In the middle decades of the twentieth century, two men toiled on California’s central coast to create their fantasy houses. The better known of them is William Randolph Hearst, the original media mogul whose castle sought to recreate the heights of European elegance from Rome to the renaissance with added air con, all on a dry Pacific hilltop. Hearst then set about hosting guests befitting such a diverse palace, including Clark Gable and Greta Garbo, Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw.
A few miles down the road, almost halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, an apparently more mundane dream was taking shape. Alex Madonna, a road builder who had become bored staying in identikit hotel rooms, decided to build his own vision of what hospitality should look like. His fancies turned out at least as inventive as any Hearst envisaged, and his own A-list guest-list duly emerged. John Wayne and Dolly Parton were regular visitors and in many ways the Madonna Inn is a combination of the two of them. One part granite rock walls and simple, big restaurant steaks, one part kitsch extravagance that is carried off with such devotion to over-the-top detail that you can’t fail to be won over. The Madonna Inn is the boldest, pinkest and quite possibly the best motel you will ever visit.
Each of the Inn’s 110 rooms is entirely unique, with barely a patch of carpet appearing twice. The ‘basic’ rooms derive colour schemes from unlikely themes such as Danish hand-painted china, or chestnut-coloured foals. If you can, however, spend a little extra and enter the realms of seriously dedicated fantasy.
I stayed in the Just Heaven suite, where free-hanging gold cherubs floated over blue and gold fake Louis XV furnishings and a spiral staircase led to a tiny tower with stained-glass views over a wide valley. More spectacular still is the Old World suite, a mind-boggling cavern of giant boulders, red velvet and gold lame chairs, and a rock waterfall shower. Then there's the William Tell suite, Mount Vernon, Paris Violets and many more, each extraordinary. Mr Madonna and his family, who still run the place, did not do anything by halves.
Many of the Madonna Inn’s rooms have recently been renovated, and a new family-friendly pool added. The café and bar are each as bizarre as any of the suites, and it’s worth booking dinner at the popular Gold Rush Steak House in advance, where you can eat manly amounts of award-winning T-bone while sitting in the pinkest, shiniest room a seven-year-old Barbie addict could ever dream of. One tip for male visitors: when you go to the restaurant men’s room, try not to be put off by relieving yourself into a fireplace doused by a waterfall, nor by the female guests who keep peering round the door to have a look at it.
Alex Madonna died in 2004 and his statue stands on horseback at the entrance to the car-park, welcoming both random passers-by and those who have planned an entire trip around a visit months or years in advance. Many use it as a base to visit Hearst Castle, enabling a comparison of imaginations run completely wild. See both if you possibly can.
The Madonna Inn, 100 Madonna Road, San Luis Obispo, CA 93405 (Reservations + 1 (800) 543 9666, general information, + 1 (805) 543 3000; madonnainn.com)