The revival of California’s vintage motels – thanks to Barbie, Instagram and a cult new coffee table book

California’s fantastically kitsch motels sound the rallying call for individuality in a world of standardised hotel rooms, with a new generation discovering their retro charms via some very modern introductions. Zoey Goto explores

Tuesday 28 May 2024 07:23 BST
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A pleasure palace of pink: The Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo
A pleasure palace of pink: The Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo (Zoey Goto)

When Alex Madonna first opened the Madonna Inn in 1958, it was with a relatively simple ambition: to create a place where people felt happy. Armed with leftover materials from his construction company and a wife with a certain flair for outrageous interiors, it took 20 years to complete the resort – during which time it had morphed into something far beyond even the Madonna’s wildest dreams.

Today, the Madonna Inn is celebrated as America’s most iconic fantasy motel. Situated in San Luis Obispo, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, a towering hot pink sign at the roadside welcomes me back to this pleasure palace. I’ve been visiting the Madonna Inn for over a decade now, during which time the high-camp décor has gradually slipped back into fashion, reshuffling the clientele. Old-timers now share the whimsical space with a younger cohort of hipsters who discovered the Madonna Inn through social media and fashion magazines, including the front cover of Vogue Portugal.

Zoey Goto checked into the Madonna Inn for some high-camp glamour
Zoey Goto checked into the Madonna Inn for some high-camp glamour (Zoey Goto)

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Uniting this off-beat crew is an appreciation for the maximalist guest rooms: 110 in total and no two the same. As I ease open the door of my Flintstones-style room, the walls, ceiling and floor are constructed entirely of rugged rock boulders. There’s a cascading waterfall shower in the bathroom, illuminated by a caveman stained-glass window. Elsewhere in the motel, the time capsule rooms include a cowboy hideaway with a wagon wheel bed, a psychedelic room adorned with flower-power wallpaper and suites decorated in a bedazzlement of sequin wallpaper. But it’s inside the Madonna Inn’s steakhouse restaurant that the flamboyance hits its crescendo, with gilded cherubs frolicking across the fuchsia interiors.

For a Flintstones-style room try the Madonna motel
For a Flintstones-style room try the Madonna motel (Madonna Inn)

Like many motor lodges, the Madonna Inn sprouted curbside during the mid-century, catering to a surge of all-American road-trippers. Following the advent of air travel and chain hotels, motels would eventually wane in popularity. But a revival of interest in car journeys during the pandemic introduced a new generation – those seeking memorable experiences above corporate hotel rewards – to these vintage inns hiding in plain sight.

Fifty miles upstate at the Victorian Mansion in Los Alamos, owner Rod Rigole explains that California’s movie industry has enabled its motel owners to push the creative boundaries. “It helps to have Hollywood nearby as we have set designers and skilled artisans who can carve by hand and paint murals,” Rigole says as he unlocks the door to my 1950s-themed suite, where tonight I’ll be sleeping in a bed fashioned from a Cadillac. Beyond the accidentally Wes Anderson aesthetics, the Victorian Mansion aims to provide its guests with a fully immersive experience. I spend a swell evening watching Elvis flickering on the drive-in projector overhead, in a room lightly scented with the nostalgic fragrance of bubble gum.

The Victorian Mansion is just one of the quirky properties featured in the recently released book Hotel Kitsch, from the creators behind A Pretty Cool Hotel Tour, an Instagram page with a cool 600,000 devotees. Co-author Margaret Bienert notes that many of the “mom-and-pop” motels featured on their grid operate without a marketing budget or social media manager. The influx of influencers, hungry to share the unique charms of the inns with a wider audience online, has boosted these indie businesses.

“It’s incredibly common these days to use social media as a travel planning tool, which has helped a new generation to discover California’s vintage motels,” says Bienert.

Hunker down in a Cadillac at the Victorian Mansion in Los Alamos
Hunker down in a Cadillac at the Victorian Mansion in Los Alamos (Zoey Goto)

On the flipside, savvy to the power of digital platforms, modern hotels nowadays are increasingly using colourful Instagenic backdrops in their design. It can feel a little contrived and one-dimensional, Bienert feels. In contrast, California’s grande dame motels – created long before TikTok was a glint in a web developer’s eye – offer “more than just pre-planned Instagram-moments. Young people want experiences that are worth photographing but for the entire space to fit the description”.

Hungry for another hit of California’s trailblazing motels, I head south to the High Desert, where all is definitely not quiet on the western front. Pioneertown was originally founded in 1946 by a posse of cowboys – the kind who roamed Hollywood’s backlots rather than the plains – including actors Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. It was conceived as a Western film set situated within lassoing distance of Los Angeles (125 miles, to be exact), with a saloon, trading post, bowling alley and low-rise wooden motel. Following a ghost town stint when the cameras stopped rolling, Pioneertown is now back for a second act.

Saddle up or swing in hammocks in rustic Pioneertown
Saddle up or swing in hammocks in rustic Pioneertown (Pioneertown Motel )

Negronis and wagyu beef tacos slide across the gnarly counter at the Red Dog Saloon, a watering hole where folklore has it that Roy Rogers and his trusty horse Trigger once propped up the bar. So popular is nearby Pappy + Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, a BBQ joint where everyone from Paul McCartney to Lizzo has performed on the dinky stage, there’s a three-hour waitlist when I attempt to nab a table.

Thankfully, there’s room at the inn at the Pioneertown Motel, a 19-room rustic-chic motel. Swaying hammocks dot the property, ready for guests to gaze up at the stars. Inside my room – the very same room where high-rolling film stars once played poker until sunrise – there are now Aztec throws on the bed, cowhide rugs on the floor and botanical toiletries in the bathroom. Taking a seat on the porch, as a steady trickle of visitors dressed in fringe and fedora hats pass by, confirms that I’ve officially arrived in the beating heart of the New Old West.

It would be remiss to leave California without visiting nearby Palm Springs – ground zero for retro design. Sweeps of the city were created post-war by experimental modernist architects, catering to a glamorous crowd who clinked cocktails by the pool. These days, Palm Springs is awash with perfectly preserved and reimagined motel resorts, including the South Pacific-inspired Caliente Tropics, complete with an extravagant Tiki-bar, and the Ace Hotel and Swim Club, a reimagined 1960s motor lodge. But it’s the Trixie Motel, Palm Springs’ new-kid-on-the-block motel that beckons.

Palm Springs Trixie Motel is a seven-room vintage-inspired oasis
Palm Springs Trixie Motel is a seven-room vintage-inspired oasis (Trixie Motel )

The Trixie Motel was opened 18 months ago by drag queen Trixie Mattel, a former contestant on the TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race. Its transformation from a beat-up guesthouse into a seven-room vintage-inspired oasis was lavishly documented with an eight-part Discovery+ show, resulting in a six-month waiting list for specific rooms on weekends. “The Barbie movie also helped to put our aesthetic on the map,” says manager Drew Brant knowingly, while standing in the all-pink-everything bar where legendary Saturday night drag shows are performed.

Through the window, palm trees sway lazily in the breeze beside a statue of Venus de Milo, updated in a vision of Pepto-Bismol pink. I take a sip of my flamingo-hued mocktail and reflect that, sure, California’s fantasy motels might be too much for some. But for those seeking a joyful antidote to the run‐of‐the‐mill hotel scene, they provide exactly what Alex Madonna once set out to deliver: a place bursting at the frilly seams with pure, unadulterated happiness.

Read more: Forget driving in LA – here’s how to explore the sprawling California city by bike

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