Back in 1950s, Alex Madonna owned and worked a 1,000 acre ranch nestled among the rolling hills on the east side of what would become Highway 101 outside of San Luis Obispo. He had a dream to open a luxury inn. On Dec. 24, 1958 his dream became a reality with the Madonna Inn.
While most of today’s hotels are simply places to sleep, back in the first half of the 1900s, many were designed to be destinations in themselves. Such is the Madonna Inn which draws guests from around the world, and was a popular place to stay for many Hollywood celebrities in the 1950s and 1960s.
Originally opening with just 12 rooms, today it features 110 unique guestrooms, charming architecture, and a variety of resort amenities. According to staff, to celebrate the grand opening, Mr. Madonna surprised his first guests by not charging them for their stay.
Mr. Madonna clearly had a head for marketing, as well as a sense of humor, and realized that to not only attract guests but keep them coming back, he had to make the Inn a memorable and welcoming place. It reminds me of the original Disneyland, with the same level of elaborate, often whimsical design and careful attention to detail wherever you look.
Pleasantly sprawled up the hillside above the main building, each guestroom is unique, with its own name, décor, and distinctive furniture. Postcards are available that showcase each room. They range from eclectic to cute. Names include Love Nest, Kona Rock, Irish Hills, and Jungle Rock.
A Visual Adventure
The rooms are just the start of the visual adventure. Within the main building are several gift shops (which include separate men and women’s clothing boutiques), a wine cellar, the Gold Rush Steak House, and the Copper Café.
Color abounds wherever you look, and the main theme is a rosy pink. The carpets are patterned with roses, which apparently inspired Mr. Madonna to create custom carnival glass goblets that replicated the pattern. A staff member explained he wanted people to not see “plain old water glasses” when they entered the restaurants, but something colorful. They have become a signature piece that garnishes all the tables and can also be purchased at the shops. Elaborate decorations are added for special holidays.
Mr. Madonna hobnobbed with William Hearst (of Hearst Castle), John Wayne, and many other rich and famous personages, photos of whom adorn the walls. These guests expected luxury, and this is reflected throughout. Many movie segments and videos have also been filmed on site.
The Gold Rush Steak House is a visual feast, going well with its menu. Elaborate balustrades and chandeliers reflect on burnished woods, mirrors and pink plush chairs. Hand-crafted stained glass windows are everywhere, including in the comfortable old bar. There’s a dance floor and stage, and you can imagine the big band days of yore; today it features live music, and is a popular place for weddings and grand events.
Something for Everyone
The reasonably priced Copper Café is just plain fun, with cozy plush nooks and sturdy wooden tables that have seen many elbows. A diverse menu, excellent food and superb service make breakfast a pleasure. A “must-see” highlight is checking out the extraordinary cakes in their in-house bakery in the Café’s corner. Little children – and adults – stand before the case goggling at them; many are 8-10 inches in height, clad with chocolate curls or other yummy décor.
In addition to the relaxing Terrace swimming pool, fitness center, tennis and pickleball courts and spa, there’s also a great trail ride. It takes you up the slope of Bishop Peak, one of the group of long-dead volcanoes that make up the 7 Sisters leading to Morro Bay. Friendly trail guides and horses make the ride a pleasure, and the views are well worth it. Riding the green slopes, I enjoyed seeing an “older” California before development took hold. If you’re into hiking or biking, you can drive a short way up the hill to enjoy the two trails on the mountain. The historic town of San Luis Obispo is just two minutes away by car.
Whether a guest or just a visitor, you can still take advantage of most of the amenities offered by the Inn. It’s an easy on-off Highway 101. So take the exit, and discover a place where you can escape to over 60 years ago when a hotel was so much more than just a place to sleep. As their slogan says, ‘it’s a place where traditions begin’.