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The revival of California’s vintage motels: Thanks to Barbie, Instagram and a cult new coffee table book

Simon Calder’s Travel

When Alex Madonna first opened the Madonna Inn in 1958, it was with a relatively simple ambition: to create a place where people felt happy. Armed with leftover materials from his construction company and a wife with a certain flair for outrageous interiors, it took 20 years to complete the resort – during which time it had morphed into something far beyond even the Madonna’s wildest dreams.

Today, the Madonna Inn is celebrated as America’s most iconic fantasy motel. Situated in San Luis Obispo, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, a towering hot pink sign at the roadside welcomes me back to this pleasure palace. I’ve been visiting the Madonna Inn for over a decade now, during which time the high-camp décor has gradually slipped back into fashion, reshuffling the clientele. Old-timers now share the whimsical space with a younger cohort of hipsters who discovered the Madonna Inn through social media and fashion magazines, including the front cover of Vogue Portugal.

Zoey Goto checked into the Madonna Inn for some high-camp glamour
Zoey Goto checked into the Madonna Inn for some high-camp glamour (Zoey Goto)

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Uniting this off-beat crew is an appreciation for the maximalist guest rooms: 110 in total and no two the same. As I ease open the door of my Flintstones-style room, the walls, ceiling and floor are constructed entirely of rugged rock boulders. There’s a cascading waterfall shower in the bathroom, illuminated by a caveman stained-glass window. Elsewhere in the motel, the time capsule rooms include a cowboy hideaway with a wagon wheel bed, a psychedelic room adorned with flower-power wallpaper and suites decorated in a bedazzlement of sequin wallpaper. But it’s inside the Madonna Inn’s steakhouse restaurant that the flamboyance hits its crescendo, with gilded cherubs frolicking across the fuchsia interiors.

For a Flintstones-style room try the Madonna motel
For a Flintstones-style room try the Madonna motel (Madonna Inn)

Like many motor lodges, the Madonna Inn sprouted curbside during the mid-century, catering to a surge of all-American road-trippers. Following the advent of air travel and chain hotels, motels would eventually wane in popularity. But a revival of interest in car journeys during the pandemic introduced a new generation – those seeking memorable experiences above corporate hotel rewards – to these vintage inns hiding in plain sight.

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