"All he needed was a wheel in his hand and four on the road," wrote Jack Kerouac in "On the Road: The Original Scroll." But where would "he" have slept? Road trippers crave an evening stay as evocative as their driving adventure. In honor of the era of the great American road trip, canny hoteliers have revitalized key motor inns, fusing the gravitas of the past with the urgency (and ease) of present times. Ideal for socially distanced getaways, these redone roadside motels are destinations in themselves.
El Vado, Albuquerque, New Mexico
"Get your kicks on Route 66," crooned Nat King Cole. The "Mother Road" brought travelers galore to savor this capital city, a fusion of Pueblo architecture, Mexican culinary genius, Mexican and Native American culture, regional art and miles of surrounding otherworldly landscape. Take a cue from decades of four-wheeled wanderers who slept well at El Vado. The motel opened in 1937, one of the Land of Enchantment’s first to offer hospitality to map-toting, car-driving explorers. Meticulously restored in 2018, El Vado gleams with midcentury modern pizzazz, stunning aesthetics and an ideal location near shops and eateries. En route, enjoy the Singing Road, a portion of highway where asphalt-covered metal plates create a warble as you drive across it.
The Modern Hotel, Boise, Idaho
One of the West’s most majestic road trips begins in Boise, a hip brewery and music haven, which some compare to Austin and Portland. Drivers can take the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway from Boise to Sun Valley, passing hot springs, white water, wildlife, old mining towns and remote expanses of wild terrain. A suitable bookend to that jaunt, the Modern Hotel and Bar, a re-enlivened travel lodge with trendy vibes and local gravitas, provides a moment of laid-back urbanity. In the Linen District, with a courtyard, it has clever rooms, excels in cocktail culture, and boasts a Basque restaurant inspired by family recipes.
Skyview Los Alamos, Los Alamos, California
History buffs will swoon over the original ’50s-era pool and the original MOTEL sign that lords above it. Wine lovers will anticipate a memorable quaff from its on-site vineyard. But Skyview, set in the frontier town turned artist’s colony of Los Alamos, which edges the Santa Barbara wine country, brims with so much more. Atop a hill, just off Highway 1, California’s bucket list byway, the retrofitted midcentury motel joins present times with luxury amenities and modern, rustic aesthetics, apropos to the region. Fire pits, a farm-to-table restaurant and complimentary bikes for exploring add to the elan.
The Downtowner, Saratoga Springs, New York
From mineral baths to horse racing to its nearby automobile museum, this town in upstate New York has always attracted stylish, art-loving joy riders. Ensconced within a vintage motor lodge, the re-invented Downtowner is a road tripper’s dream stay. Pet friendly, embodying a minimalist dialogue, highlighted with pampering essentials, the Downtowner had a past life as a seasonal hotel, erected in the 1960s. Today, with each room adorned with local art and fanciful design, the Downtowner reigns as the sort of place you’ll want to spend multiple nights.
Waikiki Village, A Retro Motel, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Look again. It’s not Hawaii. But, you’ll expect to see Elvis dance around the corner at this time capsule of a vintage stay. Built in 1963 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the tropically infused renovation lies right across the street from the ocean. With outdoor options from bocce ball to grills to a pool, the hotel’s inner magic manifests in sleek forms and bright colors — a design motif that accomplishes both a nod to the past and a trendy step into the beachy boutique future.
The Andiron Seaside Inn & Cabins, Little River, California
A goat happy hour and dedicated playlist (composed of tunes dating back to the Jazz Age) set the whimsical scene at this circa 1959 refurbished inn. It lies on a lesser traveled road, south of Mendocino near wineries, stellar hiking, abalone diving, Redwood forests and artsy boutiques (which reflect the area’s hippie heritage). An 11-cabin haven amid meadows, the Andiron thrills retro fans with throwback touches from old Viewmasters to midcentury fabrics to vintage board games. Choose a room named to suit your mood — such as Cabin 11, called "Curious," aptly filled with amusements from field guides to science kits.
Lone Star Court and Austin Motel, Austin
Borrowing from the vibe of rural Austin’s motor hotels of yore, Lone Star Court at the Domain channels the Texas Hill Country’s largesse with features such as a pool that references local swimming holes and an overall nostalgic ranch vibe. The purposefully funky rooms surround a courtyard, complete with outdoor fire pits. On the other side of town, the Austin Motel, in buzzy SoCo, rose from its 1930s ashes to be reborn as a sister property to fellow onetime flophouse, Hotel San Jose. A walk through the decades, the fun redo motel delves into ’50s color combinations and textures — think orange vinyl beds and apple red phones.
Town Hill B&B, Little Orleans, Maryland
Touted as one of America’s first "road trip" inns, this historic destination sits on the "mountain side of Maryland," along the Historic National Road, aka Route 40, which stretches across six states as it leads westward. America’s first federally funded highway, it was officially established by President Thomas Jefferson, though it follows a trail first hewed by the Native Americans. Built in 1916, Town Hill began as a fruit stand and gas station before it became a pioneer in welcoming those traveling by car. Quaint and friendly, it offers such packages as murder mystery events and canoe weekends. Breakfasts (think: bananas Foster) remain an extravagant affair.
The Tuxon Hotel and Hotel Valley Ho, Arizona
Many roadies believe that iconic Route 66’s most scenic surviving sections run through Arizona. While that heyday highway meanders via the north part of the state, passing through such highlights as the Petrified Forest, today’s auto trippers often diverge south to explore Scottsdale, Tucson and other Grand Canyon state highlights. In Scottsdale, play bygone film star at the midcentury modern Hotel Valley Ho, where celebs such as Bing Crosby, Natalie Wood and Zsa Zsa Gabor escaped from Hollywood’s paparazzi by car for desert-intoned repose. In Tucson, tuck into the just-opened Tuxon, Arizona’s first member of Marriott International’s lofty Design Hotels. Right off the main highway through Tucson, the hotel backs into the desert and mountains, including Sentinel Peak, providing both city and nature to guests at once. Invoking the region’s Native American, Mexican and Western triage of influences, the contemporary inn also celebrates the era of the great American road trip with deliberate architectural nods — such as the way the 112 rooms flank the eye-popping pool.
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Nightingale Motel, Amigo Motor Lodge, Mellow Moon Lodge, LOGE Breckenridge, Spoke and Vine Motel, Colorado
The Rocky Mountains have legendary road warrior appeal. Honoring the allure of the quirky, family-owned motor lodges beloved by travelers in decades past, five distinctive stays across the Centennial State have conjured classic road trip hospitality with first-rate refurbishments and re-imaginations. Nightingale Motel in Pagosa Springs embraces 1950-era funk (check out its clever Neon Mallard bar) without forgoing contemporary luxuries. In Salida, Amigo Motor Lodge is a cool kid renovation of a 1950s motel that sports Tuft + Needle mattresses, friendly common rooms, a hot tub and a teepee. Mellow Moon Lodge in Del Norte inhabits an atmospheric 1940s inn, re-envisioned to cater to adventure travelers and outdoor enthusiasts. With 18 rooms, Spoke and Vine Motel in Palisade, built in 1955, vaunts sustainable elements and creative design in spitting distance from Powderhorn Mountain Resort. Finally, LOGE Breckenridge references the ’70s penchant by outdoor enthusiasts to pack friends into a VW van in search of nature’s bounty. Understated rooms have such amenities as bunk beds and hammocks.
(Update: An earlier version of this story had a photo that was misidentified as a room inside Austin Motel. It has been removed.)