Madonna Inn (San Luis Obispo)

Now, it is not often that we can throw down the gauntlet and proclaim a hotel one of our favorites in all the land, but when it comes to the infamous Madonna Inn, located quite literally off the 101 Freeway near San Luis Obispo, we simply have no choice but to submit.  In celebration of Doug’s birthday in September of 2009, we traveled up the coast to soak in all of the gold and pink goodness that we could stomach!

First off, to quell your confusion, the Madonna Inn has nothing to do with a certain pop star, or a religious baby-mama for that matter.  The hotel, which started off as a small motor lodge, is named after its proprietors, Alex and Phyllis Madonna, who in 1958, decided it would be more fun to name each of their 12 rooms after a theme instead of just sticking to tradition and numbering them.  And thus, rooms like "Country Gentleman" were born.

Demand for the themed, and flamboyantly-decorated, rooms soon became so high that, within a year, another 28 rooms were added.  (The main “Inn,” which now houses the restaurants and bar, was added a year later in 1960.)  Some of the more striking names of the accommodations include “Barrel of Fun,” “Gypsy Rock,” “Cayucos Queen,” “Oriental Fantasy,” “Time of Your Life” and “What’s Left,” the theme of which is a hodge-podge of items from all other rooms right down to the schizophrenic carpet made out of mismatched remnants!)

All in all, the Madonna Inn boasts a pretty unusual layout, with multiple spiral staircases leading to the now over 100 rooms.  See that weird conglomeration of rocks on top of the hotel?  It’s actually the collection of four fireplace flues that have found their way to the roof from any of the crazy “rock suites” that form the first floor of each building.  We stayed in just a such a suite.

While I had attempted to book the more flashy-sounding "Kona Rock" or "Caveman" room, they were both already reserved, with waiting lists going out a year in advance!  Instead, I chose the “Old World Suite” from a handy list on the hotel’s web-site that showcases the individual features of each room.  After glancing at “Kona Rock” and “Caveman” through their windows, I think we ultimately got the best of the lot.

Our “Old World Suite” was cavernous - literally - and featured a design aesthetic that was clearly “ahead-of-its-time.”  (Did Philippe Starck ever stay here to gather inspiration?) 
The suite was broken up into four separate areas: bedroom, lounge, bathroom and the breakfast nook to end all breakfast nooks.  Each were constructed head-to-toe in sculpted rock that was then lacquered so that no surface was too rough to break skin.  Softening up the fireplace-lit “cave” were sumptuous pieces of ornate furniture awash in all shades of sumptuous red!  If we hadn’t known any better, we would have thought the room was an homage to “Danger Diabolik’s” secret home, or at the very least, a much sexier “Batcave.”

Upon booking, I was told that the “Old World Suite” came with a "waterfall feature."  Sure enough, after one visit to the bathroom, we were pleasantly surprised by a trickling stream that appeared out of nowhere from the top corner of the room and proceeded to flow down the wall into a series of smaller pools that eventually emptied out into the giant oyster shell basin of the sink!  After a weekend of having to wait a full two minutes to wash your hands after using the restroom, we realized that the feature was probably not the most practical, or environmentally sound, still it was pretty darn cool.

Of course, we assumed that the sink was our room’s only “waterfall feature.”  And thus, we were completely thrown off by the amazing “shower cave” that, once activated, sprayed jets of water from crevices in the wall and ceiling.  While the experience was top-notch kitsch excitement, there was one downside to the “shower cave”... water went everywhere!!  We had to ask for more towels from the management in order to sop up the runaway H2O.  No wonder the room smelled somewhat damp.  ( It led us to wonder... how do the housekeepers clean all of these insane surfaces??
)  Ultimately, the “Old World Suite” would have been the perfect party pad, though we signed a waiver upon checking in that said that we would not be throwing any such soiree!

After a celebratory birthday dinner at the preposterous Gold Rush Steak House - that you just have to see to believe - we headed over to the Inn’s “Silver Bar.”  The cozy establishment featured a bounty of magnificent woodwork, and yet, hardly any silver in sight!  We downed a few Vodka Collins while ear-wigging on conversations had between the Central Coast couples taking in the over-the-top potpourri watering hole that Saturday night!  We returned to the “Silver Bar” the next day for some more photos - only to fine that, like our “Old World Suite,” it was red, red, red!

Of course, no trip to the Madonna Inn is complete without indulging in some of their famed baked delicacies.  Check out the Coffee Shop for some seriously iced cupcakes and pastries!  (See “eats” for more information on the Gold Rush and Copper Coffee Shop.)

Ultimately, kitsch be damned, we love this place, and will definitely be back to sample other rooms in the future!  Set of Drifters tip:  A newly revamped “infinity pool” and massage spa sit atop a mountain in the background adjacent to the hotel.  The location offers tremendous sweeping views of the valley (and freeway) below, but if it is the least bit windy out, prepare to cower inside the hot tubs instead!

Madonna Inn - 100 Madonna Road, San Luis Obispo, CA  93405, (805) 784-2410

Ward’s Cabin at Silver Pines Lodge (Idyllwild)

Your Set of Drifters wouldn’t typically consider ourselves “spoiled,” but sometimes after struggling up 6,000 feet to the top of a mountain, you just need a hot tub at your disposal.  Can you blame us?

