Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Victorian Lady by the Sea

by Susanne Dietze
Where was the largest hotel resort in the world when it opened in 1888?

The coast of South Carolina, or Florida, perhaps. Or maybe a located near a natural hot spring in New York.
What if I told you this resort was the place L. Frank Baum wrote his novels, and he may have based Oz’s Emerald City on it? Or that the future King Edward VIII may have first met his beloved Wallis Simpson there in 1920?

Few might guess San Diego, California, is the locale, although the Hotel del Coronado has hosted celebrities, presidents, royalty, and scandals for over a century, and it remains an icon of sophistication, quality, and luxury to this day.
File:Hotel del Coronado Front.jpg
Original uploader was Nehrams2020 at en.wikipedia

After the mid-century Gold Rush, California boasted wealthy individuals and a land of opportunity. In 1880, two men (E. S. Babcock and Hampton L. Story) spent around $100K to purchase the Coronado peninsula, which boasted lovely ocean views, water teeming with marine life, and scrub rich in quail and rabbit. They had visions of building a grand hotel, and in 1887, they hired architect James W. Reid to build it.
File:Hotel Del c1900b.jpg
The "Del" circa 1900

And what a hotel. Historic guests (who probably took the train) would arrive in balmy Southern California temperatures to behold the view of the white-painted, red-roofed structure and be as pleased as a modern guest. The lobby boasts incredible woodwork in a two-story gallery. Once checked in, one can take the stairs to reach the rooms above, but the grille elevator, complete with a liveried operator, is still in use, which seems much more fun. I wouldn’t know personally—one has to be a guest to enjoy that particular experience. (I’ve never stayed there, but my grandparents honeymooned there in 1934. My grandma’s suitcase popped open on the staircase. She was mortified!)
The lobby, by Rich Niewiroski Jr.
Perhaps the most famous room in the hotel is the Crown Room, a chamber off the lobby which is decorated with lovely green wallpaper, crown chandeliers, and more dazzling woodwork. The wooden ceiling is held together with pegs, no nails. It's been used for fancy parties for national heroes, like Charles Lindberg, and foreign dignitaries, like the future Edward VIII, alike. 
Hotel del Coronado - Coronado, United States

The Crown Room is the site of the Del’s annual Victorian Holiday Tea, which I enjoyed this year. It didn't look like the above picture--linens or chairs--but it was nevertheless just gorgeous! The food wasn't bad, either. ;)

Photo: Victorian high tea
My savory plate at the tea. From the top: smoked salmon with cream cheese and salmon roe; shrimp salad with lemon basil cream in phyllo; citrus ham with strawberry on a crostini; duck comfit with mango chutney on brioche; egg salad with osetra caviar (hidden behind the purple leaves); cucumber sandwich with dill; and a black currant scone with Devonshire cream. By the way, I was so excited by the sweets that I forgot to take a photo before we dug in. Let me just say the highlight was chocolate opera cake with gold leaf.

In the 1880’s and beyond, guests enjoyed electric lighting, telephones (but not in the individual rooms), that elevator I told you about, European china and linens, bathroom with water pressure (ooh!), all with the security of knowing fire alarms and firefighting equipment were in place. Guests could also enjoy golf, a salt-water swimming pool, billiards for gentlemen and ladies, tennis courts, a yacht club, deep-sea fishing, bowling, polo, an ostrich farm, and even a school for the children of long-term residents.

Naturally, celebrities flocked there, including presidents Harrison, McKinley, Taft and Wilson. The 1920s saw film stars like Mae West, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin as frequent guests.
Just as naturally, the rabble (aka, regular people) wanted to stay at the Del, too, so the early 1900s saw the addition of Tent City. Tent and bungalow accommodations were available on the beach just south of the grand hotel for more modest rates. A dollar could get you a trolley ride there, plus a tent and a bathing suit rental (!).

Times changed, however, and World War II saw an end to Tent City and the hotel’s patriotic response to the Uncle Sam. Many pilots trained at nearby North Island Naval Air Station, and many of the Del’s rooms were used to house officers’ families or to allow service members to visit—or say goodbye to—their loved ones.

After the War, the Hotel was again popular with Hollywood, and it served as the setting of Some Like it Hot, starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon. 
File:Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot trailer cropped.jpg
from the "Some Like it Hot" trailer
Since then, every president except Lyndon Johnson has stayed there. Oprah is one of the oodles of celebrities who've visited, and Queen Elizabeth II even spent a night or two. As a Historic Landmark, the Hotel has maintained its original Victorian charm while updating to the most modern of amenities to accommodate modern guests.
Maybe one day I’ll get to ride the elevator, as a real-life guest. Until then, the Hotel Del sounds like the perfect setting for a story. One that includes tea, of course...

