Retro roadside kitsch is pretty much an endangered species at this point. Some spots were unwilling or unable to keep up with the times, while others were too eager to abandon the old-school charm that makes them so special. It’s a delicate balance, and no place has better understood that than the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo. Right off Route 101, it’s been an icon for weary travelers and curious passersby for half a century. It also looks like a John Waters acid trip meets your grandma’s house. Patterns, prints, colors, wallpaper, carpet, knick-knacks, vintage furniture… the whole shebang is overwhelmingly old-school, in the best way possible.
Not surprisingly (give the decor), it first opened in 1958, the brainchild of construction magnate Alex Madonna. Originally, it looked quite different. What started as a 12-room motor lodge has become a 110-room pseudo-Swiss Alp-style fortress of all things tacky and delightful. Within a year, demand required Madonna and his wife to design 28 more rooms, and the Inn proper was built in 1960. Despite a devastating fire in 1966 that burned down the original units, the Madonna Inn rose from the ashes, even more gloriously kitschy than before. Like a phoenix, if the phoenix was somehow inhabited by the spirit of Liberace.
Each of the 110 rooms is decorated in a totally unique style… and they didn’t skimp on the details in any of the rooms, either. Alex Madonna once said, “Anybody can build one room and a thousand like it. It’s more economical. Most places try to give you as little as possible. 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.”
The hotel is also a popular spot for tourists just passing through, thanks to the bakery (try the pink champagne cake if you can), steak house, cafe, shops, and famed rock waterfall urinal. If you do stay, there’s a spa, wine cellar, pool with a waterfall, a tennis court straight out of a Wes Andreson film, and trails onsite for you to enjoy. Plus, with over a hundred rooms, no two of which are the same, there are some funky themes to choose from. Antique Cars, Caveman, España, Fabulous Fifties, Golfers Room, Indian, Jungle Rock, Krazy Dazy, Mountain Cabin, Old Mexico, Oriental Fantasy, Pony Room, Rock Bottom, Swiss Chalet, and Yahoo are some of the room names, to give you an idea. Some include waterfalls, rock showers, fireplaces, or balconies to add to the atmosphere.
Love kitschy, offbeat vibes? Here are a few totally unique KOAs that offer stays in vintage Airstreams, tepees, and more!
A few other offbeat oddities…