Driving on Highway 101 from Los Angeles to San Francisco, there is an unmistakable midway-point that every frequent traveler knows: The Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo. The glowing neon sign, complete with animated horse-drawn stage coach, beckons weary travelers into a giant themepark of a hotel, where each of the 109 rooms is unique. If you love Americana, kitsch and funky decor, this place is a must-see.
We're on the road again, this time on a holiday road trip to visit family in Texas. When plotting our course, Frank asked me what stops along the way would be on my wishlist, and the first thing that came to mind was the Madonna Inn. I have seen the neon sign and the sprawling property from the highway on a number of trips, and heard that some of the rooms featured showers shaped like rock waterfalls. I knew I had to stay there someday.
The Madonna Inn has been a mainstay of California hospitality since the late 1950's, when Alex and Phyllis Madonna opened a 12-room inn. Alex was an architect and Phyllis was an interior designer and the two of them had a vision of a new kind of hotel that featured a different decor in every room, on a larger scale than a traditional bed and breakfast. The Inn expanded over the years as it became a popular venue for weddings, parties, and honeymooners, and became an attraction unto itself. I have wanted to go there for years, and finally had my chance.
When my trusty travel agent (aka my husband Frank) tried to book a waterfall room, he was informed that these rooms only have single king beds. Since we're traveling with a child, we had to choose a double room due to their "no rollaway policy." We opted instead for the España Room, having no idea what we were getting into. It sounded vaguely European, and being adventurous sorts, we went for it. Frank read a bunch of bad reports on a certain travel website that I can't stand, but I convinced him that one night would not kill us. Frank told our 11 year old son Alex that the place was allegedly haunted. Alex was expecting a Ghost Hunters type of adventure, and was ready to film it, should anything go bump in the night.
Upon arrival, the first thing Alex asked the desk clerk was, "Is this place haunted?"
She seemed a little startled by this question, and abruptly answered, "No."
Alex was crestfallen. I told her he was looking forward to seeing a ghost or two, and she said, "Well, I haven't seen any, but who knows? Maybe Mr. Madonna is hanging around somewhere."
Encouraged by the possibility, Alex perked up and set out to find a bathroom while we checked in. There were a number of loud Christmas parties and a quicenera going on in the restaurants, and when he returned, he was elated and told us, "There is a bathroom AND a dance party going on down there!" He didn't see any ghosts, but teenagers doing the Dougie was way more fun.
The España Room was everything I imagined it to be, and more. If the name "España" evokes bullfighters, flamenco dancers, and Spanish style furniture from the 1950s, then this room is for you. The room features two very spacious bedrooms, and a bathroom with a large outer dressing room. While the bathroom did not have a rock waterfall, it was adorned with black, white, and teal tile that looked like something used for infant brain stimulation, and a gilded sink that looked like it was stolen from Elvis' boudoir. The toilet was the only non-Spanish themed piece in the rooms; instead, it a was a fancy Japanese Toto toilet with a heated seat and bidet. I almost expected it to play flamenco music when I sat on it, but it was remarkably silent. I was overcome by the urge to do the Paso Doble on the faux-parquet linoleum.
All of the furniture was ornately carved, and the window shutters featured a stained glass that made the room glow pink in the morning light. The walls were painted to look like stucco, with trompe l'oeil exposed brick in parts, to give it that "old world" feel, I suppose. I particularly liked the bullfighter painting in the bedroom, and the big resin bull statue by the bed.
Alex and Frank ventured out into the chilly night to the pool, which is heated year-round and has an adjacent jacuzzi. They returned and Frank, the skeptic in all this, declared it "delightful." We were sold.
Alex did not see any ghosts at the Madonna Inn, so he settle for a marathon of Ghost Adventures on the Travel Channel. My only complaint about the room was that the bed was not terribly comfortable, so I tossed and turned a great deal and could not get comfortable. He complained the next day that I was grinding my teeth like a chainsaw and was moaning and groaning all night...
Or was I?
We enjoyed our stay at the Madonna Inn, but I will warn you that a night in one of their themed rooms is not cheap, ranging in price from $179 to over $500. It's a fun place to stopover on a family trip, and if you have time, there are several restaurants and spa services available. The grounds overlook the mountains and a large fenced-in farm next door. It is definately worth the price, for a little bit of fun California history in a lovely setting.
The Madonna Inn is located at 100 Madonna Road, San Luis Obispo, California, just off Highway 101. For reservations call (800) 543-9666.