These revamped US motels combine modern style with retro touches and new features, such as DJ sets and yoga classes
Not much remains of the Henning Motel in Newberry Springs, California. Out on old Route 66, only the once-flashing neon sign still stands, rusted beyond repair. The arrival of the Interstate Highway in the 1970s rerouted custom elsewhere, and like thousands of motels across America, its fate was sealed. These emblems of the American road seemed in steady decline, that is, until recent years, when hoteliers began to recognise the potential in their architecture and storied past, and set about repurposing them.
The new generation of motels have co-opted the vintage aesthetics and mom-and-pop atmosphere of the 1950s and 1960s originals but given them a glossy finish with artisanal interiors, fancy linens, and locally brewed kombucha, or the like, catering to the values of the millennial traveller.
All this comes at a price. In the 1960s a motel room was $8, roughly the equivalent of $65 today, but few renovated motels are less than $100 a night. These aren’t the motels of old with their bulletproof glass, ratty net curtains and bed bugs (which do still exist): these are motels concentrated in areas likely to draw tourists, and offering more than simply a bed for the night.
The Drifter, New Orleans, Louisiana
Named after the Beat Generation writers whose antics added to the mythology of life on the road, the Drifter still has its original flashing motel sign outside, though a 2017 renovation saw it reimagined for Nola’s more hedonistic tourists. The rooms are small and simple, with concrete walls and white linen; all the action is outside. Styled as a retro tropical resort, with palm trees, bright murals and Mexican tile work, it has a pool bar churning out frozen drinks and food trucks serve Haitian and Cuban food. There’s a pool party here most weekends, with DJs and flamingo inflatables aplenty – also, a no-kids policy.
•Doubles from $103, thedrifterhotel.com
Austin Motel, Austin, Texas
Liz Lambert is often cited as the pioneer of the roadside motel revival, renovating her first property in Texas two decades ago. She has a knack for turning a hotel into a hotspot and the Austin Motel is no different. Reopening it in 2017, Lambert stayed true to the motel’s retro roots with lurid red-lipped wallpaper, tufted-vinyl platform beds, old school push-button phones, and silk-screened music posters. It’s tongue-in-cheek, kitsch-yet-classy (high-quality bedding and organic bath products). At its heart is a kidney-shaped pool with red-and-white striped pool bar. Tex-Mex style diner Joann’s Fine Foods opened inside the motel in 2018 and offers breakfast tacos and all-day dining (not included in room price). In continuous operation since 1938, the hotel was once nicknamed the Phallus Palace for its phallic sign, still flashing passersby to this day.
•Doubles from $135, austinmotel.com
Amigo Motor Lodge, Salida, Colorado
Husband and wife Philip Sterling and Kaitlyn Canfield flirted over the idea of opening a motel on their first date, in 2014. Two years later, they’d packed up their lives in Texas … and Amigo Motor Lodge in Colorado was open. Within walking distance of the arty town of Salida, the motel is surrounded by the mountain trails, ski sites, hot springs and white-water rapids that draw outdoor enthusiasts to the state. The rooms are simple, and brightened by hand-woven Oaxacan textiles and lots of plants, while the atmosphere is casual and comfortable, more Airbnb than hotel – but with the couple on hand to help. There are also three renovated Airstreams that can be booked, a hot tub, a teepee and a fire pit.
•Doubles from $115, stayamigo.com
Lincolnville Motel, Lincolnville, Maine
When chef Alice Amory first saw the faded six-room Seaview Motel and Cottages for sale she decided this was the life challenge she needed. Having recently returned from New York, she bought the property in 2015 and spent the spring pulling up the thick yellow carpet, tearing down fake wood panelling and slapping white paint on everything. Now, the original cabins have pretty flower-filled window boxes and bright blue doors. The design is uncluttered: rooms are decorated with photographs, an illuminated globe, and a record player instead of a television. Records and books are available to borrow from the common room, where there’s tea and coffee. The four-acre property looks out over Penobscot Bay, with a pool, barbecue grills and lawn games. Amory tells potential guests this isn’t a polished resort – and, for many, that’s its appeal.
