantly changing clientele.
Executive chef James Footit serves up some deliciously inventive selections, and the wine list spans the globe, with a number of reasonably priced selections. We enjoyed monkfish and sea scallops, the fish wrapped in Serrano ham and the plate adorned with French beluga lentils, red pepper, tomato confit and lobster emulsion ($32). First courses range from an organic baby-greens salad ($12) to a Maine lobster risotto ($20).
It was in the restaurant's foyer that we were intrigued by a letter in a frame hanging on the wall. The restaurant's name pays homage to Edward, Prince of Wales, who visited the Del in 1920 when he was 26 years old. In attendance at the dinner in his honor was a Navy officer's wife, Wallis Warfield Spencer, whom Edward would later abdicate the throne of England to marry.
The letter, dated 1970, thanks the hotel for naming the restaurant in his honor, but you might wince - as hotel management undoubtedly did - that it refers to this place as the "Motel del Coronado.")
The hotel has a rich store of artifacts and archival photographs, but unfortunately the display of them is haphazard. They once liberally adorned the walls of the third floor, where they could be freely perused, but that all changed after the renovations. Now they're sprinkled here and there, such that you might have to stumble upon an interior hallway leading through the new spa to encounter some wondrous old photos.
Non-guests, who swarm through the public areas but are excluded from guest-room floors, see only a fraction of the historical items on display. The Del would be well-served by creating a small museum devoted to its 116 years - heck, they could probably make a fortune just by charging non-guests admission.
It's also disappointing that both guests and visitors are usually barred from the hotel's most important rooms. The giant, corner turret that is prominent in every photo of the Del? It houses the Ballroom, a grandly appointed room-in-the-round, but we never gained so much as a glimpse of it over a three-day stay. The concierge tour did not stop there, and though we gingerly tested the door every time we happened by, we always found it bolted shut.
Similarly, it can be difficult getting into the Crown Room, an architectural wonder that originally served as the hotel dining room. The grand hall is 156 feet long, 66 feet wide and 33 feet high, with no nails marring the Oregon sugar pine ceiling and not a single pillar intruding on the floor space. Sunday brunch is served in here, but on many other occasions it is sealed off for private functions.
In the guest rooms, meanwhile, you might have to weather the occasional shortcoming owing to the hotel's age. Our bathroom, for example, had a pedestal sink and no counter of any kind for the placement of toiletries. There was only a small, narrow shelf beneath the vanity mirror - which I whacked my head on twice while brushing my teeth.
But other vintage features are fun. We eschewed the air conditioning entirely, content to open the heavy, double-hung windows and turn on our ceiling fan to draw in the ocean-scented air.
Neither were we lured by the contemporary offerings on the TV. The Del has an in-house channel that continuously airs some of the movies either filmed at the hotel or inspired by it: "Some Like It Hot," "Somewhere in Time," "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," "The Stunt Man" and "The Wizard of Oz." (L. Frank Baum, a frequent guest, is believed to have based the spires of Emerald City on those of the Del).
Not finding anything on that channel late one evening, we called the front desk. "What do you want to see?" we were asked. "Somewhere in Time." Soon, Christopher Reeve was lying on a bed at an old hotel, eyes squeezed shut, willing himself to travel far back in time.
At the Hotel del Coronado, we felt as if we were already well on the journey.
Eric Noland, (818) 713-3681 email@example.com