These 11 Revamped Californian Motels Are Totally Worth a Road Trip

Vintage-inspired lodgings and wide California highways go together like beds and breakfasts.

The exterior of the Skyview Los Alamos

California has it all—charming coastal communities, high desert, redwood forests, and cute boutique motels.

Courtesy of the Skyview Los Alamos

Ever since the dawn of the automobile, it seems like California has been one of, if not the most sought after road-trip destinations. Dramatic coastal cliffs, towering redwoods, and Hollywood lights—there’s much to love about the Golden State. But one of the most important things to have for the perfect road trip? A great room to unwind in once the day is over.

Early in the 20th century, before the dawn of the motel, staying in a “tourist house” (a home that could accommodate travelers for a fee) or pulling over by a scenic spot and camping were the most common ways to spend the night while touring the country by car. During the late 1920s and ’30s, as road trips became evermore popular, motor cottages or motor courts (places where travelers could drive directly to their room’s front door) began to gain steam. The term evolved into “motor lodge” and then to “motor hotel,” which was shortened to “motel” in 1926 by Arthur Heineman, who owned the Milestone Mo-Tel in San Luis Obispo, California. As more and more average Americans were able to afford cars, the motel business skyrocketed, eventually reaching its peak in the 1950s and early ’60s.

Small mom-and-pop motels began to fall out of vogue in the late 1960s as large hotel chains like Holiday Inn began to crop up beside highways across the nation. However, vintage motels have been experiencing a revival in the past few years. Attracted by nostalgia and priceless midcentury-modern details, hoteliers and property flippers alike have been snatching up once-forgotten motels and sprucing them up with local artisanal and culinary touches, modern amenities, and thoughtful interior design. And though the purpose of a motel was once simply a place to sleep before continuing on a journey to sightsee, the following 11 motels are arguably destinations in and of themselves.

1. Flamingo Resort

Located in the heart of Sonoma County surrounded by acres of grapevines and over 200 wineries, the Flamingo was the place to see and be seen during the golden age of Hollywood. It was frequented by stars like Jayne Mansfield who were seeking a place that was close but far away enough to feel like an escape from Los Angeles. In 2019, the property was purchased by hotel management company Point Hospitality, which set about restoring the hotel to its former glory; the newly renovated Flamingo Resort debuted in June 2021. There are 170 rooms as well as a full-service spa and fitness center, a tennis court, and a year-round heated pool. The Flamingo Resort also offers a rigorous wellness program, which includes classes on reiki, breathwork, astrology, and yoga.

A two-bedroom suite at the San Luis Creek Lodge

The design of the San Luis Creek Lodge is inspired by the area’s beaches and vineyards.

Courtesy of San Luis Creek Lodge

2. San Luis Creek Lodge

Sited on the edge of San Luis Obispo’s charming downtown on the Central California coast, this cute bed-and-breakfast offers 25 rooms spread across three unique buildings. All rooms were designed by Nina Freudenberger decorated with bohemian, contemporary farmhouse-inspired design and most are equipped with fireplaces. Fresh coffee and breakfast pastries are delivered directly to guests’ doors every morning. San Luis Creek Lodge’s location makes it the perfect jumping-off-point to explore the area’s local vineyards, adventurous coastal hikes, and famous Pismo Beach.

Thanks to its remote location, the Cuyama Buckhorn is a great place to stargaze at night.

Thanks to its remote location, the Cuyama Buckhorn is a great place to stargaze at night.

Photo courtesy of Cuyama Buckhorn

3. Cuyama Buckhorn

Located squarely—and blissfully—in the middle of nowhere (or more accurately, in New Cuyama in Santa Barbara County’s high desert region), the Cuyama Buckhorn offers 21 rooms, locally sourced meals at its Buckhorn Restaurant & Bar, and plenty of artsy, western-inspired personality. The building that currently houses the motel was originally constructed in 1952 as a roadhouse for the New Cuyama community. In 2018, Jeff Vance and Ferial Sadeghian bought it and renovated the property into the boutique motel that it is today. Cuyama Buckhorn also has a pool, hot tub, and sauna, and its remote location, unspoiled by light pollution, makes it an ideal location for stargazing. To explore the local area, just over an hour away is the Carrizo Plain National Monument, which is home to the largest single native grassland prairie in California, over 250,000 acres. In addition to a breadth of wildlife (including pronghorn antelope, giant kangaroo rats, and lizards), the area is known for its wildflower blooms that, weather permitting, occur in the spring and attract lookie-loos from all over the state.

