The room blinks, briefly illuminated by the headlamps from a car outside, rendering various fixtures and the television aglow. The ignition cuts. Doors shut. From my bed, I catch glimpses of incoming guests wheeling their suitcases past my window. I’m struck by a sense of intimacy – like seeing a fancy house through gauzy curtains from the pavements outside, in reverse.

The pool at Austin Motel
The pool at Austin Motel © Nick Simonite
The lobby and bodega at Austin Motel
The lobby and bodega at Austin Motel © Nick Simonite

I’m in the Austin Motel, a colourful two-storey property in its namesake Texan city. The 41-room structure is punctuated by a slightly priapic neon sign; downstairs, there’s an all-day diner, a hot-dog cart and a swimming pool flanked by striped umbrellas. So far, so evocative.

Except Austin Motel is no typical roadside joint. Managed by the Bunkhouse Group, the once run-down stayover now boasts upmarket amenities – starched cotton linens, extra-large memory-foam mattresses and coconut-infused bath products. A dive motel this is not.

A room at Azure Sky in Palm Springs
A room at Azure Sky in Palm Springs © Way Out Visual
The 14-room Azure Sky
The 14-room Azure Sky © Way Out Visual

“The days of Sani-wrapped paper cups and miniature plastic ice buckets are long gone,” says Sherry Villanueva, a founder and managing partner of Acme Hospitality Group, which runs the Azure Sky, a similarly upcycled motel in California’s Palm Springs – it’s a 14-key desert oasis where midcentury accents meet warm, Japanese-inspired design, from the floating oak beds to the bespoke kitchen cabinetry and cosy bouclé armchairs.

The lodge at Tourists in Massachusetts
The lodge at Tourists in Massachusetts © Nicole Franzen
A room at Hotel Willa in New Mexico
A room at Hotel Willa in New Mexico © Josh Cho

They are just two examples of a raft of new-age renditions – unique, boutique propositions at the roadside. In North Adams, Massachusetts, the 46-room Tourists motel offers tall exterior windows that showcase the seasonal colour changes in the adjacent landscape. In Taos, New Mexico, Hotel Willa is filled with tactile craft pieces from local artisans. The Brentwood, located opposite the famous horse racing grounds in New York’s Saratoga Springs, features wood-panelled rooms and walls hung with vintage equestrian oils. The courtyard-facing rooms at Palihotel Hollywood in Los Angeles, meanwhile – part of Avi Brosh’s Palisociety group of hotels – all have balconies overlooking the pastel Wes Anderson-esque pool, DJs play afternoon sets and waiters bring spicy salads and fruit platters to sunbathers from the in-house kitchen.

The pool at Palihotel Hollywood
The pool at Palihotel Hollywood © Courtesy of Palisociety
Palihotel Hollywood’s bar
Palihotel Hollywood’s bar © Courtesy of Palisociety

Motels hold a unique place in the modern psyche; they’ve long been synonymous with a specific notion of Americana. In the ’50s and ’60s, when they were a new-age concept, motels represented freedom. Highway infrastructures boomed after the end of the second world war, making travel easier; afterwards, as cars became cheap and widely available, being on the road became a novel idea (one that Jack Kerouac turned into an actual novel).

Bluebird Cady Hill Lodge, Vermont
Bluebird Cady Hill Lodge, Vermont © Matt Kisiday
The lobby of Bluebird Cady Hill Lodge
The lobby of Bluebird Cady Hill Lodge © Matt Kisiday

Motels are also nostalgic. “I think of trips in my parents’ Jeep Wagoneer – a greasy spoon, a pool and some great adventures,” says Rob Blood, founder of Bluebird By Lark motels. Architecturally, too, they trigger the imagination. Motels are all neon “vacancy” lettering, boxy art deco structures and kitsch-futuristic road signage. On-site restaurants are signposted by spinning, spiked neon balls known as Sputniks; the swimming pools are often whimsically shaped.

