With the Hotel Del's reputed ghost sightings, some might say history is still alive at this famed old hotel.
“You see that too, right?”
Lacey held her wine glass at half-mast, staring at the steps leading from the Hotel Del Coronado to the Pacific Ocean.
We were outdoors at Babcock & Story, the Del’s sports bar, ordering every appetizer on the menu. Babcock’s food is reasonable and savory, even if the restaurant is routinely understaffed – it adds to the charm. They’re also open late, which is important. Because when two young(ish) moms have a ghost-hunt adventure sans child, the limoncello and girl talk flows into the night.
Twenty minutes in, Arizona tourists overheard our ghost talk and began "supporting" it by barraging us with free drinks.
“Look! That guy on TV just hit a free throw – buy those girls another round!”
"Hey, your room’s probably haunted! Buy those girls another round!”
Which is probably why “Lacey” (who likes the idea of an alias) was unsure of what she saw coming up the stairs.
And I don’t blame her. It’s not every day the Victorian-Era ghost you came to "hunt" strolls to you, your friend and your Some Like It Hot liquored coffee.
“Do you think she’ll pose for a picture?”
“I don’t know. Ask.” So I asked.
“Excuse me, are you Kate Morgan?”
The woman, her black-lace Victorian dress flowing with the ocean air, nodded.
“Can I take a picture with you?”
“Umm, I don’t know, have to ask the camera crew.”
And there it is. She was an actress. Of course she was. Playing the ghost of a woman who died on November 29, 1893. I looked past her, my view widening to see a bunch of twenty-somethings trailing her with heavy film gear. It was November 17 and time for the Del to plug its ghost story.
Kate Morgan is the most famous Del ghost. She was a lovely con woman, and she committed suicide on the very stairs that her actress was now following in from the Pacific.
Kate shot herself after being abandoned by a lover and left at the Del after he discovered her pregnancy. She waited for him for five days before firing the gun on November 29, 1893.
Everyone from local ghost tours to the acclaimed Ghost Hunters television show shines their spotlights on Kate in November. That’s why I was able to take a picture with her (or the woman playing her).
After Babcock, Lacey and I wandered around the first two levels of the hotel. The lobby, hotel shops and historical exhibits are here. There are several tributes to Marilyn Monroe (the iconic film Some Like It Hot was filmed at the Del), and displays of guestbooks date back to the 1800s.
Kate is most frequently seen in her room, #302 (re-designated 3327), which is now the most popular room in the hotel, and in "Established in 1888" – a lobby-level store where, much to the astonishment of the staff, she routinely trashes the Marilyn exhibits.
But Kate is not the only Del ghost. Another woman is frequently seen. The woman, whose name is still a well-kept secret, is rumored to have been the mistress of the original Del owner, Elisha Babcock. Room 502, now 3502, was their love nest. She killed herself there after discovering an unwanted pregnancy, just like Kate, and she’s reportedly never left.
In 1983 a Secret Service Agent serving under H.W. Bush ran from 3502 in the middle of the night when his curtains started to blow from behind closed windows and a glow emanated from the walls and floor.
We immediately saw why both a President and a mistress would be kept in 3502. We got there by climbing five flights of stairs to the top of the hotel and following twisting and unnecessary hallways. 3502 is isolated by locked and unidentified surrounding rooms, as well as oddly placed ice machines.
It took effort, patience and a little luck. I’m certain we would not have found it had we not been looking for it.
Although nothing happened – no flying bottles or apparitions – walking up to this room is the only time I wanted to run for the exit. Inexplicably but absolutely, run for a door, any door.
And that’s when we called it a night.
I don’t know if I believe in ghosts. Like most people, I’ve had experiences I can’t logically explain (I seem to attract unmanned slamming doors). Nevertheless, I tend to think there’s a reasonable explanation – construction, old air vents, thieves, etc.
But there’s no denying that I wanted OUT of that hallway. And I can give no logical explanation. I would blame it on adrenaline from the thrill of the hunt, but by the time we got to the room I was more ready for bed than confronting an apparition.
Wandering the hallways of the Del – is that a ghost wearing Ugg boots?
The hallways at the Del are, by turn, uncomfortably small and oddly wide. It looks like a hotel that has been built up and redesigned over the course of several decades - because it has.
Balconies, rooms, walkways and windows have been added. Off-white paint covers the walls and ceilings. Carpeting is green floral and chandeliers-like fixtures are the primary light sources. Doorknobs are from different eras. A black and steel cage-elevator stands in the middle of it all, like a tiny jail transporting guests at a painfully slow speed.
