Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Wanderlust: The Madonna Inn

When I was growing up, I’d spend a few weeks every summer with my paternal grandparents, who lived in San Luis Obispo near the Central California coast.

Those balmy days with my Grandma and Grandpa hold some of my most cherished childhood memories: Picking strawberries at a local farm (that's me above with my grandmother -- check out my stylin' Seventies short set). Canning pickles with my Grandpa, who used to run an L.A. coffee shop that was frequented by movie folk, as the small kitchen filled with the sharp fragrance of marinating cukes. Baking cinnamon buns with Grandma, and licking copious amounts of her trademark sticky “cinnamon goo” off my fingers. Squeezing the tomatoes to test for ripeness in the tiny but lushly productive garden behind my grandparents’ mobile home. Learning to cast off the pier at Pismo Beach. Attending the hotly redolent county fair, from which both of my grandparents would always take home a blue ribbon or two for the jams and canned goods they’d whipped up. The strange but intoxicating smell of the VO5 pomade in my grandfather's hair, which lingered long after his goodnight hug. Getting tanned, sun-streaked, and freckled from the long afternoons spent at their retirement-community pool ...

My grandfather passed away years ago, but Grandma is still in pretty good shape for a 96-year-old. (The last time I saw her, she took my hand and said, “What’s your name, dear?” But hey, she is 96.)

When all the aunts and uncles and cousins were in town, we’d attend Sunday mass together at the breathtaking, circa-1772 Mission San Luis Obispo. (My grandparents’ devout Catholicism never took, but experiencing the hushed coolness inside those thick adobe walls was a spiritual experience of sorts for me; I dug the architecture, anyway.) Afterward, we’d all head out for brunch at the Copper Cafe, below, in San Luis Obispo’s famed Madonna Inn.

Visiting the Inn was something of a family ritual, and after gobbling down our French toast, we kids would set off to explore the hotel: There’s a waterfall urinal in the men’s room, right, that Grandpa always sneaked everyone (even the girls) in to see. And to our young eyes, the over-the-top rococo décor in the lobby and in the hotel's "fancy" restaurant, below, was nothing short of magical.

Because we were a hide-a-bed and (for a big splurge) motel-dwelling kind of family, we never got to stay there. But we always marveled at the gift-shop postcards depicting some of the Inn’s 109 legendary rooms, each with a different theme -- from baroque Austrian palace to primitive Stone Age cave -- and each decorated with what seemed to be an utter (and utterly lovable) lack of irony.

I was just thinking about the Madonna (apropos of nothing, of course), and -- oh, the wonders of the internets -- stumbled upon this quote about it from Umberto Eco's book Travels in Hyperreality: “The poor words with which natural human speech is provided cannot suffice to describe the Madonna Inn. Let's say that Albert Speer, while leafing through a book on Gaudi, swallowed an overgenerous dose of LSD and began to build a nuptial catacomb for Liza Minnelli."

I also discovered that all 109 of those gloriously tacky guest suites can now be viewed online. Behold, a few of my favorites:

Everything Nice

Irish Hills

Tall and Short

Caveman Room


American Home

Austrian Suite


Kona Rock

Crystal Room


Tack Room

The Madonna Inn aside, though, San Luis Obispo has grown up a lot since my childhood summers there. As the unofficial capitol of the Central California coastal wine region, it could even be considered somewhat sophisticated these days. (Did you see the movie Sideways? The locations are like a cinematic postcard of my youth. Minus the wine, of course.)

You can now visit a few wineries and then stroll through San Luis Obispo’s pretty downtown, with its upscale shops and stylish home boutiques. (Don’t miss Bubble Gum Alley, above, where generations of visitors have written messages on the walls and even created art with their masticated wads.) Check out the Mission, too, and then settle in for a leisurely lunch or dinner at one of the lovely nearby creekside cafés.

Other attractions in the area include Hearst Castle, above, newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst’s historic (and completely off-the-hook) love shack, as well as the quaint beach towns of Pismo, Avila, and Cambria, and the so-cute-it’ll-give-you-cavities Danish village of Solvang (below).

Whether SLO-Town (as the locals call it) is your destination or you're simply seeking shelter during a drive down the California coast, consider booking a night at the Inn.

At the very least, stop in at the Madonna and sneak a peek at that waterfall urinal. I know I'm going to.


katiedid said...

OMG! This is taking me back. I went to Cal Poly and got a Business Degree before I found my "true calling". The amzing thing is, we thought the Madonna was the height of hilarity at the time, but in looking at these pictures, it would seem they were just ahead of their time!

P.S. I think I recognize a few of those gum wads ;)

girl meets glamour said...

Yay! love this post Leah...we used to live in Arroyo Grande when I was a kid for a short while and I have such fond memories of SLO, esp. the bubble gum wall :) Never made it in to the Madonna Inn, but now I think we will for the fun of it...

Cardboard said...

Now I know the destination of my next road trip!!

beachbungalow8 said...

girl meets of my best friends lives in arroyo!
btw, i just got engaged in big sur last weekend! we went there because we love that area so.

deerseason87 said...

Yay! We go to the Madonna every year for Valentine's day. It's amazingly fun, and there are some really great places to visit around SLO. Pismo Beach has the best (tiniest) bowling alley I've ever been to, and there are some hot springs in Avila Beach. Also, there are three big antique malls in Cayucos, and a few others scattered around Paso Robles, Arroyo Grande, etc.. Not to mention the drive-in movie theater across the highway from the Inn itself...

dailycraft said...

This post is my recent vacation:

Hallie said...

I have a photograph of my mother taken by my father on their honeymoon in the Carin suite. I would remember those flying cherub light fixtures anywhere!

Anonymous said...

Friends and I are travelling to LA for Memorial Day weekend and then to SF. Stopping at Madonnna Inn and staying in the Old Mill room. Can't wait. wonderful post!

designfynder said...

My wife-to-be took me to the Madonna Inn about 5 years ago. It was my first week in LA. Most of the kitschier rooms were taken and we stayed in a strange room with rock walls. I remember the dining room was pretty surreal too. It was awesome - in the true sense of the word!


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