By Suzanne Sparrow Watson
We’ve been spending a lot of time this past month in the historic city of San Luis Obispo – a city of many dichotomies. Where else can you visit a historic religious site and be solicited by Greenpeace crusaders on the same block? Or mingle with whiz kids at the coffee house and then potentially sleep in a room dedicated to one of the biggest pop stars in the world? San Luis Obispo (or “SLO” as it’s known here), that’s where!
Our first visit on this trip was to the beautiful San Luis Obispo mission. It was fifth in the succession of missions established by Father Junipero Serra, built in 1772. Yes, that’s right. He founded the mission before the first tea bag was even dumped in Boston Harbor. Father Serra had traveled through SLO some years before and remembered it as a place of abundant flora and fauna, in addition to almost perfect weather. And bears. Yep – here on the central coast of California apparently the area was rife with bears.
He quickly made friends with the local Chumash Indian tribe and engaged them to help build the mission. But shortly after the cornerstone of the building was set, Father Serra said a quick mass and hightailed it back to San Diego. The history is unclear as to what sent him running back to civilization before the building was complete. My guess is it was the bears. In any event, the mission was completed two years later and is still thriving today. It remains an active Catholic parish and its plaza is considered the town center where on any given weekend you’ll find a wide array of concerts, fairs and festivals.
After leaving the Mission we decided to grab a quick cup of coffee before visiting our next stop. A few steps later I was approached by a
rather scraggly young man who told me that I looked like a nice person. So right away I knew he was no judge of character. He then proceeded to follow me down the street, talking about the rain forests and whales. He gave up on me when I showed no interest but at the next corner I ran across one of his counterparts who made no attempt to assess my personality but gave me pretty much the same pitch. Turns out they were students at Cal Poly-SLO and worked for Greenpeace in their spare time. Cal Poly-SLO is a school for high tech geeks. Think of the characters on “The Big Bang Theory” and you’ve pretty much nailed the average Cal Poly student. Still, I hadn’t been solicited by Greenpeace (or anyone else for that matter) in 10 years. I felt as if I’d been transported to another time and space. But actually, that phenomenon was awaiting me at our next stop – the Madonna Inn.
The last time I had been to the Madonna Inn was in 1971 when I was a college student traveling between San Diego and Marin County. It was a good mid-way stop for coffee, food and bathroom breaks. I still remember the pink flocked wallpaper and gold fixtures in the restrooms. I assumed that the Inn would have gone under lots of modernization since then. I was wrong.
The Madonna Inn opened in 1956 and specializes in “theme” rooms. Their website offers 110 such rooms, from the “Caveman” to “Oriental Fantasy”. I think for my next job I want to be the room namer at the Madonna Inn. In any event, I wanted to see what modern-day changes they had made so I looked up the Madonna Room. I assumed it might be adorned with pointy bras and maybe some Vogue magazines or posters of Sean Penn or Warren Beatty. Nope.
This is a picture of the suite – named for the wife of Alex Madonna, the founder of the hotel. Apparently Mrs. Madonna was quite find of pink. I didn’t even want to see what the “Barrel of Fun” or “Jungle Rock” rooms looked like. I did get a glimpse of a room that had a safari theme with a huge buffalo head mounted on the wall staring down on the bed. It’s things like that that made Father Serra run for the hills.
All on all, SLO is a fabulous little town, well worth visiting. But unless you’re into gargoyles and pink, you might want to stay at the Marriott.