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Weekend Escape: Central Coast

Our Night at Madonna's : No, not that Madonna. The Madonna Inn.

May 05, 1996|J.D. CROWE | Crowe draws the weekly Travel Insider cartoon on page L2

SAN LUIS OBISPO — Bright blue sky draped the horizon when my wife and I hit California 1 where it splits the mountains and ocean at Malibu. We were two hours into a three-day mission to see how much relaxin', romancin' and variety we could find up the coast.

Lori and I planned to spend one night in the woods at a moderately priced lodge. The next night we would splurge and stay in a cave. Otherwise, our days were scripted by the random factor and a budget in the $400 neighborhood.

We threw a couple of overnight bags and blankets into our Jeep and started our journey to Cambria, a small town on California's Central Coast, 45 minutes shy of Big Sur territory.

Our first night was to be spent at the Cambria Pines Lodge, located on "25 acres of pines overlooking the village . . . with peacocks roaming freely on the property," according to Fodor's California guidebook. We drove through Cambria, which is divided into the East Village on the woodsy side and the West Village near Moonstone Beach, then closed in on our roosting spot.

It was 7 p.m. by the time we checked into the lodge. We decided to spend a couple of hours in the East Village, have a romantic and well-balanced meal, then scurry back for entertainment in the lounge.

It was an off-season weeknight, and we had the streets to ourselves. The desk clerk at the lodge must have called down to the village to alert the shopkeepers that we were coming. Some of the merchants and gallery-tenders closed up and went home, but a few of the more optimistic ones took a chance that we were on the verge of a crafts-buying frenzy and stayed open to greet us. We could hear the shops darken behind us as we walked down the street under the full moon, without dropping a coin.

There were three or four restaurants to choose from, and we settled on Mustache Pete's, an Italian place featuring entrees in the $12-$18 range. Now, I'm not a food critic, and maybe Mustache Pete wasn't expecting company, but Lori's radial-tread lasagna and my ravioli/tortellini combo with plastic cheese sauce tasted like they were manufactured by Michelin. The wine bottle candle on our table was the nicest thing about this dining experience, so we stared at the little laughing flame until our bill came. We paid it, and followed the moon back to our lodge in the woods.

We awoke the next morning to another beautiful day. The sun allowed us to see where we had spent the night, and we decided we liked it. After splashing around in the indoor pool and sitting in the sauna, we walked through the garden to a complimentary breakfast in the cafe.

The Cambria Pines Lodge is a place we could recommend. It is not as woodsy as we had envisioned, but its cottages are spacious, well-kept, comfortable, and most have fireplaces. It is set among pines overlooking town, but we did not see any peacocks. Or live deer. We did see raccoon tracks all over the Jeep.

We headed north on the ocean side of Highway 1 to Big Sur, and had lunch 800 feet above the water on the deck at Nepenthe, a traditional stop for us whenever we venture this way. The spiraling drive up and down Big Sur is usually spectacular, but thick, gray fog had swallowed the whole Santa Lucia Mountain Range by the time we approached the first incline of the south side. After lunch, we retraced our tracks down Highway 1 past San Simeon and Hearst Castle, past Cambria, past Harmony (population 9) and Morro Bay to San Luis Obispo. There, nestled in an otherwise innocent setting on the south end of town, is the world-famous Madonna Inn. Our cave was waiting for us there.

The Madonna Inn was built in 1958 by Alex and Phyllis Madonna, a local couple who still own and operate the place. That's the official explanation, but I'm not buying it.

I think, a long time ago, a horde of designers with various fetishes and certain obsessions swarmed into a pasture, created this honeycomb hotel, and then named itafter a promiscuous pop singer who wasn't born yet. My other theory is Elvis built it . . . kind of a Graceland West.

There are 109 rooms at the Madonna Inn and each is unique. They've got names such as the "Safari Room," 'Irish Hills" and "Just Heaven." The rooms are decorated outlandishly according to their themes, sporting bright colors, waterfalls and other surprises. The most popular rooms are the rock rooms. Our room for the evening was the "Caveman," and it was decorated in Early American Hanna Barbera.

We couldn't hold back our grins when we opened the door to our cave. It was all stone, just like the Flintstones' house. Only the TV, the phone and the white porcelain throne in tile bathroom kept it from being paleolithically pure. The wash basin was a hole in the rocks where water rushed out of the wall when the appropriate knobs were turned. The shower was a rock chamber under a waterfall. I was disappointed there wasn't a woolly mammoth to spray soapy water on us from its trunk.

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