San Diego’s Shelter Island – Safe Haven!

Kona Kai sunset

Our sailboat “Groovy” enjoys the sunset at Kona Kai Marina on Shelter Island

Summer-Fall, 2013 – San Diego’s Shelter Island is an oasis of tranquility in the middle of a very busy city harbor, and when we sailed up from Mexico it became our beautiful home for a few months.

What a place!

San Diego is a cool bayside city that ranks as the eighth largest in the US.

It is home to both a major naval air station and a huge international airport that crowd the waterfront alongside the skyscrapers of downtown.


Walking path on Shelter Island

The walking paths along Shelter Island’s back side are lush and lovely.

All that stuff could make for a very industrial waterfront, but Shelter Island offers a wonderful, scenic getaway, a little island of calm, right in the middle of it all.

With grassy lawns and palm trees running along its length and making up much of both its “front yard” on the bay and its “back yard” of marinas, Shelter Island is a unique spot.


Elegant yacht and house

Shelter Island’s back yard is very pretty and peaceful

The island, which is actually connected and not a true island, is the result of brilliant city planning back in the 1930’s.

The land used to be natural mud flats that were dredged to create a deep water mooring area for boats and a solid turf “island.”

This green and lush strip of land at the water’s edge is part of what makes San Diego so worthy of its claim to be “America’s Finest City.”

Kona kai rower

A rowboat passes behind the boats in the marina

Stand up paddle boards Shelter Island

One of the best ways to get around
is by paddle board

On the front (bay) side of the island, visitors picnic, walk their dogs, jog, fish, sunbathe, and launch their kayaks and powerboats for rides in the bay.


The more serene back side of the island is home to a dozen or so marinas and a thousand or so boats that sit quietly, side by side, with narrow waterways running in labyrinthine patterns between them.


Kona Kai Marina gate

The metal gate at Kona Kai marina is heavy and ornate

Our boat slip was at Kona Kai marina, which is part of a resort hotel, and our dock was tucked behind an elaborately sculpted, heavy metal gate that swung shut on springs with a resounding clang. Once inside the gate, it was as if the world on the other side of the island disappeared.

All that was around us were graceful boats that moved ever so gently in their slips and birds that fished in the mirrored waters by the shore.

This back yard of Shelter Island is an ideal place to explore by paddle board or rowboat, and we saw lots of those during our stay.


Shelter Island walking path

We just love these walking paths

Along the shore, a paved walking path ducks under rich green foliage that is dotted with brilliant orange bird of paradise flowers and vivid magenta bouganvillea.

Ironically, when we first arrived at Shelter Island after sailing up from Mexico, we didn’t appreciate or even recognize the tranquility of the place.

The hum and thrum of the Mexican and American cultures are so different, and they dance to such divergent tempos and cadences, that after our many months of immersion in Mexico, we were out of sync with our own home culture. It took us a while to find our rhythm.


Deborah Lynn Herreshoff

Our neighbor’s Herreshoff 12.5 Doughdish
“Deborah Lynn” looked so pretty in the morning light

On our very first morning on Shelter Island, Mark emerged from the companionway of our boat and went out for a walk at dawn. I was too lazy to join him and just rolled over.

What a shock it was when he jumped back into bed an hour later and pulled the covers over his head.

“Where’s the fire?” He asked, his voice muffled by pillows and blankets as he hugged them tight around his head.

“Everyone is moving so fast! What is wrong with the world out there? Why is everyone in such a rush?”

I laughed as he curled up in a little ball, his fists clenching the blankets right down over his face.

Messing about in boats

“There is nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats”

Shelter Island at dawn is downright mellow by American urban standards!

But we weren’t used to American life any more, and this was our first stage of “re-entry.” During the weeks and months that followed, there were many times when we both wanted to pull the covers over our heads as we readjusted.

Travelers who spend a long time away from their home culture often talk about “re-entry” when they finally come home.

Shelter Island is a sea of masts

The backside of Shelter Island is a sea of masts

All it takes for most Americans to get catapulted back into the reality of our own culture is a trip to a supermarket.

The displays of richly colored and beautifully shaped produce seem to go on for acres, and each specimen sitting on its perfect pyramid of sister fruits and veggies appears to be the very essence of ripeness and loveliness.

The miles-wide and miles-long aisles in the supermarket offer at least two or three choices for everything.

It is overwhelming. Such bounty and wealth. Such lavish abundance.

Red sailboat at Shelter Island

There are boats of every kind here.

