When motels first emerged along America’s highways, they acted as vital resting places for the country’s newly mobile travellers – a blaze of neon that whispered of opportunity.
This first opened in San Luis Obispo in 1925 – conveniently midway along California’s Highway 101 – and like all motels it followed a simple formula: functional rooms and car-friendly facilities that appealed to drivers just passing through.
However, this utilitarian design spoke of something bigger: the promise of the open road; a safe space to dream the American dream. Indeed, San Luis’s motel was seen to be so stylish, that Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio even stopped by on return from their honeymoon.
But the golden age of motels was not to last. Over time, their lack of permanence and edge-of-city locations recast them as natural outsiders: transient places on the road to nowhere, synonymous with seediness, insalubrious acts and misdeeds.
In popular culture they were used as a sombre backdrop in Edward Hopper’s paintings, in the dystopian universe of David Lynch and in Hitchcock’s most harrowing horror films. From Thelma and Louise to Natural Born Killers, motels were now places for fugitives on the run.
But the good news is: they’re back. Call them boutique motels, call them motels-made-good, America is reclaiming its lost highway hotels and reinventing them for 21st-century travellers. And this time, they’re here to stay…
Five of the best boutique motels
You’ll want to linger longer at this reinvented 1940’s motel, where Bob Dylan wrote Blood on the Tracks. Recently renovated, Native sits just off California’s Pacific Coast Highway, in the exclusive beach community of Malibu, with activities such as Ayurvedic healing, sound baths and yoga that nod to the enclave’s earthy leanings. There are 13 rooms, encased within a single-storey structure that’s almost as simple as the original motel. You won’t find a Michelin-starred restaurant here. However, what you are guaranteed is sepia-sealed design, organic bath products, outdoor hammocks and endless Pacific views.
Cambria Beach Lodge, Cambria
Left-leaning Cambria straddles California’s Pacific Coast Highway, with an artsy town on one side of the road, including pottery studios, antiques stores and quinoa-heavy cafes, and driftwood-strewn Moonstone Beach on the other. It’s here you’ll find Cambria Beach Lodge, a 27-room retreat with sun-bleached floors, tropical-tinged textiles and vintage-style Linus bikes to borrow. Once again, it stays true to its motel roots with simple design. Fresh Californian breakfasts are served each morning with frontline views of the Pacific and key cornerstones of the PCH await outside, including the elephant seals of Piedras Blancas and the hallowed halls of Hearst Castle.
Calistoga Motor Lodge & Spa, Napa
This new base in the winelands of Napa Valley completes our trio of converted Californian motels. Link them together for the ultimate road trip, starting with Calistoga, so you’re on the right side of the PCH while driving south. This 1940’s relic, revived by New York design firm AvroKo, ups the ante when it comes to facilities. There’s a stand-out Moonacre spa with a mix-your-own-mud bar; a backyard with hammocks and outdoor seating; three mineral pools fed by geothermal springs; and lawn games such as bocce and hula hoops. Hire one of the free cruiser bikes to ride around town, catch an open-air cinema screening or toast s’mores at the firepit come evening. The new restaurant Fleetwood is set to follow soon, with seasonal produce, picnic tables and a beer garden.
Brentwood Hotel, Upstate New York
If you’re planning a road trip to see fall’s foliage, head to Brentwood Hotel in Sarasota Springs. One of Upstate’s new breed of boutique hotels, this 1970’s motel-made-good has been artfully reimagined by Brooklyn-based design firm Studio Tack. Interiors are dark and decadent: from the Don Draper-worthy cocktail bar to the brass lighting and oil paintings in the rooms. There are custom-made Linus bikes for exploring leafy Saratoga State Park and fireside drinks and barbecues waiting each evening. Its location on the edge of America’s oldest horse-racing track means you’ll often see thoroughbreds speeding past between July and September.
Hotel San José, Austin
Hotelier Liz Lambert is the vision behind this new-look 1930’s motel in the self-proclaimed ‘live music capital of the world’. In Liz’s words: ‘almost every piece of furniture, every paint color, every hook’ was designed from scratch in partnership with local Texan creatives – even the bed linens and kimono bathrobes that adorn the 40 rooms. Elsewhere, there are manicured grounds and a private pool hidden behind a bamboo shield, plus a lobby with a curated menu of wine, beer and snacks. In true hipster fashion, there are also vintage typewriters and Polaroid cameras to borrow – providing you can pull yourself away from the food trucks, craft breweries and gig venues that grace Austin’s streets. When your sins kick, breakfast arrives in the form of in-room bento boxes.
Featured image is Native in Malibu