• Doubles from $105, lincolnvillemotel.com
Pioneertown Motel, Pioneertown, California
The western village of Pioneertown was built as a film set in 1946 by film star and tycoon Roy Rogers, with the motel accommodating the actors. Not much had changed when brothers Matt and Mike French bought the property in 2014, but they then repurposed the 1870s-style structures into a boutique motel. The 20 rooms are kitted out by local artists with heavy textiles, cowhide rugs, and cacti. The motel hosts DJ sets and yoga classes for the creative community that has sprung up around this surreal outpost. For food, head across the road to the town saloon, Pappy & Harriet’s. Shop for vintage denim and hand-blown glass crafts on Mane Street – and then watch a staged wild-west shootout. The real attraction, however, is the neighbouring mystical desert landscapes of Joshua Tree national park.
•Doubles from $185, pioneertown-motel.com
Tourists, North Adams, Massachusetts
In a thriving cultural destination in want of good accommodation for years, this motor lodge was ripe for renovation – and reopened in 2018. The Berkshires is home to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and the Clark Art Institute, not to mention outstanding hiking. Set in 55 acres of woodland, the motel is crossed with walkways guiding guests to the river, pool, yoga pavilion, outdoor art installations – and a 19th-century former farmhouse, which, in late February, will open a restaurant, The Airport Rooms. All-day food and cocktails are available in the lounge-like Lodge, and unlike many motels, it offers room service, too. There is also a line-up of live events and an emphasis on communal spaces. The rooms are airy and bright, with lots of blond wood and natural beauty products in the bathrooms.
•Doubles from $199, touristswelcome.com
Coachman Hotel, Lake Tahoe, California
Originally built to cater to the tourism boom from the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, this motel had fallen into disrepair before its multimillion dollar overhaul in 2016. Now the 42-room hotel at the base of Heavenly Mountain is an upscale ski lodge with a hint of the retro motel it once was. There’s a Tesla charging station and the rooms have Apple TVs and heated toilet seats. In the communal lobby, line up for complimentary Stumptown coffee and breakfast waffles. In the evening there’s a small bar with wine and beer. Outdoors there’s a pool, hot tubs and fire pits. Most importantly, the ski gondola is just steps away.
• Doubles from $137, coachmantahoe.com
Anvil Hotel, Jackson, Wyoming
Discover the gateway to the rugged terrain of Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks or some of the state’s best skiing in Jackson Hole. The jump-off point is the outdoorsy town of Jackson, where the 49-room Anvil Hotel, a former 1950s motor lodge, reopened in 2017, packed to its wooden rafters with mountain charm. The Shaker-design rooms have cast-iron beds and thick, custom-designed woollen blankets, and guests are encouraged into communal areas: the lobby, which doubles as a hip take on a General Store, has a wood-burning stove and coffee from the local town roastery; and the onsite restaurant, Glorietta, serves wood-fired Italian dishes and cocktails by NYC’s Death & Co. The hotel will also help with a build-your-own adventure from a roster of snowmobiling, snowshoeing and dogsledding.
•Doubles from $110, anvilhotel.com
The Astro, Santa Rosa, California
Once a roadside dump with a by-the-hour reputation, this motel was boosted by the resurgence of Santa Rosa’s SoFa Arts District, including local chef Liza Hinman’s restaurant The Spinster Sisters, a Sonoma County favourite. Hinman recognised the potential of the Astro, built in 1963, and refurbished the property to open in January 2018. Hinman employed local artists for the interiors, with the LED rocket ship sign outside setting the tone, and each of the 34 rooms pop with retro colour. Local drinks and snacks are available in the rooms and the lounge offers complimentary coffee, fruit and fresh pastries every morning. Every item you can see, from the antique rugs to the art, is for sale, too.
•Doubles from $178, theastro.com
Calistoga Motor Lodge and Spa, Napa Valley, California
This motor lodge is a holiday camp worthy of a Tenenbaum family retreat. The original 1940s Sunburst Motel was renovated in 2017, with a Wes Anderson-esque twee charm that appeals to younger travellers. The rooms are inspired Airstream caravans and have camper banquettes and corkboards pinned with maps and photos. Family-friendly activities include bocce, board games and hula hooping. On Maker Mondays, local artisans give craft lessons. Even the signage is cute: pool rules include, “Do not attempt duet event without partner.” Three mineral pools are fed by geothermal hot springs and there are DIY mud baths in the mud bar. There’s in-room organic coffee and free snacks in the lobby but plans are afoot for an restaurant later this year. It’s near many trails and wineries, and it’s possible to pick up a pair of binoculars and a bicycle, and set off into the Napa Valley.
• Doubles from $198, calistogamotorlodgeandspa.com