After almost 40 hours stuck in the backseat of our parents’ Chevrolet Impala, my brothers and I took one look at the kitschy motel along a busy strip in Tampa Bay, Fla., with its periwinkle blue steel awnings and plastic flamingos, and fell instantly in love. Who knew there was such a thing as “refrigerated” rooms or crescent-shaped swimming pools?
It was the early seventies and motels – with their eccentric architecture and drive-up-to-the-door convenience – were popular with road warriors like my family on tight budgets. For folks like us, motels were a novelty and a treat.
Then they lost their allure.
By the eighties, mass-market hotels had taken over. Motel – an amalgam of motor and hotel – had become synonymous with substandard amenities, such as lumpy mattresses and towels you could see through. The lion’s share of these once-proud roadside staples had fallen into disrepair. No one really stayed at them – not unless they had to.
But now these mid-century oddities are enjoying a renaissance. A new breed of motelier is buying run-down properties, giving them a new look and marketing them as havens for people who don’t need all the bells-and-whistles and appreciate the feel of places with one foot in the past.
The Drake Motor Inn, for instance, which opens May 31 in Prince Edward County, is modelled after a classic roadside motel but kitted out with modern twists (keyless digital entry, premium stocked mini fridges). Next summer, the June Motel & Swim Club will open in Sauble Beach, Ont., after an extensive renovation of a 50-year-old property a stone’s throw from the beach on the shores of Lake Huron. Its owners – who already have the June Motel in Picton, Ont. – promise this property, too, will make guests feel they’re stepping into a bit of a time warp. And in Tofino, B.C., guests will be guaranteed a nostalgia fix next spring when Hotel Zed (formerly Jamie’s Rainforest Inn) opens on four acres of rainforest on the West Coast.
“In the last two or three years, I’ve seen an explosion in this trend to buy old, tired motels and turn them into places where people want to stay because they’re comfortable, unusual and interesting,’” says Beth Lennon, who started tracking retro spots to eat, shop and sleep at retroroadmap.com in 2009.
“First, they were geared toward baby boomers who were nostalgic for vacations they went on as kids,” Lennon says. “Now they’re aimed at a younger crowd: millennials who don’t want a generic vacation in a boring, brown stucco box. They want experiences, and they want to stay in places that have a sense of history and some flair.”
Jeff Stober, who started the Drake Hotel Property chain in Toronto in 2004, says the Drake Motor Inn will appeal to a crowd that revels in the unconventional. “Motels walk a very fine line between the cool factor and the geek factor, because they’re a bit of both.
“The roadside motor inn was a staple of my life growing up in the sixties. I’m from Montreal so we’d go in our family station wagon to motels in Maine or Massachusetts. The notion of having a colour TV in our room was crazy. Cable was unbelievable. And a pool to play with other kids, fantastic. It’s that sense of wonderment that we’re after here,” explains Stober, who adds that the design of the 12-room Drake Motor Inn is a careful mix of old and new – retro-style furnishings and Polaroid cameras paired with curated artwork and fine toiletries.
“It’s the best memories of yesteryear with today’s accoutrements, without an itchy towel or questionable blanket in sight,” he adds.
The Zed Hotel chain – with its colour scheme of neon pinks, lime greens and cobalt blues (both inside and out) – is more exuberant than the Drake Motor Inn, but company president Mandy Farmer says her team has hit on a retro-modern balance that guests seem to love.
“I’m a lover of vintage and different eras so our places are filled with mementos of the past,” says Farmer, listing amenities such as vinyl listening stations, old bikes, vintage shuttle buses, Tanker-style desks and rotary dial phones (that come with instructions for a younger generation).
“When we first started doing this, motels were not cool at all,” adds Farmer, who launched the first Hotel Zed in Victoria five years ago. “Now they are, and that was our ambition. Guests come to stay with us because our rooms have everything they need – plus they’re fun.”
April Brown and Sarah Sklash – long-time friends and the owners of the two “Junes” – say they believe the motel revival is due to one thing. “They take you back to a different era that many of our customers were never part of," Brown says. “They love pulling up to the door and bringing their own suitcases in. It sounds simple, but maybe that’s why they like motels. They remind them of simpler times."
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