I recognized a few of the pale-faced empty nesters huddled at the shallow beach entry of the Madonna Inn’s cerulean pool. Earlier that week I had seen them among the families lugging pillows and plastic crates during Moving In Day at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, CA. Now those shell-shocked eyes were blind to the ingenuity of a 45-foot man-made Alpine waterfall or the 360 degree view of California’s coastal hills.
Turning to a beaming stranger sipping a sunset-colored cocktail below a dark blush umbrella, I asked what was good at the Terrace Pool Bar. The older woman, whose youthful floral sundress belied wrinkles and gray hair, said I had to try the bar’s signature drink: a Mai Tai.
A pineapple and rum concoction often associated with Tiki culture makes perfect sense at a motel that defines roadside kitsch. The Disney-gone-wild mindset quickly reveals itself upon arrival at the Swiss-Miss-on-steroids main building.
“Sandra, you have to go in the men’s restroom!” my husband demanded, although I’m sure I could’ve lived without seeing the waterfall urinal immortalized in “Weird Al” Yankovic’s 1978 song “Take Me Down.”
110 Shades of Pink
Much like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, “You never know what you’re gonna get” when you book accommodations at the Madonna Inn. Some folks devote a lifetime to sampling each of the 110+ unique hotel rooms. Favorites include The Caveman, a primitive den covered in animal prints and stone facades, whose grotto-style bathroom features a cascading waterfall shower. Room 139, aka Jungle Rock, provides a variation on this theme but with the enhancement of a canopy of trees and vines.
Dave and I lucked into Carin on our first stay, the name a Swiss endearment; Room 218 is a teen crush Valentines Card come to life. Perched alone atop a winding staircase, I gasped (asthmatically, mind you, after climbing three flights) to find floor-to-ceiling swathed in many shades of rose. Pink peaked ceiling, pink bedspread, pink leather loveseat, even glittery pink sequin walls.
Two balconies, each furnished with mint and magenta patio seats–one looking out on mountain trails, the other at US-101–gave some relief from the unrelenting hue. As did the room’s focal point, a life-size gold cherub bearing a candelabrum suspended above the king-sized bed.
The bathroom, a rococo affair of brass fixtures and enameled flowers, seemed almost staid by comparison.
Get a Glow
That first Mai Tai went a long way toward a swift attitude adjustment, but the Madonna Inn affords a number of pleasing alternatives. Besides the pool, we could have played on (pink!) tennis courts, basketball courts, or gone hiking and biking on nearby trails (pink bikes and gear available to rent.) And with a nod to the ubiquitous rock motif, The Spa offers a Caveman hot stone massage (75 minutes, $150) as well a variety of beauty and massage treatments.
Because San Luis Obispo is in the heart of wine country, tastings, as well as cheese or chocolate pairings, make for tasty diversions. And lest you forget that this is the Wild West, Madonna Inn Trail Rides provides gentle and friendly horses for short trail rides. Pair both with the Ride & Taste Package ($80.)
Rare, Medium, and Well Done
Creative themes extend into the hotel’s restaurants. The casual Copper Café suggests a never-ending Oktoberfest with its Bavarian décor and dirndl-dressed waitresses. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are popular here, as are the world-famous cakes and pastries provided by the onsite bakery. I couldn’t say no to the most glorious expression of over the top fabulousness, the Madonna Inn Pink Champagne Cake.
Mellowed by the Mai Tai and afternoon swim, we dined at the Gold Rush Steakhouse on the last night of our stay in San Luis Obispo. Cocooned in a bubblegum pink and gold circular booth under twinkling lights and giant artificial blossoms, we could hear the live band performing next door in the Silver Bar Cocktail Lounge.
Sinatra standards cast a beckoning lure as we chewed hefty, yet tender steaks. (Tip- Split the 16 oz steak entrée; add $12 to get the sides.) Through a break in the greenery, I spotted the grizzled honeymooners embracing on the dance floor. Dared we?
That night we danced. And in the morning I rode a horse to a scenic lookout on Madonna Mountain from where I could gaze on the golden valley below. Maybe I would finally take those riding lessons I’d always wanted; or perhaps I might check out The Graduate nightclub’s weekly line dancing lessons. This wasn’t an empty nest, but a life full of possibilities.
Just the Facts about the Madonna Inn
Rooms and suites from $189 to $599 (depending on room and season) plus a $15 per day resort fee (per person) that includes on-site activities, pool, tennis/basketball courts, WiFi, airport shuttle, and other amenities.