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Weekend Escape: San Diego

Car-Less in Coronado

An easy train ride and ferry, then bikes and buses on an accessible island

April 20, 1997|RALPH FRAMMOLINO | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Frammolino writes for The Times' Metro section

CORONADO, Calif. — Before turning off the car in the parking lot, I lingered for one final moment over the Friday afternoon traffic report.

A multi-vehicle pileup was choking the Harbor Freeway. On the I-405, a crazed driver had commandeered the center divider. Southbound 60 was at a crawl. And then there was the inevitable agony of the Orange Crush.

Yes! Bring on every hellish twist that Dante of Caltrans could imagine. This weekend, it wouldn't matter one whit.

That's because our escape was designed to triumph over the paradox that is Southern California: The destinations are bliss, but the freeways leading to them make you want to stay home.

Until we came up with a plan--a weekend on picturesque Coronado without once setting tush inside a car. The point of departure was chandeliered landmark Union Station downtown, where I parked the car after making the school run for our daughters, ages 12 and 10. The traffic report still ringing in our ears, we strode into the terminal clutching four round-trip unreserved tickets that cost only $66, thanks to a special promotion. Normal price was $99 for the four of us.

The plan called for us to rendezvous with my wife, who'd take the Red Line from work near Bunker Hill, then blithely step into our Amtrak coach, sink into cushioned seats and slide serenely down the coast.

Well, not quite. Smugness evaporated into slight panic at the sight of the growing crowd waiting to board the 5:10 p.m. San Diegan from Gate C. The train is routinely overbooked, we learned, and all of us would have to compete for seats left over after passengers had gotten on at Santa Barbara, Ventura, Simi Valley and points north. Adding to the Darwinian experience was Amtrak's policy of announcing the correct gate number only 15 minutes before departure. Result: a semi-civilized stampede up the ramp. For those with the geographic advantage, it might be better to catch the train at Glendale or Burbank to avoid the mad dash.

It was still a better ride than playing bumper tag for four hours, which is not unusual for driving to San Diego at peak times. And nothing could spoil the Zen-like experience of gazing at the Pacific sunset up close (the tracks run along the beach in some areas) and uninterrupted.

The second leg of the journey called for a sharp right turn out of the San Diego depot and a three-block walk for a San Diego Harbor Excursion ferry trip across the San Diego Bay. Boats leave on the hour until 9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Round-trip is $4 a person, $5 if you bring a bike.

Coronado glimmered ahead like a Christmas tree, but by far the most impressive view during the 15-minute trip was aft, where a maturing downtown San Diego skyline offered interesting architecture dominated by the daddy-longlegs profile of the city's new convention center.

Once on shore, it was a short walk to our destination: Le Meridien, a counterpoint to the venerable Hotel Del Coronado. Whereas the historic Hotel Del Coronado is located off the Pacific, the 8-year-old Le Meridien is tucked near the foot of the sweeping San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge.

Normally, Le Meridien would be a family budget-buster. But thanks to the Entertainment Card, we booked a $215 room for half price. Such deals are limited, though, and require planning. We booked our reservations nine weeks in advance.

A low-slung, three-story structure, the hotel's open-air walkways open up into wonderful views and angle over an impressive koi pond, where the fish eat chunks of bread out of your hand. Signs on the ground floor warn: Duck Crossing. And they do, through the hotel and out to the small gurgling lagoons that surround the spa resort.

There is a temptation to stay put and run up the charge card. Sunday brunch at the hotel's L'Escale restaurant, especially, is a mindblower. The $28 buffet (half price for kids) starts at the lobby and stretches into the main eating area, where diners are serenaded by harp and guitar.

But families can also scrimp. For the real cheap, there's a Lucky's store five minutes away, where you can score bagels, coffee and muffins at the bakery. Closer is fast-food nirvana--an unusual building grouping Pizza Hut, KFC and Taco Bell fare under the same roof.

Carbed up on tacos and pizza, it was time to exercise. Across from the restaurant is the Bikes and Beyond shop, located in a collection of small shops called Ferry Landing Marketplace. Basic bikes and in-line skates cost $5 an hour; a four-pedaler surrey is $25.


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