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The Hotel del Coronado (Photograph by Stuart Westmorland, Corbis)

American Classic: Coronado Island

In 1888, two things I love were born: the National Geographic Society (obvious bias here) and the Hotel del Coronado. I realized the coincidence as I stood in the Del’s wood-paneled lobby, where, on the surface, little appears to have changed in the past 126 years except for the attire of the crowds passing through.

But this historic hotel isn’t frozen in time. The Del has hung on to its storied past while keeping up with the expectations of modern guests (with one exception: the original Victorian-era building’s walls are paper-thin). While the dining room of the past–where children ate in a separate room from their parents–has been turned into meeting space, guests now have a bevy of dining options, from a poolside burger or an ice cream cone at the nostalgic Moo Time Creamery to the Del’s two fancy restaurants, 1500 Ocean and  Sheerwater.

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The Bayshore Bikeway (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

In a world where basic chain hotels and luxe resorts are being built at rapid-fire pace, the palpable sense of history at this stately American classic is a breath of fresh air.

Though connected to the nearby city of San Diego by a bridge, the island of Coronado felt like a different world to me.

“Coronado is a hometown more than anything else,” Christine Donovan, the Del’s director of heritage programs, told me. Donovan has showcased her encyclopedic knowledge of the hotel’s history, including the significant role it played during both world wars, in six books so far, but after raising two children on the island, she’s also focused on the Coronado of today.

I wanted to find that rhythm of local living.

I knew from a neighborhood walk at dusk (and the smell of backyard grilling wafting through the air) that the island is all about indoor-outdoor living–with a heavy emphasis on outdoor. Unlike many places, Coronado enjoys near-perfect weather year-round.

In fact, that’s why it was developed as an upscale vacation destination in the late 19th century in the first place. Later, the city’s notable naval base–constructed during the 1920s–and the military families that relocated to the island gave Coronado a hometown heart (walks on the beach are shared with hard-bodied military men and women getting a workout in).

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Literary love notes at Bay Books (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

As I found out, it doesn’t take much planning to have a perfect day in Coronado.

I rented a bike from PeDels and headed down the Bayshore Bikeway, past Glorietta Bay and the Coronado Golf Course and under the Coronado Bridge. (If you continue following the well-marked bike path, you’ll come to the Coronado Ferry Landing, where a ten-minute ride would bring you to downtown San Diego.)

When I travel, I try to stop at public libraries to get a better read on the local culture. When I locked my bike and popped into Coronado’s on Orange Avenue, one of the more charming I’ve visited, “Paris in Springtime,” an hour-long showcase of soprano-sung tunes with piano accompaniment, was about to begin. The room was as packed as a hot new NYC restaurant on Friday night, showing just how much island residents love these small-town events.

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Beachside selfie with the Del in the background (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

Across street from the library, in Spreckels Park, I stumbled upon Coronado’s Art-in-the-Park (held the first and third Sundays of every month), where artists from San Diego County are invited to show their work. When I asked one woman how long she’d been coming to showcase her art, she told me “about 35 years.” Have you ever missed one, I asked? “Only in bad weather,” she said, “so almost never!”

As I continued my way up Orange Avenue, a beautiful commercial boulevard that curves back to the Del, I started to hit more restaurants and shops, such Bay Books, where staff leave heartfelt handwritten recommendations under their favorite reads. At The Attic, I found a necklace I couldn’t pass up; the colors reminded me of the red roof and blue sky of the Del.

After a quick stop for lunch, I headed back to the hotel and ditched my rental for a walk in the sand. When I came upon a dog beach, and stopped to watch the pups chasing tennis balls into the surf, I got to thinking.

While the Del epitomizes the golden age of travel, Coronado itself embodies the quintessence of “home” in American mythology. The perfect pairing, I’d say.

Annie Fitzsimmons is on the beat exploring some of the sunniest places in America. Follow her adventures on the Urban Insider blog, on Twitter @anniefitz, and on Instagram @anniefitzsimmons.