A $22M New Look for an Old Celebrity Haunt: Kona Kai Resort & Marina


Kona Kai Resort & Marina in San Diego is going through a bit of an identity crisis; one that is taking $22 million to fully realize. Currently, when you visit the property, you can see that it remembers what it once was, sees where it wants to be, and yet — still remains a forgotten resort that quietly rests on the shores of Shelter Island.

Built in 1954, the property played host to a number of celebrities in the ‘60s and ‘70s like Dick Van Dyke, Charleston Heston, and U.S. presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. With its waterfront views on both sides and a popular high-end nightclub, it became known as one of the more exclusive hotels in the city. Naturally, over the years, the excitement behind the hotel began to fade as time started to show its wear on the resort. Last December, Noble House, a prestigious owner of luxury boutique hotels, finalized contracts to purchase the 129-room Kona Kai.

With the hopes of restoring it back to its glory days and rebranding it as a prime getaway hotel, the first phase of its transformation has been completed. Updates to the rooms, lobby, and restaurant were among the preliminary changes. As you enter the lobby, the first thing you’ll notice is the bright, bold colors and large accent pieces like a horse made out of wood and two turquoise wingback chairs. A mix between Mediterranean styles and a beach shack vibe, the lobby’s new look is youthfully fresh.

Kona Kai offers guestrooms and suites viewing out onto either the marina or bay (both proving a great choice). Suites have yet to be redone, but the guestrooms have definitely been improved with colorful patterns covering the carpet and walls, crisp white linens and an elegant cushioned headboard. Provided in each room is a mini-fridge, complimentary Wi-Fi and some include patios. As of this time, the hotel does not have the capability to purchase movies from your TV. So if you’re looking to stay in and snuggle up to a Rom-Com, you’ll need to bring your own adapter to stream them from your laptop. Having the patio is a nice feature, but the furniture is outdated and could still use some work to get it up to four- and five-star status.

What the hotel lacks in completed suites and public spaces though, it more than makes up for at its restaurant, Vessel. Working all night to unpack boxes, arrange furniture and set the finishing touches on the dining area, the staff banned together this past summer to have Vessel open for July 4 celebrations. Created to look like the interior of a ship with panoramic front windows in a circular room, the eatery opened with partially painted distressed beach wood walls and floors alongside striped benches for seating. The separate bar area is chic and inviting with high-top tables, bar stools with off-white cushions and backs and a vast menu of cocktails and libations.

After dining at Vessel, it is clear that this place should become a destination restaurant. Its breezy atmosphere and dim lighting set the tone for a sophisticated dinner that was neither stuffy nor informal. A smorgasbord of offerings, the menu includes beets & burrata frisee with aged balsamic and jalapeno pesto; mole marinated pork loin with roasted tomato polenta, braised kale and bacon lardon; chili rubbed baked snapper with lemon whipped potatoes, roasted tomato sauce, crimini mushroom, snow peas, and fried capers and seared tuna paired with vegetable escabeche, fried egg, and romesco. Bite by bite, the food melts in your mouth and leaves you wanting more; the sign of a truly clever chef. 

What’s also great about Vessel is its wonderfully extensive bottomless Bloody Mary bar on Sundays. And this isn’t your average spread either; Kona Kai really goes to great lengths to give guests a plethora of options for creating their very best cocktail. You can choose from a variety of vodkas, hot sauces, horseradish, salts, vodka-infused bacon and pickled vegetables of almost any kind. If your first isn’t to your liking, don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of chances to get it right.

Another big change for the hotel is Noble Houses’ purchase of the marina which allows the company to oversee management of the 550 slips. Prior to this, the property had minimal interaction with yacht owners who shared the water’s edge. This new ownership is a smart move for the resort, and now marina tenants and guests will have numerous benefits such as 20 percent off dining in the resort’s restaurant, 10 percent off spa services and catering, 10 percent off room rates, and use of the fitness center and pool. 

Additional renovations will include changes to the meeting rooms, spa, fitness center; upgrades to the existing marina facility building, adding on a sundry shop, coffee shop and bar and bike rentals; an additional 41 rooms to be built; Tiki bar at the pool; and possibly a second pool. As with any undertaking of this size, construction, debris and noise can be an issue. However, the staff has reassured that it will be minimally intrusive and discounts may possibly be offered during high-construction times.

If you’re visiting San Diego, Shelter Island is one of those quaint little areas where locals like to escape to for a quieter afternoon in their city. It is also nearby to downtown, the Gaslamp District, Sea World, beaches and dining spots. Those who’ve known and loved Kona Kai have a lot to look forward to in the coming months/years. It still needs some love and care, but even this first phase has shown vast improvements. If Noble Houses’ other hotels have shown us anything, it’s that they don’t do anything subpar, and this promises to be no different.