A room at the Skyview Los Alamos

Fun perks at the Skyview Los Alamos include an on-site restaurant, a working vineyard, and heated pool.

Courtesy of the Skyview Los Alamos

4. Sky View Los Alamos

Originally constructed in the 1950s, this wine country motel underwent a thorough, multimillion-dollar renovation in the mid-2010s after sitting vacant for a few years and got a second life in 2019 upon its reopening. Sited on a hillside overlooking the Santa Ynez valley, the motel offers windswept, jetliner views of the property’s vineyard as well as the surrounding countryside. There are 33 rooms at the Skyview, as well as a full-service restaurant, Norman, which serves up bites like a chorizo breakfast burrito, wagyu tallow cornbread, and sous vide duck confit. Other bells and whistles include a heated pool, hardwood flooring in rooms, and marble bathrooms.

A room at the Pacific Motel

The Pacific Motel is located in the underrated Central Coast beach community of Cayucos.

Courtesy of the Pacific Motel

5. The Pacific Motel

The Pacific Motel is owned and operated by Cayucos local Ryan Fortini, who was born and raised in the idyllic, central California beach town. There are 20 rooms at the Pacific, 6 located in historic, 1920s bungalows once used as military barracks at Camp San Luis Obispo and moved to Cayucos in the 1950s. All of the accommodations at the motel have been thoughtfully redesigned to embody a light and airy, coastal California-inspired ambiance. The lobby offers an indoor fireplace, a fridge stocked with light refreshments, and a comfortable lounge area. The Pacific Motel is a three-minute walk from the beach and could serve as the perfect place to explore some of the best surfing in the San Luis Obispo area.

6. The Green Room Hotel

The Green Room Hotel is the brainchild of husband-and-wife duo Stephen and Brett Poovey, who came across the 1950s motor lodge sited on the Pacific Coast Highway while out on a date. The Pooveys were adamant about not making any drastic modifications that might take away from the original spirit of the building, and not a single wall was removed during renovation. However, the Green Room, which opened in July 2021, is anything but old and stuffy. It’s the kind of place where you could imagine a surfer casually strolling into after a long day out on the waves (and that might not be hard to picture considering that the beach is a 10-minute walk away).

There are 12 suites at the Green Room, each offering midcentury modern–inspired furnishings, local art, and Moroccan rugs. In keeping with the old motor lodge theme, there’s no lobby at the Green Room. Rather, guests can simply “check in’’ to their rooms with an electronic code sent directly to their phones.

A living room area at the Cambria Beach Lodge

The design at Cambria Beach Lodge is inspired by the local coastal community.

Photo by Johnny Valiant

7. Cambria Beach Lodge

PRG Hospitality Group that owns and renovated Cambria Beach Lodge says it was inspired by three things when reimagining the motel: “surf, wine, and one of the most beautiful sunsets you have ever seen.” The Cambria Beach Lodge, eight miles from famed Hearst Castle, is located on Moonstone Beach, known for its scenic coastline. The lodge boasts all the trappings that modern travelers have come to expect from a boutique beachside hotel, including hip, coastal-inspired decor, bikes available to borrow, a curated mini-bar, and memorable views. Conveniently, it’s located within walking distance to Cambria’s downtown strip and some of the area’s most popular restaurants, including the Sea Chest Oyster Bar, less than a minute’s walk away. (Get there early; seats go fast and the restaurant doesn’t take reservations.)

An ocean-view king room at the White Water Hotel

The White Water Hotel is located close to Moonstone Beach, one of the state’s most secluded surf breaks.

