Shelter Island sits in the entrance to San Diego Bay, connected to Point Loma via a man-made strip of land near Liberty Station. The island isthmus creates a breakwater for the bay and the Shelter Island marinas provide a safe harbor for hundreds of San Diego’s boats and yachts, while its beaches offer a calm shoreline park for visitors. The “island” is only a few hundred feet wide and 1.2 miles long and can be covered in one day. But if you’re looking for more than a day trip, the Shelter Island hotels can also be an ideal location for a San Diego home base, given the close proximity to the airport and downtown.
The History of Shelter Island, San Diego
Originally a sandbar that was visible at low tide, Shelter Island wasn’t even accessible from mainland San Diego until 1953. It was only as soil and sand were dumped there from the San Diego River and dredging materials were piled up during World War II that the sandbar-turned-island started to become something of a landmark. In the early 1950s, the city and harbor developed the island—dredging a yacht basin and creating a deep water channel into the bay, raising the land up above high tide, and adding the causeway that connects it to Point Loma.
Today, Shelter Island is something of a destination for yachts because of the depth of the marina. When it was developed in the 1950s, part of the zoning required all the buildings to have a “Polynesian” theme. Although some have since been remodeled, much of the original island vibe still exists. Overseen by the Port of San Diego, Shelter Island has no permanent residences—just four hotels, each with a marina.
Where to Stay on Shelter Island, San Diego
At the southern tip of the island—and designed to comply with that original Polynesian theme—the Kona Kai was the first development built and is one of the landmark Shelter Island, San Diego, hotels. Started as a social and recreation club, today it’s a luxury family-friendly resort and spa with its own private beach, marina, swimming pool, and the seafood-forward Vessel Restaurant.
Another landmark waterfront hotel, Humphrey’s has a pool, mini-golf course, and balconies overlooking its marina. The tropical theme extends throughout the grounds, with palm trees, waterfalls, and skyline views. In addition to luxury suites or just simple shower accommodations for those docking at the marina, Humphrey’s is famous for its outdoor music venue and summer concerts by the bay.
Best Western Plus Island Palms Hotel and Marina
Originally the Shelter Island Inn, the Island Palms has been one of Shelter Island’s marina hotels for over three decades. Its six acres cover two small pools and a hot tub, tennis courts, an adjacent marina, and the bayside Blue Wave Bar & Grill. The hotel is also made up of three different buildings, each with a different style.
The Bay Club is a more modern take on Shelter Island marina resort–style living. Its pool deck and hot tub overlook the water and its full-service marina. There’s also patio dining at its Quarterdeck restaurant overlooking San Diego Bay, as well as a number of conference rooms and business facilities.
Where to Play on Shelter Island, San Diego
Clearly, a visit to Shelter Island is all about the water sports. In fact, the public boat launch ramp is considered the busiest in California. There are a handful of Shelter Island marinas, all close to the heart of San Diego: one at each of the hotels and the Shelter Cove marina. If you don’t have your own boat, rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard from one of the hotels; Action Sports Rentals, with a location out of the Kona Kai, does a wide range of boat, board, and bike rentals. Or try a sailing class with Learn to Sail San Diego. Just want to sit back and enjoy the water? Next Level Sailing takes visitors out on whale-watching excursions.
On land, the boardwalk that runs the length of Shelter Island is one of the great San Diego shoreline parks. You can boat watch, bike along the promenade, or check out the public art, like the Friendship Bell, which was a gift from the city of Yokohama, Japan. There’s also a fishing pier along the 1-mile beachfront park and a number of picnic areas. The calm, sandy beaches on Shelter Island are one of the only places you can have a beach bonfire in San Diego. And in the summer, the famous Humphrey’s Concerts by the Bay are not to be missed.
Where to Eat on Shelter Island, San Diego
The Tiki-inspired restaurant at the north tip of the island is a family-owned institution. Opened in 1955 and named after the South Pacific musical number, it features Polynesian cuisine, a view of the city, and a famous Mai Tai—nearly three million sold to date.
Vessel at the Kona Kai
All the hotels on Shelter Island also house waterfront restaurants that serve up fresh local cuisine, but the Kona Kai’s Vessel may be the most well-known. It’s about high-end California coastal food here—and the nightly marshmallow firepits.
The rare tap house on the water in San Diego, Fathom Bistro Bait & Tackle has local beers on draft, deluxe hot dogs and sausages, and an inventive weekend brunch menu. As its name implies, Fathom also doubles as a full-service bait and gear shop. It’s closed on Mondays.
Though only a mile long, Shelter Island, San Diego, is full of beaches, boats, waterfront restaurants, and all kinds of water sports. You can pack a picnic and take a stroll, or spend a weekend at a Tiki-themed resort. If you get inspired by the ocean living while visiting, check out other iconic San Diego boat rides. And if you’re in the area, you’ll want to take a trip across the causeway to visit Point Loma’s Liberty Station and Cabrillo National Monument.