During our recent 2013 trip to Idyllwild, we were certainly in the market for some well-deserved R & R.  And thus, on recommendation from a neighbor who lived in Idyllwild for six years, we looked up the Silver Pines Lodge.  Formerly a theater, restaurant and a workshop for rustic furniture builders in the area, Silver Pines has been in operation as a lodge since the 1950s.  And while none of the property’s 13 adjacent units featured hot-tubs, like many of the vacation rentals in Idyllwild, management here also oversees a number of off-site cabins scattered throughout the nearby forest.  One of these, the well-appointed A-frame own by the Ward family, ended up providing exactly what we were looking for.

Calling ahead to book, then confirm, our reservations, Silver Pines staff proved both friendly and accommodating.  In fact, they even advised us that we could check in at 9:00 AM if the cabin hadn’t been booked the night previous!

Seeing that we were driving in from Los Angeles, we arrived in Idyllwild around midday, and after a quick lunch at the Gastrognome (see “eats”), we enjoyed a smooth check-in at the “Lodge Room” lobby.  It must be said the surroundings and common areas of Silver Pines were quite impressive.  The Lodge Room features, among other sources of historic Alpine charm, a giant wood burning fireplace, large moose head, and scads of deer antlers.  A DVD rental program housed here is FREE, though on the honor system; make sure to return your copy of “Misery” before heading off the mountain!  Out back, a small brook and koi pond serve as the perfect setting to sit and read or feed the enormous fish - though we were less appreciative of a crazy loon who seemed to be using the aforementioned to wash his loins!

After a few minutes, we received our keys and we headed up North Circle Road for about a mile.  It was not long before we arrived at our destination, a quiet residential corner with views up to the impressive San Jacinto mountain range.  (See “sights” for nearby hiking options through the San Bernardino National Forest.)

Inside, Ward’s Cabin offered everything you could possibly need during a short weekend:  pots, pans, towels, linens, board games, even some food!  Though we brought a few bits ’n bobs with us to make us feel more at home (i.e. coffee, eggs and snacks), you certainly could leave all that behind and simply hit up the local Village Market should you decide to cook in the cabin during your stay.  Truth be told, the only item we could not find that eventually became a necessity was a pair of scissors.  But still, who’s splitting hairs?  Well, apparently we were.

Upstairs, Ward’s Cabin features an open-air loft bedroom capable of sleeping a (very) cozy couple, while downstairs, another more secluded space acts as the “master bedroom.”  The family’s A-frame is completed with a modest 1st floor bathroom, kitchen and living/ dining room combo anchored by a wood-burning stone fireplace!  (Feel uncomfortable about getting that blaze going each night?  Have no fear.  What we really loved about this place was its attention to detail.  Specific directions on how to light a fire and use the cable/ DVD set-up were included in exactly the places you might expect them.  Furthermore, a local information and menu guide helped to suggest nearby attractions and must-eats; our best bets are on “Cafe Aroma” and the “Mile High Cafe.”)

Still, the best part of Ward’s Cabin had to be its exterior “party deck” (don’t tell them we called it that), augmented with a full patio table/ chair set-up and four additional adirondack chairs placed under vintage beer umbrellas.  Oh, and did we mention that beloved hot tub?  It’s quite possible that we spent more time out here over the weekend than inside the cabin itself!

Upon leaving to return home to reality, we could easily see why so many of the entries in the Ward’s Cabin guestbook included those celebrating special anniversaries or families returning year after year.  The comfy lodge often coined a “home away from home” is perfect for groups of 4-6 peeps escaping the zaniness of Los Angeles
, or the deathly heat of nearby Palm Springs.  Book it now, Danno!

Silver Pines Lodge - 25955 Cedar Street, Idyllwild-Pine Cove, CA  92549, (951) 659-4335,

Village Market - 26000 California Highway 243, Idyllwild-Pine Cove, CA  92549, ‎(951) 659-3800

Black Forest Lodge (Big Bear)

For many people, the idea of heading to an Alpine-themed hotel in Southern California would seem nothing short of ludicrous.  On the contrary, your “Set of Drifters” embrace quirkiness wherever we can find it, and thus, on a search of Bavarian themed accommodations in Big Bear, we happened upon The Black Forest Lodge.

As you enter town, you can’t help but notice the large Bavarian-style compound situated across from Big Bear Lake on Route 18.  Its wide white facade is traditionally trimmed with wooden beams and boasts both a large round stained glass window and a few German Coats of Arms.

Since we were in town to take in the last few days of the 2009 ski season, we thought it would be fun to try out one of the Black Forest Lodge’s more traditional log cabin-style quarters.  A giant inflated rabbit outside signaled the pending Easter holiday, yet somewhat ruined the overall “Black Forest” flavor.  Inside, the vibe fared much better; the room entirely rustic and perfect for a fun-filled weekend of snow and skiing.  We especially appreciated the cozy fireplace and a full size indoor spa that soothed our aching post-slope bodies with its bubbling hot water therapy!  (Luckily, the jacuzzi, and floors of the the cabin, were fashioned entirely out of stone, so there was no worry in splashing about!)  And check out that wallpaper!  No, seriously, check it out.

The grounds of the Black Forest Lodge also feature chalets big enough for large sized families, though we surmise the honeymoon cottages get plenty of action all on their own!  Winter packages available online include ski-lift tickets for nearby Bear Mountain or Snow Summit resorts (see "sights"), while a host of other on-site activities such as painting classes, salon and spa treatments, and a children's playground are available upon arrival.  Picnic areas are busy when the weather is warmer, though expect the lodge’s outdoor pool and spa to be closed for most of the year!

Black Forest Lodge Cabins - 41121 Big Bear Boulevard, Big Bear Lake, CA  92315, (909) 866-2166 or (800) 255-4378