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An aerial view of SLO

The Madonna Inn staff doesn’t know when she’s going to show up, but most days she does. Clad in her sunny spring colors year round—this is California after all—89-year-old Phyllis Madonna swans into the Madonna’s Copper Cafe to her red tufted-leather booth, reserved for family since the hotel and eatery opened. Here, lunching at the oddball landmark her family still owns, Phyllis is home. 

The Madonna Inn has been the most off-beat stop on U.S. Route 101 since 1958, when it sprung up halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Sprawled on 1,000 acres across the highway from downtown San Luis Obispo, the hotel is as fanciful as the Central Coast mission town is sedate. Alex and Phyllis Madonna envisioned an estate with fairy-tale cupolas and gingerbread railings—the kind of joint Hansel and Gretel might open after securing the candy witch’s cottage. 

Phyllis’s late husband, Alex, was the driving force behind the exterior, but the 110 guest rooms, each wholly original, were designed by Phyllis in a style that would make Elvis’s Graceland feel a bit…understated. There’s the Rock Bottom room, with stone walls and leopard-print pillows, and a horse statue in the Pony Room. Sequined wallpaper surrounds circular beds in some rooms, and rock waterfalls burble down the walls of others.

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Downtown San Luis Obispo, nicknamed SLO, is much less kooky, its streets lined with arty boutiques and fresh-pressed juice bars next to an eighteenth-century mission. Santa Maria–style barbecue, a tri-tip beef cut cooked over red oak, earns lines at the walk-up window at Old San Luis BBQ, but everyone’s willing to wait. 

Thanks to a new Alaska Airlines nonstop flight, the best of California warmth without the curse of California crowds is less than three hours away from Seattle. The earthy yellow-brown hills of the Central Coast, laced with hiking and biking trails, hug the town from the east; Pismo Beach’s Pacific surf waves are just 25 minutes down the road. The world’s first motel was here, in a now-empty field down the highway from the still-vibrant Madonna.

There, Phyllis holds court whenever she shows up for lunch, a revered elder who used to play her accordion at town fundraisers. Next door the Gold Rush Steak House, practically vibrating in pink-and-gold rococo splendor, is a ballroom where banquettes the color of Pepto-Bismol sit under gilded chandeliers. SLO has a slow pace, but it’s always been impossible to pass by.

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The Court Street stairs

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