Coronado Cays villages have a distinctly nervous feel

No amount of pith-helmeted colonials can protect you from chaos

Coronado Cays "It was designed for boat owners, so we have a lot of slips, about 700, with between 72 and 279 houses per village."
  • Coronado Cays "It was designed for boat owners, so we have a lot of slips, about 700, with between 72 and 279 houses per village."
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

Take a drive along the Silver Strand area of the beach just south of Coronado on the 75, down toward Imperial Beach, and you come across a little oasis of West Indian architectural chic named the Coronado Cays, a sort of residential marina made up of quaint aquatic villages giving onto the lagoon and consisting of hundreds of high-priced townhouses with their own mooring docks. When you turn off the road, past the uniformed fellow in his guard house and through one of the several wide gates, you have the impression of being in a suburban stretch of England’s Upper Thames or a yachting community in Bermuda. “Decked out in white jacket and pith helmet,” the official brochure says, “the smiling, friendly Jamaican guard is the first indication that you’re about to enter a distinctly different world of residential living.” The pith helmet, by the way, is adorable. And where do they get those gorgeous Jamaicans for guard duty?

Cays entrance art. “A waterfront house on the Green Turtle? You’d have to ask next door, I think about $700,000."

Cays entrance art. “A waterfront house on the Green Turtle? You’d have to ask next door, I think about $700,000."

For sure, as soon as you pass that stucco sentry box with its gazebo-like design topped with bright blue-and-yellow tile roof, you do indeed feel yourself to be “transported into a tropical atmosphere that your senses insist is the Caribbean Islands.” The question is, why not just be happy to be in Southern California? Because we like Jamaican sentries? Or because the Caribbean offers a wonderful “adventure”?

As it happens, this is a sort of adventure for sedate escapists. The blue limestone shake rooves on chalk-white walls, the arched and shuttered Antiguan windows, the white-and-gold striped-hip roof and weathervane of the beach club, and the ubiquitous West Indian grillwork lavishly showered on overdoors, gates, and light posts are all highly Disneyesque – as are even better touches, like the hand-glazed tiles used decoratively on benches, walls and direction signs. In fact each house in each Cays village has its own hand-fired enameled tile with the street address in (as the brochure has it) “Coronado blue,” white, or gold. With the gay yellow gazebos everywhere and the bright, sky-blue railings, the place is positively festive – but only in the static, make-believe way. And unlike the real Caribbean, of course, there are no charming disadvantaged muggers walking around on the rooves in bare feet with oiled machetes between their teeth.

Curious as to who might first have had the idea to develop this otherwise desolate stretch of beach and turn it into an oasis of upper-income tropical fantasy, I paid a visit to the offices of the Coronado Cays Homeowners Association and the adjacent premises of the Prudential, who deal with the selling of real estate at the Cays. Located in the heart of the canals, by the yacht club, these offices are, as it turns out, the wrong place to go for accurate and detailed information on the Cays’ history. At the Prudential, for example, my query about the original architects was greeted with a numb shrug of the shoulders.

“No idea,” opined the gentleman who wished to remain anonymous, looking somewhat dreamily out the window. “It all began sometime in the early ‘70s, building up village by village. There’s a guy called Chuck Schneider up at Newport Beach somewhere who was involved. I’ll give you his number. You see, there was a variety of companies involved over the years. It wasn’t a simple, clear cut business. There was a company called the Koll Company that took over all the real estate empire of a body called Henley Properties, including the Cays. And before that, there was a company called Signal Oil that sold to Landmark, or merged with it, to become Signal-Landmark in 1971. But that’s about all I know. We have no idea at all about the architects involved. All we know is that the Coronado Cays was sold to the homeowners’ association in 1991 and that they manage the property now. I couldn’t even tell you who put the money up originally or who was contracted to build it. I’m afraid you’ll just have to ask next door.”

Next door, though, the staff at the homeowners’’ association seemed every bit as nonplussed. “You don’t want to quote me,” advised the friendly lady (asking anonymity). “The original developers and architects? Absolutely no idea. We bought out the management in 1991, and that’s just about all I know about it. I guess they just asked the architects for the West Indian look and that’s all.

“As you’ll see, it all blends in – there’s not much architectural variation between, say, Green Turtle village and Blue Anchor. Some, but not much. It all has the same Caribbean-nautical feel. It was designed for boat owners, so we have a lot of slips, about 700, with between 72 and 279 houses per village. So the idea was to create smallish communities sheltered by a larger one that keeps the outside world at bay through that outer wall and the guard. Gated communities are the coming trend in Southern California, and although this isn’t really a gated community in the strict sense, it sort of has that feel. People here feel safe because of the security measures. It certainly isn’t like just having a house on an ordinary street. This is very much a world apart, and that’s what our residents want – a world separate from the larger world.

“We do also have some vacant lots on which people can build their own homes, and some have done that. We offer people a lot of freedom: build your own house in a walled environment, keep your boat at your own slip, live in this exotic atmosphere and be safe. That’s why people will spend a half a million dollars on some of these houses and more.

“A waterfront house on the Green Turtle? You’d have to ask next door, I think about $700,000. That’s not that expensive when you think of the slip thing. And we have all sorts here. A lot of retired Navy. Wealthy Mexicans. Retired industrialists, and so on. It’s a mixed clientele. And the value of the place can only go up and up.”

That at least is almost certain. The Cays fulfills practically every requirement of the California commercial middle-classes at the moment. Seclusion, anonymity, security, safety in numbers, exclusivity. And, of course, boat slips and Jamaicans in pith helmets. People like Armando Martin, chairman of the powerful Mexican Soriana Group board, and Dan Bradley, oilman, have made it their home, along with a whole class of migrant entrepreneurs from places as far away as Chihuahua and Monterey. Recent influxes of big Japanese money have made possible the development of Crown Isle at the tip of the Cays at a cost of $88 million, and the Cays Yacht Club now boasts 325 members, making it one of the largest and chicest in the San Diego Bay.

Inside, however, the Cays Villages, all Caribbean-cute and nautical-spruce, have a distinctly nervous feel. Stop the car for just a second outside one of those manicured, sprinklered lawns (the masts bobbing and tinkling eerily in the background) and almost immediately the owner will come bowling out of his front door, squinting through your windshield, wanting to know what the hell you think you’re doing stopping your car just like that in front of his house – and who the hell are you, anyway?

One can only suppose that, after Charles Manson and Co., even the reasonably wealthy rarely get a moment of absolute, unconditional calm. Someone can always get into your cozy walled-off patio house (with slip) and, as it were, rock the boat. And the sad fact is that no amount of pith-helmeted colonials in gazebo-topped sentry boxes will ever keep them away for sure.

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