Question of the day: So, if you were with me at the Victorian tea, would you have eaten the caviar? (BTW I checked, and the osetra (sturgeon) caviar sells at $45+++ an ounce. So would you have given it a go?)

Susanne Dietze writes historical romances set in the Regency, Victorian, and Edwardian periods. She enjoyed a fabulous tea at the Hotel Del Coronado in December and pretended she was Lady Mary from Downton Abbey just to get the caviar down. You can visit her on her website at www.susanedietze.com


  1. I would have tasted the caviar just because it's caviar, but I probably wouldn't have liked it. I have such middle-class taste. :D

    What a lovely old hotel. Thanks for showing it to us!

    1. I did the same, DeAnna. Osetra caviar is supposedly pretty hoity toity so of course I had to eat it. The kids tried it so they could say they did, but frankly the salmon roe grossed them out. It's just so big.

      You and I can be middle-class together and enjoy a nice chicken salad sandwich with our tea, lol.

    2. Oh, I LOVE chicken salad sandwiches! Perfect! :D

  2. What a wonderful historical tour - and what a beautiful hotel! I too will eat caviar just to say I did, but I much prefer the chocolate!

    1. Chocolate wins every time!

      Fans of history and architecture would love poking around the Del. Thanks for visiting the post!

  3. I have been fascinated with this hotel since I was a travel agent and sent a couple there for vacation. They were looking for something special in San Diego and I studied up on it and they followed my suggestion and reported back that they loved it. (thus the lure of being a travel agent - you feel like you 'almost' went. I did not know all the history, just that I fell in love with the setting and amenities. I bet there are a few fictional stories set there, but it's definitely one I'd love to try!

    thanks Susie! I'm so glad you got to go!

  4. Deb, there are stories set there, but I didn't include them in my post. One, I know, is by Ambrose Bierce. Haven't read it, though.

    It truly is a lovely hotel. I'd love to peek into the rooms. Apparently, no two are alike, at least in the Victorian building. There are additional buildings that look like regular old hotel towers--not as fun, to my thinking.

  5. i would have tried the caviar just to say i tried it. never having had caviar, i'm not sure i would - mostly because of pschological reasons. there are some foods you have to "sneak" past my brain for me to give an honest report of "like" or not.

    the hotel sounds like an adventure and probably someplace i could NEVER afford to ride the elevator *sigh*. thanks for sharing!! i LOVE old, historical buildings... they seem to have so much character and personality. modern buildings are mostly just - well, blah

  6. Hi DebH! So glad you came by. Yes, the hotel is rather pricey. There sure were a lot of people riding the elevator, though.

    The osetra caviar is small so it's easier to sneak down than the salmon roe. Some people love it, though.

  7. My husband has been to the hotel -- on business without me. (He's been a lot of places without me. Sigh.)

    I was at a wedding reception in DC where there was caviar. I think my husband was traveling to some exotic place because I remember remarking about the caviar to a military wife friend who was also there sans spouse. I guess that makes one experience I had that hubby hasn't.

  8. My husband has been to the hotel -- on business without me. (He's been a lot of places without me. Sigh.)

    I was at a wedding reception in DC where there was caviar. I think my husband was traveling to some exotic place because I remember remarking about the caviar to a military wife friend who was also there sans spouse. I guess that makes one experience I had that hubby hasn't.

    1. On business at the Del? Wow, he was lucky! What did he think of his room? Did he get to eat in the restaurants? (Brunch in the Crown Room is supposed to be amazing.)

      Did you try the caviar? What a wedding reception! It must have been quite an affair!

  9. I would have eaten the dessert only. No caviar or roe for me. Susie, this sounds simply lovely.

    1. I meant to add, I would love to visit that hotel. It's beautiful!

  10. Oh Suzie, you'd love it there. Right on the beach and just beautiful.

    The dessert rocked. You would have loved it, too. :)

  11. Sorry I'm late, Susie. I'm so very glad you had a chance to experience this.

    No, I don't think I would have eaten the caviar. I've never had any, nor had an inclination to try or buy any. I think it stems from the knowledge that expensive only means it's rare and no guarantee that I will love the taste.

    It's like true truffles... no matter how hard they are to locate and dug up, they're still fungi grown under the earth and won't appeal to all taste buds.

    Sad about the dessert pic, but smiling that you were enjoying yourself so much that you forgot to take one. :D


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