If you want a hotel that’s stayed true to its Victorian roots, this is your place. Bronze lamps are turned blue from time and oxidation. Chairs and couches are velvet with worn patches and lumpy seats.
And the Del routinely sells out. Even when low-end rooms cost $200. Even during a recession.
It lies at the foot of the Coronado beach, routinely rated as one of America’s top beaches with its pristine white-and-gold flaked sand. Tourists from all over the world flock there for ocean and beauty.
The Del’s public areas are lovely and welcoming. A skating rink with an ocean view is set up in winter. There’s a gelato shop with the best product I’ve tasted outside of Italy, and my favorite sandwich (fresh turkey, fig jam and brie on a French roll) sells for $13.
But the actual accommodations are not my thing. They remind me of an expensive hotel I stayed at in New York City that hadn’t been renovated in about 100 years – not that the Del’s rooms haven’t. They’re just… not my thing.
When your "partner in crime" is saying “redrum, redrum” over and over again as you roam the hallways searching for resident ghosts, and you wouldn’t be surprised to see a little boy on Big Wheels turn the corner, you’re either in heaven or it’s time to leave.
We visited Kate Morgan’s room. It was uneventful. I had no feelings of impending doom or negative energy. The Ghost Hunters’ guys had a slightly different experience – a water bottle flew off a table during an interview. Who knows? Maybe she liked us.
After the ghostly run at Hotel Del Coronado, we headed back to our hotel, the Loews Coronado, for an entirely modern experience. But I was to learn why San Diego is one of America’s most haunted cities.
With history running that deep through a city’s veins, inevitably there is talk of paranormal. Even in my Loews Spa, the masseuse was having a moment after hearing about our adventure.
“I just got chills… did you feel that? You know we have a ghost here too…”
The past permeates San Diego. Dive bars house black-and-white pics of local streets circa 1800. Yellowing, centuries-old documents and guest books are found in countless museums and old hotels. History is alive in every nook and cranny.
San Diego was "settled" in the late 1700’s, although I imagine the Mexicans and Native Americans already living here would debate the use of that term. There are American buildings still standing from the early days, and each one seems to house its own ghost.
In Old Town, the earliest settled area, is the Whaley House and Museum – routinely named the most haunted structure in the States - and streetlamps are still lit by fire and oil. Psychics, metalworking stores and Mexican restaurants line the dirt streets. Zoltar, the robotic fortune teller spotlighted in the movie Big, lives in a back alley and tells fortunes for a dollar. He yells at you if you walk by him without giving him money. Across from him, voodoo dolls and spells sell on the cheap. There are even ghosts in the gazebos.
From the famous Gaslamp area downtown to our little Coronado corner, dead people seem to want to have a chat. Or throw water bottles around rooms. Couples, children, old proprietors – they are everywhere, remnants of stories, both lovely and horrific, documented and passed down like all good oral traditions.
My Loews Spa was no different. In the middle of my massage, the masseuse paused – “You know there’s a ghost that lives in the next room.”
Seriously? A "Songs of the Whale" recording is playing in the background. “Next door’s the water room. Water’s a conduit for ghosts."
“Loews was built on a trash dump. The things they left in it go back 200 years. There’s a male ghost here, older guy. We think he left something in the dump and his spirit can’t leave.”
The Loews Spa, lovely and accommodating, has at least one talented masseuse and one very confused desk clerk. And it keeps essential oils in green glass bottles - the same bottles used to keep oils in the 1800s.
Every other spa I’ve been to uses plastic bottles.
The glass is what draws in the ghost.
Waiting for the ghost to leave his mark...
He removes the tight cork tops and leaves them on the sheet next to the bottle, along with the imprint of a hand. He is not nasty or intimidating. The imprint is like a signature, a mark of existence and a job needing completion.
But only in his room does it happen – the couples’ room with flowing water on the walls.
Loews is a beautiful hotel, modern and classy. But it’s not in central Coronado. It’s a $20 cab ride from the Del. I know this because after the pre-hunt limoncello, we were not driving into town.
The staff is wonderfully warm and helpful and the price is $20-40 less per night than average Coronado rooms. Combine that with phenomenal bay views and beach access and it was perfect for us. I also loved that it had a spa, complete with fluffy white robes and an outdoor fire pit. And, apparently, a friendly apparition.
You need a car to stay there if you don’t want to spend serious cash on cabs. But I had a car. For which I happily paid $30 to park overnight.
Because although a lost romantic soul roams the spa, my room was a haunt-free zone.