For as long as I can remember I’ve always wanted to stay at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo. Since its opening in 1958, this sprawling complex has become iconic, beloved by generation after generation. And recently Patrick and I had the perfect excuse to stay there, as I was in a wedding in San Luis Obispo.
While the trademark pink, floral and gold accents, heart details, and lush landscape may scream ultra feminine to the majority of the population, the Madonna Inn was the brain child of Alex Madonna, a man who made his money in construction, forming his very own company at a young age, and literally paved much of central California. While away on various jobs, he stayed at his fair share of mundane motels and ate at less than stellar late night diners. All of this left him wanting more comfort. It was then he dreamed of a “beautiful inn with an elegant dining room and pleasant coffee shop where weary travelers could feel at home and enjoy a nice meal, in a comfortable atmosphere.” By Alex’s side was his wife, Phyllis. The two met in September of 1947 and married that December in a surprise Las Vegas wedding arranged by their friends. After a couple of years of marriage, Alex and Phillys purchased ten acres from the city of San Luis Obispo at auction and began construction for what would become a large and eclectic resort.
The modest Inn first started with just twelve rooms, but the Madonnas couldn’t decide how they wanted to furnish them. They had so many ideas they couldn’t choose, so they decided to do them all, giving each room a unique look and name. Opening Christmas Eve, 1958, the couple was so excited when their first room was booked that they gave the family a refund.
In the meantime, Alex and Phyllis started a family. Alex continued not only with his construction company, but cattle ranching as well. Phyllis enjoyed decorating the Inn, finding unique items for both the rooms and the gift shop. Both ranching and the Inn became a family affair, with their children participating in cattle roping and working at the Inn.
Over the years the Inn continued to grow with more rooms, horseback riding, tennis and basketball courts, pool, spa, and of course the steak house and cozy coffee shop Alex dreamed of. Alex, with his background in construction, became fond of rocks and boulders, and chose to use them extensively at the Inn, including the fireplace in the main building and various “rock rooms.” Alex excavated large boulders from the mountain behind the property and rolled them down to the Inn’s location. In many cases where the rocks landed is where they stayed, with portions of the Inn being dictated by the rocks themselves.
Fully completed in 1962, the Madonna Inn quickly became a beacon for local events, fundraisers, and celebrities. In 1966 tragedy struck when a fire destroyed the first set of rooms. Thankfully no one was hurt in the blaze, and the family rebuilt and carried on.
The Madonna Inn is synonyms with the color pink. Pink cakes in pink cake boxes, pink floral carpet, pink booths, and multiple pink rooms. So why the color pink? According to Phyllis “We both just like the wonderful rich color of pink. We thought we would like a color that flattered people and made them feel relaxed and happy when they were around it. We feel pink spotlights people and and highlights their positive attributes.” Because of this iconic color, I wanted to stay in one of the all pink rooms and selected the Carin, which features sparkling pink wallpaper with gold accents. It was also fitting because my bridesmaid dress was pink with a floral print. We throughly enjoyed this room, especially its balconies that gave us spectacular views as we enjoyed misty mornings that gave way to sunny afternoons. It should be noted that the Carin is literally one of the furthest away rooms, located at the far end of the furthest back building up three flights on a spiral staircase! But it was totally worth it!
Alex passed away in 2004. His obituary in the local paper described him as a “famed rancher, philanthropist, developer, and construction magnate [who] helped build the Central Coast into what it is today.” Retried, Phyllis is still kicking and visits the Inn often. Meanwhile her grandchildren continue the legacy of this iconic and kitschy California landmark.
While the Madonna Inn is a popular wedding spot, the wedding I was in was not here. But it was fun, I was happy to be a part of my friend’s special day and I got to explore a lot of San Luis Obispo. I didn’t get any snaps of the festivities, but perhaps once the bride receives her photos I can share a few on Instagram. Additionally, Patrick’s mom recently moved to San Luis Obispo, and I believe repeat trips to the Madonna Inn are in our future! There are so many nooks and crannies at the Madonna Inn that it is impossible to cram it all in to one singular visit.
Find your favorite room at the Madonna Inn at 100 Madonna Road in San Luis Obispo. Book online via their website. For those not wishing to stay the night, you can still visit and dine at the Copper Cafe Coffee Shop for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, or for more upscale dining, eat dinner at Alex Madonna’s Gold Rush Steak House. You can also just grab drinks at the Silver Bar.