The Bates Motel and its murderous owner notwithstanding, the 1950s and 1960s set the standard for glamorous road trips, punctuated by nightly stays in roadside motels or motor inns. In these times, families, students, couples, and exploratory travelers on a quest — like poet Jack Kerouac — drove off in gas-guzzling, curvy-edged cars as long as limousines. They packed picnics in hampers, used maps, and endured no air conditioning, just enjoying the wind on their faces and the likelihood of sunburned arms. Without seatbelts, they’d steer their way to visit family and tour national monuments, stopping nightly at that neon-lit, newly minted phenomenon: the roadside motel. Likely, there’d be a kidney bean-shaped swimming pool and an adjoining diner, one that had waitresses in uniforms and served fresh-baked pie and bottomless cups of coffee. Inside, clean sheets beckoned, not to mention stationery and an ashtray emblazoned with the motel’s name. These mom-and-pop motels were friendly, affordable, often deliberately funky, and positioned along key tourist routes and byways, like Highway 66. Sometimes they boasted whimsical architecture: think octagonal-shaped rooms, kitschy cabins — or even teepees. Over the years, as highways rerouted and big brand hotels stole the market, the motor inns simply faded away. Until now. Behold: the renaissance of nostalgic motor inns across the United State. They’re back, redone, rebuilt and re-envisioned. In a homage to vintage travel and the Kerouac ethos of a wheel in the hand and four on the ground, in celebration of bygone architecture, slow-travel road trips, and unique places to spend the night, we bring you some of the nation’s most riveting, redone motels worth road tripping for.

Calistoga, California

calistoga motor lodge & spa, calistoga california
Courtesy, Calistoga Motor Lodge & Spa

Dating back to 1946, the Sunburst Motel welcomed mud bathers who came to Napa Valley’s earthy Calistoga more for their health than the wine. Today, mud soakers and oenophiles alike can immerse in nostalgia spun with a little class at Calistoga Motor Lodge & Spa, born from the Sunburst’s worthy bones. Drawing inspiration from the era of the Great American Road trip, the (greatly enlarged and renovated) 97-room hideaway oozes 1950s, 60s, and 70s retro chic. With two heated outdoor geothermal pools, a spa inspired by the 1880s Calistoga bathhouses, a wood-fired restaurant, ample lawn, and complimentary cruiser bikes, the boutique hotel adds an adults-only swimming pool and five new rooms this year.

New Cuyama, California

vintage pool at cuyama buckhorn in new cuyama california
Courtesy, Cuyama Buckhorn

Like a high desert oasis wedged into an enchanting slice of Santa Barbara County aptly called The Hidden Valley of Enchantment, Cuyama Buckhorn first welcomed guests in 1952. Recently remodeled by two Los Angeles design mavens to capture the area’s sun-drenched rancher-and-cowboy culture and rich history, the irrefutably hip hangout dazzles with vintage elements throughout from fixtures to furniture adorning the original mid-century architecture. Twenty-one neato (that’s sixties slang) guestrooms beckon, supported by a farm-to-table restaurant, bar, and coffee shop, along with spaces for hosting private events, weddings, or meetings. Surrounding mountains, natural forests, wine-tasting opportunities, horses for riding, pistachio farms, honey tasting, and many other pastimes enhance the stay. 

Flagstaff, Arizona

The original Route 66, commissioned in 1926, snaked from Chicago to Los Angeles, looping in lesser traveled states — Missouri, Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, and New Mexico — as it unfurled through desert, mountains, and plains. Poised on it, Americana Motor Hotel, built in 1962, welcomed weary road trippers roadside in scenic Flagstaff, Arizona. Now re-introduced in a superb retro redesign by Andrew Alford, former chief creative officer of Graduate Hotels, the hotel takes its cues from the region’s mystical vibes, deep connection to astronomy, and surrounding nature. Disco balls, bold colors, 1970s ski wear-inspired headboards, geometric floor coverings, and wood paneling create a throwback ambiance. Telescopes remind you to look to the “dark skies” and a pool keeps you cool. Bring your pup for the fenced-in “Barkyard.