We’ve been through the supermarket re-entry phase before, but it didn’t make it any less dramatic this time around.

We walked into the supermarket and instantly felt that same urge we had on the streets of Mexico to grab our cameras and take photos.

The supermarket was just so exotic and so colorful and so wonderful!

On the boat, life was more familiar and not too different than it had been in Mexico, except we were now wearing sweatshirts and running our heater at night.

Living at Shelter Island also gave us a wonderful window onto the world of the very rich.

Cushy chairs at Kona Kai Resort

Relaxing at Kona Kai in front of the mega yacht dock

The cushy chairs at the resort had a view of the mega yacht dock, and one day a new yacht pulled in that was five stories tall and dwarfed the recreational boats nearby.

What a life!

We felt so privileged to be able to see all this…and even to be able to feel all these mixed up emotions too.

A generous friend took us to lunch at the posh San Diego Yacht Club where there are trophy cases lined with silver goblets engraved with the names of the best racing sailors.

Mega yacht Invectus at Kona Kai

The five story yacht “Invectus” towers over all the other boats

Wooden ship's wheel San Diego Yacht Club

View from San Diego Yacht Club

A thickly varnished and very shiniy wooden ship’s wheel on the yacht club deck gave the luncheon patio a distinctly nautical flavor.

This was life lived at another level, and boating of a different kind that barely resembled the grubby, salty cruising lifestyle we had come from. What a delight!

Kona Kai Marina

Kona Kai Marina








We felt like shape shifters sliding in and out of all these special cultures.

Herron fishing

In many ways, too, we felt a lot like Dorothy upon her return from Oz.

We had woken up, with bumps on our heads, to find our home was rather strange and unfamiliar, and all we could do was talk excitedly about where we had just been.

Heron and reflected masts

A heron fishes among the mast reflections

Dorothy’s friends and neighbors listened politely as she told of the scarecrow and the lion and the tin-man and the wizard. But her friends and family were much more concerned about the bump on her head.

Pelican landing

Landing gear down…

We gave a few slideshow talks about our adventures and talked til we were hoarse about all that we had seen and done.

We made videos to inspire future cruisers and give them shortcuts to reach the best stuff we discovered down south.

Fortunately, I think our stories and photos captured the imaginations of the folks that listened to us.

But the bumps on our heads from re-entry were still there, especially when we watched TV and listened to the radio.

That sure jolted us back to the reality of life in the US!


Back side of Island Palms Resort

It’s pretty darn nice here!

We hadn’t heard or seen advertising in English for 10 months, and we were in awe as we were assaulted by the plethora of advertisers.

It sure seemed as though our lives would be hopelessly incomplete if we didn’t start buying all this great stuff right away!

Technology had also snuck ahead of us while our heads were turned, and we watched our friends talk to their phones and their cars with a chummy familiarity that was startling.

Their phones and navigation systems happily talked back too!


Puffy cloud Sunset at Kona Kai

Puffy clouds above the boats and reflections below

Witnessing these human/computer interactions made us feel like we had walked right off the edge of the planet and were just now crawling back on our hands and knees.

We have been without a cell phone since 2007, and our friends were sure we needed to get one now to survive.

Several trips to the Verizon store and a few sales pitches later, and we realized we still didn’t need a phone, not even a smart one, but gosh, those smartphones sure are seductive.

One day while Mark was chatting with a new friend on the docks, he suddenly said, “You were in Mexico!? That explains why you’re so laid back and talk so slow!”

Sunset on Shelter Island

Sunset on Shelter Island

We are?? We do?? We just thought the world was moving a little too fast and everyone was talking in hyperspeed around us!

Fortunately, the rhythm of the sunrises and sunsets in Shelter Island’s backyard was the same as it has ever had been. We reveled in the purity of each one.

The sky was different every morning and every evening, and it conjured up all kinds of colors and shapes and patterns to fill the sky.

And oftentimes the water was glass beneath it, reflecting those same pretty images back up from the depths below.

Sunset at Shelter Island Marina

Every sunrise and sunset is different

Shelter Island’s protected backyard offered us wonderful shelter as we gradually eased our way back into the mainstream.

Lighted docks at Kona Kai Marina

The docks at night

But it was Shelter Island’s front yard — the grassy green picnic areas, the majestic trees, the funky old RVs and the front row seats to the action on the bay — that got us excited about being back home in the US and living in this very special corner of it for a while…

Bonfire at Kona Kai Resort

A beach bonfire on the back side of Shelter Island

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