[I am currently doing six days of college touring with my daughter, my niece, and my sister. In a small car. We did two places today. I am kind of fried, with intermittent wireless hookup. So this is a review I wrote a while ago, but it seems like a place that Tarts should congregate. Maybe we could all meet up for drinks on New Year's Eve???)
Of course great hotels have always been social ideas, flawless mirrors to the particular societies they service.
--Joan Didion The White Album
If you want to spend one night in America’s most memorable lodgings, forget about The Plaza, The Drake, The St. Francis, the Ritz-Carlton. and The Chateau Marmont—what you need is a reservation at the Madonna Inn . This "spectacular fantasy motel" has become so widely known that when its proprietors, Phyllis and Alex Madonna, visited Austria and Switzerland and were asked the name of their hometown by someone to whom they had not been introduced, their reply of "San Luis Obispo, California," was greeted by, "and how far is that from the Madonna Inn?" Though their fame abroad is remarkable (the Madonnas have gotten press coverage in venues ranging from Good Morning America to The Times of London), it is eclipsed by the esteem in which this couple is held at home: that trip to Europe, for instance, was a gift from their employees.
As kind, honest, and sincere as Mr. and Mrs. Madonna are reputed to be, however, the foremost reason to book a room with them is that the Madonna Inn is to interior decorating what miniature golf is to landscape design: outrageous, eye-catching, and deeply, deeply American. This 109-room hostelry is a cultural icon right up there with Disneyland, Hearst Castle, Pedro’s South of the Border, and the entirety of The Vegas Strip. The Inn exerts a force of kitsch so powerful, in fact, that—like Graceland— it generates a self-referencing bubble of wonder, a magnetism that pulls busloads of the faithful to its doors as surely as pilgrims are drawn to Mecca, Lourdes, Rome, and Zion.
The Madonnas have conceived of, built, and decorated a veritable temple to the self-made aesthetic, making tangible—in flocked velvet, apple green leather, lava rock, faux leopard, and hot pink everything—the bedizened romanticism of the American Dream.
Step through the carved doors by the fountains chez Madonna, and you’re inside the giant snowglobe whose web of enchantment hides the ancient homeland of all Hummel figurines, Jell-O salads, lawn trolls, sparkling pink Barbie accessories, gilt cherubs, and "Round-Tuits" from the gaze of we lowly mortals. There is no greater Valhalla of Va-va-va-voom than this, no more hermetically perfect auberge of audacity…. You have arrived, Chica.
The pillars, beams, and cornices of the coffee shop were ten years in the carving. The tables and bar are made of copper, the former with the Madonna "pick and shovel" logo handstamped and the latter elaborately engraved.
Murals with a fin-de-siecle theme abound, as do Tiffany-style stained glass lamps, red leather barstools, and sheet-copper sheathing. All this, and you’re still in the coffee shop.
Don't forget to ogle the Gold Rush Dining Room, whose baroque magnificence includes the "swinging girl," a nearly life-sized brunette doll who has been careening back-and-forth--suspended from the "genuine oak branches" adorning the ceiling--since the inn opened.
Of course, it’s hard to miss the 28-foot tall tree made from leftover conduit, scrap copper, and spare diesel fuel tubing, "lit by a thousand dainty lights" that stands at the room’s center, but the focal point is still the overwhelming use of "Madonna Pink," a lushly roseate shade the owners felt would be flattering to female guests. The ubiquity of pink upholstery alone must be supported by its own naugahyde factory, working round the clock.
Even the bathrooms are cause for a sort of hushed reverence. Those in the Wine Cellar, for instance, which are approached by following a carved banister down the flight of stairs from the lobby, walking past the rock cave which houses the pay phone, and beyond the barrel-shaped cage which leads to another dining room ("starlit" stone pillars, grape trellises, wine barrels…). The Ladies’ Room features red flocked wallpaper, pink Italian marble, and door panels of tufted red leather, but it is the Men’s Room which draws crowds with its giant clamshell sinks and the stone wall urinal, "flushed" when patrons trigger an electric eye and loose a full-scale waterfall.
Each of the 109 rooms is decorated differently, with its own theme, color scheme, and decor. But as over the top as the decor sounds (and we haven’t even discussed the Gay Nineties Room, the Silver Bar, or the Oak Pit BBQ), this is not the place to show up in python thigh boots with Hunter S. Thompson and his Samoan attorney in tow.
As Jack Arky, a composer from Los Angeles, said of his stay there last year, "Everyone is nice. Really, really, really nice. I mean, like Disneyland nice—it was, um, eerie."
Arky and his girlfriend stopped in on their first driving tour up the West coast at the behest of a college buddy who is a California native. "’Get one of the cave rooms,’ she told me, ‘and surprise her with a gift of leopard underwear,’" he recounts.
"We followed instructions, and actually we had a really great time, but it was so overwhelmingly detailed, visually, that we were exhausted by the time we left. I don’t think I could stay there longer than one night."
Still, he remembers the experience vividly, saying that it was like nothing else so much as wandering into a lost episode of Twin Peaks.
"The wildest thing was when we went down to the dining room, and the whole place is like, hot pink car upholstery or something, and the service is great, and there’s this band playing. The music was really amazing—like Glenn Miller, 'Stardust,' the whole thing— and everyone’s dancing ballroom style, and we look around and we realize that everyone’s really good. They’re all dipping and swirling and doing all of this amazing stuff out on the dance floor...everyone...and so we just decide that it really is an alternate universe, that maybe the whole population from the surrounding area comes here all the time and they’ve developed this whole really nice culture together, just unbelievably polite and into dancing their heads off all the time."
He paused and laughed at this point in the story, adding "Later, of course, we find out that it was some huge Arthur Murray ballroom class out on a field trip."
We checked back and found out that the Inn offers live Swing music Tuesday through Saturday, and that local dance groups often show their stuff here. But if you’re not ready to Cha-Cha, the recreational opportunities are legion. The Madonna Inn is within easy distance of downtown San Luis Obispo, Hearst Castle (about a 50-minute drive), and a number of good wineries. While there is no concierge, the desk staff will help you get information on setting up golf or fishing outings. Tours of California's scenic coastline can be arranged for guests, with the local Silverado Tours coming right to the hotel.
Bring your mountain bike or hiking boots, too, because the surrounding terrain offer some great trails and views. Especially recommended are the trails originating at Montana De Oro State Park, which is about a 20 minute drive away, on the Pacific.
As for indoor recreation, we highly recommend reserving any of these splendid rooms for at least a night, preferably after a shopping spree at Frederick’s of Hollywood down the coast. Most people like to book rock accommodations that include a waterfall shower, but two rock suites offer both the shower and a fireplace.
The staff at the hotel will happily fill you in on the dozens of other theme rooms available. There is truly something for everyone here, and goodness knows this is fertile ground for coming up with a thousand and one "honeymoon" scenarios.
Even if you’ve got the rental car on cruise control, trying to do the length of the state in a day, this is an ideal rest stop on any road trip through California. The postcards alone (featuring a variety of rooms as photographed by Mrs. Madonna) are worth pulling off 101 for, and you won’t find a more entertaining (or cleaner) restroom anywhere in the NAFTA countries. If you’ve got a couple of minutes more, pull up a tufted pink leather barstool at the copper horseshoe-shaped bar for a cup of coffee and a piece of pie…. Go ahead, make your day.
The Bottom Line: if you haven't been to The Madonna Inn...
...you haven't been to America.