Saratoga Springs, New York

coffee bar at bluebird spa city motor lodge, saratoga springs new york
Photo by Read McKendree, courtesy of Bluebird Spa City Motor Lodge

With a coffee on tap amenity that conjures thoughts of mid-century diners and constantly refilled mugs of Joe — among other roadside lodge evoking traits — Saratoga Spring’s Bluebird Spa City Motor Lodge is enveloped in re-imagined Americana allure. Transforming a 1960s-era motel complete with an atrium and indoor pool to a canny 42-room boutique hotel with airy rooms and a social common space (ergo: the coffee), the designers paid homage to the structure’s original streamlined, functional architecture. They enlivened it with eclectic artwork and a book-and-literature collection in honor of Saratoga’s historic appeal to artists. Launched as the debut hotel under Lark Hotels’ new sister brand, Bluebird by Lark, which seeks to reference bygone roadside lodges, Bluebird Spa City is off to a good start.

Branson, Missouri 

ozarker lodge check in, branson missouri
Courtesy, The Ozarker Lodge

Today Branson Missouri might be best known for its live entertainment, manifested by its gobsmacking 50 theaters and more than 60,000 theater seats. But in its road trip heyday, set among the spectacular Ozarks, it was just getting started as a country western stronghold. It brought carloads of vacationers interested in fishing, hiking, and tunes. Celebrating that era and today’s more than 5 million visitors to the area, The Ozarker Lodge whimsically re-explores bygone comforts and simple pleasures. With 102, all-new, yesteryear-invoking guest rooms and a floating fireplace in its common area, the hotel emphasizes the beauty of the outdoors with an immense pool, fire pits, cedar soaking tubs, a playground, and a dedicated space for food trucks. A communal guest pantry, fortified with a coffee and wine bar, satisfies cravings.

San Antonio, Texas

When the Ranch Motel opened along San Antonio’s flourishing Broadway in 1947, it advertised avant-garde attributes such as televisions and music in each of its 26 rooms. Carriage rides at steps-away Brackenridge Park, a leafy 343-acre haven, also tempted clientele. But time took its toll — and the storied snug fell into disrepair. Refurbished and reopened as Ranch Motel & Leisure Club this year by consummate hotelier and hotel lover Jayson Seidman (responsible for the exciting revitalization of The Columns in New Orleans, among others), the Ranch retains its original (albeit redone) neon sign, interiors, grounds and exteriors — all as comforting as a slice of grandma-made apple pie. Yet, the new mood feels pleasingly contemporary, too. Expect delights such as Thuma beds, Parachute linens, Le Labo bath amenities, a small Hifi listening room with Japanese, French, and Latin music galore, pickleball courts, a fire pit, a casual bar, and pool. 

Afton Mountain, Virginia

retro guest room, grey pine lodge, afton mountain virginia
Courtesy, Grey Pine Lodge

Location. Location. Location. Indisputably where a roadside lodge stood made all the difference. That said, perhaps no motel flaunts a better homesite than the Shenandoah Valley’s newly launched Grey Pine Lodge, known in the past by a panoply of other monikers: The Colony House, The No Tell Motel, and The Oak Power (circa 1960). Renovated, sitting proudly across the street from the sought after, newly inaugurated Blue Ridge Tunnel trail, it occupies prime real estate half a mile from the top of Afton Mountain where Skyline Drive, Blue Ridge Parkway, the A/T, I-64, and Rt 250 all converge. Etched with its own onsite hiking trail that opens to views of the Allegheny Mountains in the distance, the pet-friendly hotel, complete with 7 fire pits, has 22 sleekly modern rooms, each subtly referencing the region, Virginia’s largesse, and the past. 

(Cover image, courtesy, Calistoga Motor Lodge & Spa)

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