These idiosyncratic references are baked into popular consciousness. “In a world filled with so much corporate sameness, it’s no wonder people are gravitating back towards design-forward vintage hotels,” says the Azure Sky’s Villanueva, where the motel is flanked by palms and filled with sculptural furniture that leans into the modernist mood. They also typically still give great bang for your buck: rooms at the Brentwood, in Upstate New York, cost from $109; the Ranch in San Antonio’s start at $180, and the Palihotel Hollywood’s from around $200.

The swimming pool at Ranch Motel in Texas
The swimming pool at Ranch Motel in Texas © JoMando Cruz

For today’s proprietors, the visual iconography is a sentimental snapshot of American history. Jayson Seidman, who reopened the Ranch Motel last October, has personally restored its enormous, arrow-shaped sign, which glimmers like a starry beacon on the roadside. “We try to hold on to these unique little gems that relate to the property,” says Seidman of his efforts with the sign; he also commissioned a neon “vacancy” one to hang outside reception. 

In 1964, there were 61,000 motels across America; by 2012, there were only 16,000. Today it’s likely even fewer; the Ranch Motel narrowly missed becoming a Walgreens. The decline accompanied a shift in perception about motels in the ’70s, when holiday habits changed and motels became popularised as cheap, dark places for committing cheap, dark deeds. In “Blue Motel Room”, Joni Mitchell finds her room the ideal place to nurse heartbreak; Bates Motel is a murder site; in Schitt’s Creek, the motel is a symbol of having fallen on hard times.  

Today’s moteliers are rewriting the narrative. Many have rebranded their properties as hotels, and some motels are proposed as destinations unto themselves. Seidman turned the Ranch Motel’s former parking lot into a landscaped wonderland, where stepping stones snake towards table-tennis areas and pickleball courts. At reception, there’s a mini-mart and a fridge stocked with natural orange wines and local snacks; next door, an outdoor market. “We’ve had local couples come drink wine, read a book, stay for the night and use the pool because they’ve hired a sitter,” he says. At the Azure Sky in Palm Springs, the guests, most in their 30s to 60s, stay two to three nights on average.

The Pearl in San Diego
The Pearl in San Diego © Josh Cho
The bar at The Pearl
The bar at The Pearl © Josh Cho

Built on the fringes, usually with parking lots, many motels are primed for this vacation-village renaissance. They’re also top-tier real estate. They’re “less expensive to upgrade” than traditional inner-city sites, according to Avi Brosh, whose Palihotel on Sunset Boulevard features a ground-floor cocktail bar, coffee shop and kitchen; there’s also a genuinely lap-able pool and underground valet parking. “If the motel is a town, the pool area is the town square,” says Tenaya Hills, a senior vice president of design and development at Bunkhouse, which runs the Austin Motel. In Massachusetts, the Tourists – a spirited rebuild of a trad motel – hosts alfresco gigs, while the Ranch has an Airstream barbershop and a coffee cart outside. The Pearl, in San Diego, hosts film screenings.

Tourists in Massachusetts
Tourists in Massachusetts © Nicole Franzen
The Ramble Room at Tourists
The Ramble Room at Tourists © Nicole Franzen

“It’s professional hospitality at its best,” says Tourists’ owner Ben Svenson. Each motel is “dynamic and alive”. They’re also a welcome breath of fresh air. Guests open their doors and are greeted by natural light, not an air-conditioned, dimly lit hallway. That all rooms generally face into a common outdoor space creates opportunities for chit-chat: at the Palihotel Hollywood, I fill my mornings with people-watching from my balcony, my afternoons with sunbathing, and drink a pre-dinner aperitif with another solo traveller. I enjoy the fact I don’t have to wake up, head out and schlep around all day to feel like I’m experiencing a city. At Austin Motel, in Texas, I get chatting to a local nurse who flags a honky-tonk gig (by a real cowboy – excellent) and tells me which streets to avoid after dark.

The motel fosters tangible human connection. In an era of contactless check-in and countless online-first social touchpoints, it’s refreshing to get tips from staff and regulars alike. In Austin especially, I value that my experiences are expanded beyond the things I’d bookmarked on Instagram.

Alone without a driving licence, I’m not on the road to nowhere, like Kerouac. But in the grounds of these new-age motels, I really do feel like I’ve landed somewhere.

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