Courtesy of the White Water Hotel

8. White Water

Here’s the spot for design lovers on the go: Offering 25 beautifully appointed rooms, the freshly renovated White Water (constructed in the 1980s) was worked on by interior designer Nina Freudenberger, known for her work in private homes as well as her books Bibliostyle and Surf Shack. Freudenberger was directly inspired by the Central Coast’s unique ecosystem, which is dotted with Monterey pines, cypress trees, and tide pools. In the rooms, expect dark greens intermingled with melon-orange tones and textiles sourced from small shops along the coast. As an added bonus, each room at White Water offers ocean views. If you’re feeling peckish, head to the lobby lounge, which has a variety of small bites like locally sourced meats and cheeses as well as local beers, wines, and ciders.

Interior shot of the Bungalows by Homestead Modern looking out to the Mojave Desert

Recently revamped, the Bungalows by Homestead Modern were designed by acclaimed midcentury-modern architect Harold Zook.

Photo by Yoshihiro Makino

9. The Bungalows by Homestead Modern

This former-motor-lodge-turned-boutique motel has all the trappings that visitors expect from a Joshua Tree getaway: desert expanses, midcentury-modern accommodations, and a dash of New Age magic. The Bungalows, which opened in June 2022, is located on the Joshua Tree Retreat Center, aka the Institute of Mentalphysics, which is dedicated to improving physical and emotional well-being through Eastern-inspired philosophy; it is also has the largest collection of Lloyd Wright (son of Frank Lloyd Wright) buildings in the world. The rooms at the Bungalows are steeped in midcentury details: original post-and-beam ceilings, polished concrete floors, and floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors. The property abuts the Mojave Desert Land Trust, so even if you don’t make it to nearby Joshua Tree National Park, there are still many hiking trails and sights to explore right outside your room.

The Lola restaurant at the National Exchange Hotel was inspired by 19th century actress Lola Montez, who performed here.

Each of the rooms at the Trixie Motel is centered around a retro theme.

Courtesy of the Trixie Motel

10. Trixie Motel

Owned by world-famous drag queen Trixie Mattel, the Trixie Motel opened in September 2022 with much fanfare and is every bit as pink and Instagram-able as you would expect it to be. Trixie found the motor inn, which was built in 1953, while scrolling through Zillow and quickly began renovations in 2020 after purchasing it—a process documented on the Discovery+ showTrixie Motel. Located in Palm Springs’ Old Las Palmas neighborhood (the haunt of Hollywood stars like Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor), the Trixie Motel is walking distance from the city’s main strip. Every one of the seven suites at the motel are extravagantly themed, ranging from “Queen of Hearts” (think heart-shaped mirror above the bed and shag carpeting) to “Yeehaw Cowgirl” (decorated with baby blue and pink horseshoes and other western paraphernalia). Although there isn’t a full-service restaurant, the on-site café has snacks available like sweet and salty popcorn, margherita pizza, and cookies based on a recipe created by David Silver’s (Trixie’s boyfriend’s) mother.

A room at the Azure Sky Hotel

The Azure Sky has just 14 rooms and only allows guests who are 21 and older.

Courtesy of the Azure Sky Hotel

11. Azure Sky Hotel

Constructed in 1959, the Azure Sky Hotel offers travelers the perfect balance of midcentury-modern details and desert-inspired chic. There are just 14 rooms here (and the property is 21+ only) making for an intimate, cozy atmosphere—11 of the rooms have private patios, the perfect place to gaze at the nearby San Jacinto Mountains that tower over the city. Though there is a bar on the property (guests receive a welcome cocktail at check-in) and a continental breakfast is served daily, there isn’t a restaurant. Thankfully, Azure Sky is just a five-minute drive from Palm Springs’ bustling downtown. As an added bonus, the motel also has a large heated swimming pool as well as a Jacuzzi. However, if getting wet is not your thing, there are two firepits on the property that are set up near lounge seating.

Mae Hamilton is a former associate editor at Afar. She covers all things related to arts, culture, and the beautiful things that make travel so special.
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