Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Planet Madonna

By Cornelia

[I am on deadline again, so am reproducing an old review here, of my second-favorite hotel ever]

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 Austrian suite offers a gilded confection of ornate gold framed mirrors, marble-topped tables, and other treats to bring back the heyday of a lost empire.

For those with a more celestial bent, the Cloud Nine Room is chock-full of angels and cherubs, providing the perfect opportunity to design your personal heaven.

For the Pocahantas in us all, there’s the Indian Room, a smaller abode that features a Western theme, complete with nearly dayglo leather bedspread.

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 red 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.


  1. Oh, how I miss the Madonna. When we lived in Santa Barbara, the Madonna Inn was always the perfect pee break on our way to Big Sur. There's just something about pissing into a waterfall.

    And that pie ain't bad either...

  2. So what's your first-favorite hotel ever, and how does it beat out the Madonna?

  3. This looks like the perfect stop for the Grippando family's first trip to California. Your mention of The Plaza got me misty. We used to stay there every Thanksgiving for the parade. There was something special about making people think you are staying in a hotel that's high class when in reality you've got the best deal in town (if you don't mind paint peeling off the ceiling and landing on your forehead at night). Then it went condo. I will have to get to the Madonna before it, too, goes the way of developers and The Plaza.

  4. What strange and wonderful places California has! My husband lusts after Thrillville (Oakland, CA): the movies and all of the wonderfully tacky tiki stuff we both love. Sigh. I just wanna defuse and drive all over the California coast and paint great scenery and just veg'. Madonna Inn will be the first on the list of places to visit. Ta, Cornelia. :-D


  5. My first-favorite hotel is the Hotel Imperial in Delhi, which I may post about here in the near future.

    And I think you guys should all come out west for a gathering at the MI--cuppa coffee, piece a pie, etc....

  6. Um... ya... NA was me on that last one.

  7. My brother is graduating from Cal Poly this winter- maybe I can convince my parents to stay there when we go down. Or, better yet, maybe I can ditch my parents and the motel that will be resounding with my dad's snores and go there myself.

  8. Yep, that's the Madonna, alright. A family favorite during reunions (even though my Dad's house is only a ten minute walk away). My brother surprised his wife with a 'mountain cabin' room (which a non-stop recording of a zillion frogs!) but with his computer geek buddies, it's the Flintstones room, every time. You gotta mention the waterfall in the men's room, though.

    I just wish they had more kitsch in the gift shop.

  9. Someone should tell Bob Morris that he wouldn't have to make a piss stop on the drive from Santa Barbara to Big Sur if he wasn't guzzling rum & ginger beer in the car.

  10. All that's missing, from the Madonna at least, is a Jerry Vale-Hohenzollern night club room where lounge singers are beheaded at the whim of an indifferent Court.

  11. "Auberge of audacity". Awesome - made my day..


  12. Not sure the Madonnas would go for beheading, but maybe we could talk them into German Cal Poly students dueling with schlagers over rum & ginger beers in the coffee shop? I think that would be most awesome...