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A motel that sits off US Route 101 in San Luis Obispo, Calif., the halfway point between Los Angeles and San Francisco, makes for an unlikely tourist destination, and yet, the famous Madonna Inn—in no relation to the Queen of Pop—has been the subject of fascination and awe since it opened its doors in 1958.
For starters, its retro curbside sign—an enormous hot pink, out-of-ordinary spectacle that breaks up, unapologetically so, the mundane desert landscape to jarring effect—is impossible to miss. “Madonna Inn,” shouts the sign in all caps before listing its other offerings: Copper Café, Pastries, and Steak House. It’s here you’ll find Madonna Inn in all of its delightfully kitschy, off-kilter, wildly eccentric glory. The four-story establishment, a sprawling pale pink building lined with intricate stark white iron fencing, looks less like an inn and, if anything, more like an amusement park.
Founded by owners and designers Alex and Phyllis Madonna, this slice of wacky paradise was designed simply to “make more people happy.” An initial 12 rooms were built in 1958 before the husband-and-wife duo quickly expanded to a total of 40. By 1960, there was a demand for more public areas, which led to the construction of the main inn (which was built using large rocks, with some weighing 200 tons each), featuring a wine cellar, bakery, coffee shop, dining room, a cocktail lounge, banquet room, and gift shops. Now, across 1,000-plus acres, the Madonna Inn estate boasts hot pink tennis courts, hiking trails, an infinity pool with a 45-foot waterfall—and 110 rooms, with each uniquely designed so that no two are alike.
Maximally themed and decorated to an excessive, theatrical degree, each room packs an unforgettable punch. There’s the Bridal Falls room that comes equipped with a waterfall shower, the all-pink Tall & Short room designed for couples with different heights, the Yahoo room that features a star-sprinkled ceiling and a horse-drawn carriage bed, the all-out glam Lucky Rock room that’s decorated with a tiger stripe carpet and gilded hardware, the Jungle Rock room that has vines growing across the ceiling, and the Caveman room, a space that legit looks like an actual cave.
“Anybody can build one room and a thousand like it. It’s more economical. Most places try to give you as little as possible,” Alex once said. “I try to give people a decent place to stay where they receive more than they are entitled to for what they’re paying. I want people to come in with a smile and leave with a smile. It’s fun.”
Elsewhere inside this over-the-top oasis are large etched glass windows custom made for the inn, a hand-carved marble balustrade sourced from the Hearst castle, a 16 foot-tall gold tree made from leftover electrical copper, and incredibly ornate hand-carved wooden doors, beams, and railings—all with the color pink to tie everything together.
“[Pink] flattered people and made them feel relaxed and happy when they were around it,” Phyllis wrote in her 2002 book Madonna Inn: My Point of View. “We feel pink spotlights people and highlights their positive attributes.”
A lavish display of abundance and grandeur, it’s sensory overload at every turn. And amid an increasingly homogenous backdrop, a stay at the Madonna Inn makes the experience that much more special.END
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