The Glorious Kitsch of the Madonna InnSteak house, Just Heaven, and sign photos courtesy of the Madonna Inn; other photos by Garrett Martin. Travel Features madonna inn
The cherubs won’t stop staring at me. There are a half-dozen or so of them, lumpy and gilded, hovering around my bed like hummingbirds at their feeders. They might look like chubby little babies, but their faces are squarely middle-aged and old-fashioned, each one looking like a different specific president from the 1800s. Despite their constant attention, they aren’t threatening, or even upsetting; in fact, they bring a sort of life—still, distant, but life nonetheless—to the hushed blue tones of my hotel room. Considering this is the Just Heaven room, there could easily be far more cherubim and seraphim loitering around in here, making the relative few that do feature into the room’s design an unexpected bit of restraint from a hotel known for maximalism.
The Madonna Inn is a charming monument to mid-century kitsch, a wormhole straight back to the early 1960s, a time when the line between dignified and outlandish was perhaps too easy to cross. The California hotel is a landmark, a legend in its own right, and something all travelers should experience at least once. It’s hosted guests in its rambling, faux-alpine buildings since 1958, with each room elaborately designed and decorated by the hotel’s founders, Alex and Phyllis Madonna. Its guiding aesthetic is “too much,” but in the best possible way; its overpowering gaudiness is both a spectacle to behold, and also deeply comforting, like a trip back to your grandparents’ house, or getting lost in reruns of a favorite sitcom from the ‘60s. Walking into the Madonna is like stepping into a bygone California that never really existed, an idealized past where the future was still bright and exciting.
You’ll feel it the most in the dining room of Alex Madonna’s Gold Rush Steak House. The hotel’s signature restaurant is an explosion of pink and gold, with different shades of pink calling an uneasy truce with one another and coexisting in the same dining room. Replace the pink with purple and the floral patterns with paisley and you’d have Prince’s dream restaurant. It looks like a child’s idea of a fancy restaurant—ornate, bright and gauzy—and is more proof that we should let children design all of our buildings and public spaces. Between the steak house, the similarly decorated Silver Bar Cocktail and Lounge, and a bakery, the Madonna’s main building is as meticulously designed as a theme park restaurant, but in a way that feels casual, almost unintentional; if every inch of a Disney restaurant is calculated and focused on creating a story or atmosphere, the Madonna creates its own similar atmosphere simply through the unity and uniqueness of its creators’ eclectic vision.
As amazing as the steak house is, the Madonna’s legendary status rests mostly on its themed rooms. There are 110 of them, each one with its own unique name and decor, and if you’ve got an hour or two to kill you need to go check ‘em all out on the hotel’s site right this very instant. You’ll see some common design features that recur throughout—bright colors, spiral staircases, rock waterfall showers—but each room has its own defining element, it’s own reason for existing, that makes it stand out—and that makes deciding which room to stay in a real challenge.
Maybe you’ll want to stay in Room 119, the Golfer’s Room, with its green walls, outdoor fireplace, and ribbon of tiles that evokes the flow of a fairway. Or maybe you’ll prefer Room 143, Rock Bottom, seemingly hollowed out of the side of a mountain, but with enough good taste to still have a stained glass window of a naked cherub hopping through a heart. One of the most popular rooms, the Love Nest (Room 183), makes the steak house almost look understated in its devotion to pink; it’s like a Valentine card come to life, only with its own private viewing tower (a feature also found at our room, Just Heaven). With over 100 other rooms featuring names like Jungle Rock, the Caveman, Showboat, and the Country Gentleman, you’re guaranteed to have an unforgettable night, no matter which one you sleep in.
If there is a drawback to staying at the Madonna—and I’m stretching hard to find one—it’s the fact that you will inevitably spend some of your time asleep, thus cutting into the amount of time you’ll have to marvel at its opulent splendor. It’s almost a waste to sleep in rooms as beautiful as these.
Fortunately there’s more than enough to do here to stretch that stay out for a few days. Its spa is perennially popular, booking up well in advance, while the outdoor pool and whirlpools are available to all hotel guests. A variety of musical acts perform at the Madonna Inn Dance Floor inside the steak house, and if you want some physical activity outside of dancing, you can make use of the hotel’s tennis and basketball courts. For a closer look at the nature surrounding the hotel, you can hop onto one of the Madonna’s horses and go for a ride. And if you want to bring a touch of the Madonna home, you’ll find a selection of gifts and clothes that reflect its idiosyncratic design sense in the gift shop above the steak house.
Again, to experience the full impact of the Madonna Inn you really need to visit it in person. It’s located in San Luis Obispo, right off of US 101, and almost perfectly equidistant from Los Angeles and San Francisco. It’s worth a trip all on its own, but if you ever make the drive up or down the California coast, it should be at the top of your to-do list. Photos don’t quite do it justice, and words are utterly insufficient at capturing its odd, unforgettable glory.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.