Writer Laura Bergheim described it as “forever in vogue,” the “queen of the theme hotels,” and its aesthetic as “Laura Ashley meets the Flintstones.” NPR’s Steve Proffitt called the style “Swiss Chalet meets Disneyland.”
The Madonna Inn, just off of Highway 1 in San Luis Obispo on California’s Central Coast—named after owners Alex and Phyllis Madonna, not a High Renaissance painting nor the iconic mononymous singer—begs many comparisons, but it is undeniably the closest you’ll get to spending the night in Barbie’s Dreamhouse.
Marrying chaos and opulence, the color pink can be found inside and out: the tennis courts, the Bavarian details on the exterior, the vanity bulbs outside the Registration Office, the rose-patterned carpet throughout the Gold Rush Steakhouse, the swivel chairs in the Silver Bar Cocktail Lounge, the golf carts and the rentable bikes, even the calculator tucked behind the hostess station at the restaurant—everything is doused in all shades of pink from millennial to Mattel.
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And that’s not to say it’s for kids. Sure, children would be in awe of its whimsy and struck with sensory overload, but the accidental and intentional kitsch of The Madonna Inn could be straight out of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet or Tarantino’s True Romance, just with more glamour than grit. The entire property walks a very fine line between gaudy and fancy, with unique touches like fossils throughout the stonework.
Nearing 60 years in operation as a destination between San Francisco and Los Angeles (when they first opened, it was free to stay there), the hotel’s aesthetic was realized by the eponymous Phyllis and Alex after some disagreements with the original designer. The pair decided to go rogue with the decor, resulting in a 110 uniquely themed rooms. Some have walls that shimmer, others come with waterfall showers, and others still are furnished in mesmerizing animal print.
For the full Barbie experience, the best choice in rooms is the Love Nest room, with its pink carpeted spiral staircase that leads to a colorfully paneled turret-like viewing tower. The pink-tiled shower comes with Barbie-approved amenities and hearts above the door frames, not to mention the Renaissance-inspired furniture with a pink-purple sheen, and the hot pink neon light outside the bedroom window.
The surrounding property is just as whimsical. Alex Madonna’s Gold Rush Steakhouse (open from 5 pm to 10 pm) may not sound like the name of a majestic pink paradise, but it’s definitely somewhere Barbie and Ken would go on a Valentine’s date. Oversize pink-upholstered booths clash with pink-on-pink rose-patterned carpet (the Madonna’s signature motif). There are pink rose bushes throughout, sparkling chandeliers, and golden cupids poised to play matchmaker for diners.
Inside the Copper Cafe (open from 7 am to 10 pm) are the Inn’s famous cakes, including the Pink Champagne cake. A shaker of pink sugar can be found on each table. The hotel’s signature cocktail, available in the Silver Bar and the Steakhouse, is the Pink Cloud, made with strawberry vodka, crème de cacao, strawberry puree, and cream, all blended and topped with whipped cream, pink sugar, and a cherry.
On the Madonna Inn dance floor, guests can lindy-hop to live swing music performed by the Frank Gary Band Thursday through Saturday (the Rose Garden Band and the Starlight Dream Band also play on select nights during the month). At night, wade in the outdoor heated pool or Jacuzzis.
The Inn also offers leisurely, guided rides on horseback through hillside paths that surround the property. For $65 per person, guests can ride horses with names like Cactus, Copper, and Cowboy (keep an eye out for the inn’s Kelly-sized pink-maned pony), and indulge in a post-ride wine and cheese pairing in the Gourmet and Wine Shop (for an additional $15). Guests also get a discount on hot air balloon rides with Balloons Over Paso, and even practice yoga with goats.
So whether you align with Lynch, Tarantino, Barbie, Laura Ashley, Disneyland, the Flintstones, or Roy Orbison, you’ll be warmly welcomed to this carnivalesque pink palace.
Speaking of palaces, the hand-carved marble balustrade in the Inn’s Gold Rush Steakhouse was actually once part of Hearst Castle, another architectural study in mesmerizing opulence. Less than hour’s drive north of the Madonna Inn along Highway 1, the castle was designed and built by newspaper behemoth William Randolph Hearst (the subject of Citizen Kane) and his architect, Julia Morgan, and is now a California National Park. A tour of the property from the outdoor Neptune Pool to the billiard rooms, red velvet movie theater, and sprawling hills once home to exotic animals (zebras and aoudads may still be spotted roaming the grounds) is an essential part of visiting the area.
Photos taken by Rachael Roth and Ryan Rosewall with a Polaroid OneStep 2 Summer Blue MRSP.