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The Reinvention of the American Roadside Motel

Forget dilapidated trucker hotels with questionable cleaning schedules: there’s a new breed of millennial motel popping up along US highways

Childhood memories of staying in shabby rundown motels in the ’80s still have me travelling with my own pillowcase – and it’s no coincidence that countless horror movies have elected these roadside accommodations as the perfect setting for grisly plots. But dirt-cheap property prices, unique locations and nostalgia-rich paraphernalia have started to attract design-minded hoteliers to revamp these downtrodden dens into boutique options for off-the-beaten-track adventurers. Get your kicks on Route 66 – and other US highways – at these five revamped roadside motels.

Austin Motel, Texas

Credit: Nick Simonite

A massive, and arguably semi-offensive, red neon light alerts travellers to the Austin Motel with all the subtlety one might expect from the Texas capital – a city that prides itself on ‘keeping it weird’ with eye-catching art and far-out entertainment. Kitsch-hunters will be rewarded with a candy-striped pool bar, Joann’s Fine Foods diner and an onsite bodega huddled under a canopy of rainbow neon, before collapsing in comfort under luxury Sferra sheets on brightly coloured beds. There’s plenty of history, too – the 41-room motel was built in 1938, borrows its colourful vibe from the ’50s, and sports ’80s pop art on the walls. 

Credit: Nick Simonite

The Phoenix Hotel, California

Credit: Nick Simonite

Frequented over the years by musicians such as Neil Young, David Bowie and Kurt Cobain, The Phoenix in San Francisco is part of American rockn’roll history. Today, it has risen from the ashes as a boutique hotel at the hands of hotelier and designer Liz Lambert, with musical inferences throughout. Each of the 44 rooms is home to vintage gig posters with neon lights over the headboards, the lobby has been modelled on an old recording studio and the shop sells memorabilia influenced by the 1980s and 90s grunge scene.  

Calistoga Motor Lodge and Spa, California

Credit: Aubrie Pick

Once a 1940s motel, the Calistoga in California’s Napa Valley was given an overhaul by designers AvroKO in 2017 and is now one of the most Instagrammable lodges in the region. The 50-room boutique hotel sports retro patterns and colours, with furniture inspired by the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. The lobby is part-general store, part-70s living room, while the spa features a unisex steam room, outdoor lounge and kitsch red floor tiles. The rooms have camper-van-style bench seating that folds out to form double beds and the pretty pool area features loungers, daybeds and large beach umbrellas for those hot Napa afternoons.

Credit: Aubrie Pick

El Vado Motel, New Mexico

One of the first New Mexican auto lodges to greet Route 66 road-trippers, El Vado in Albuquerque originally opened in 1937. After a US$18 million facelift last year, the 22-room boutique motel now offers a taproom serving local brews, shops, an event centre, an amphitheatre and ‘food pod’ culinary spaces filled by a rotation of local vendors. The motel’s Pueblo Revival style has been preserved – as has its pool – and the rooms feature chic mid-century furnishings, local artworks and a rich palette of colours throughout.

The Drifter, Louisiana

Credit: Nicole Franzen for Design Hotels.

The Drifter in New Orleans pays tribute to its 1950s origin with inspiration taken from what it calls ‘the Beat Generation and the footloose spirit of postwar America’. Geared towards both local and global ‘drifters’, the revamped motel features a cafe that serves speciality coffees and a rotation of food trucks. Local artists’ works adorn the walls and the 20 rooms feature roughly trowelled concrete and Oaxacan tilework. The courtyard is the highlight, sporting a large pool and regular musical performances.

Credit: Nicole Franzen for Design Hotels.
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