Spending A Night At California's Madonna Inn

4 July 2014

Those who have cruised down 'the 101’ on the iconic drive between Los Angeles and San Francisco may have noticed a flashy neon-pink sign beckoning from the highway. It's here, on a 400-hectare ranch in San Luis Obispo, that the famed Madonna Inn proudly stands in all its bedazzled glory. The hotel is an eccentric dreamland of pink- and gold-trimmed everything, where subtlety and minimalism were definitely not on the design brief.

The glitz of some of Vegas’ most eclectic hotels aint got nothin’ on the Madonna Inn! We’re flying the red, white and blue flag today in honour of America’s independence, so what better way to celebrate patriotism for the grand ol' US of A than with a firsthand account of my recent stay at the treasured Madonna Inn?

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The Beginnings

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 Swiss chalet meets fairytale cottage

The imaginative force behind this whimsical Californian hotel was local entrepreneur and philanthropist, Alex Madonna. The opening night on Christmas Eve 1958 was a resounding success and, within a year, the hotel had expanded to include 40 rooms and the main building which still houses the restaurant and bakery.

Alex Madonna’s vision was for an inn that was fun, quirky and a true home away from home. Hospitality still shines, but it’s the 100+ suites – all unique, all outlandish and all wonderfully extravagant – that continue to draw visitors.
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Tickled Pink

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 Make a splash in the Madonna pool

The Swiss-Alpine-style facade of the inn features signature Madonna embellishments, with immaculate flowerbeds bursting with flourishing poppies and garden roses as the perfect finishing touch. A leisurely stroll around the fairytale-like grounds will have you humming ‘Edelweiss’ in no time!

There are plenty of activities at your fingertips; you can sit down to tastings at the wine cellar or blaze a trail on horseback. Bikes are available for hire (hot pink, of course), and tennis enthusiasts can practice their backhand on the magenta tennis court. The pool terrace has a fitness centre, day spa, 45-foot waterfall, two spa tubs and a sprawling pool that awards great views of San Luis Obispo. What more could you need?

 Anyone for a spot of tennis?

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Make Room

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 Channel your inner Fred and Wilma Flintstone

There are few restraints when it comes to the 112 guest rooms; Alex Madonna and his wife let their imaginations run rampant in the design and wacky interiors. With names such as Yosemite Rock, Oriental Fantasy and Yahoo, the rooms are as fanciful as they are downright absurd – some are so popular they book out over a year in advance!

Love Nest – a garish, romantic wonderland of pink carpet and floral walls – is accessed by a private trestle bridge and features a spiral staircase leading up to its own turret. Sugar & Spice is fittingly next door to Everything Nice, while Fox & Hound invokes the nostalgic ambience of an English country lodge. I chose the most popular of the lot for the night: the Caveman.

A heavy brass-handle door opens up to a cave-like dwelling constructed from solid rock. The uneven floor, walls and ceiling create a space where the Flintstones would feel right at home, albeit with more creature comforts. The modern flat-screen TV is barely noticeable among the clashing animal prints of the king-size bed, armchair and lampshades. There’s no fireplace but you do have your very own rock waterfall shower and basin (because, why not?).

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Fit For a ‘Queen’

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 There are no words

The brash rooms are one thing, but the main inn is a whole other ballgame. Pinker-than-pink damask wallpaper contrasts against intricately hand-carved archways and door frames and, with garish rose carpet throughout, it’s enough to send you into a head spin. A true spectacle in itself, no visit to the Madonna Inn is complete without a meal at the Gold Rush Steak House.

The dining floor is a campy, glitzy space encircling a central tree, adorned in golden cherubs, vine leaves and twinkling fairy lights. It truly is a sight to behold. The service here is exceptional, as are the meals served – legend has it that even the bread rolls used to be pink! While golden oldies did the two-step in time with the band, we sipped wine from iridescent goblets ornamented with grapes and flowers, totally enamoured with the elaborate surroundings and sporting smiles from ear to ear at its outrageousness.

Whether staying for the night or just passing through town, a stop at the Madonna Inn is an absolute must. The overdose of vintage kitsch and pure whimsy is why so many people return again and again, just to lose themselves in the romance of yesteryear. It’s the ultimate in Americana cheesiness but a place that will charm the pants off any visitor.

Anna Howard

Give me street food over Michelin stars, cellar doors over wine bars and small towns and wide open spaces over big cities any day. Travel for me means ticking off the 'to eat and drink' list one regional flavour and wine bottle at a time.