National Geographic Traveler: Mod Motels
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National Geographic Traveler: Mod Motels

Next-generation motor lodges offer high style at not-so-high prices.

By Elaine Glusac

When business brought Miami-based architect Denio Madera to Palm Springs regularly he gave up staying at his then-favorite resort, the upscale Breakers, and rented an apartment. But since Hotel Biba opened last spring, reclaiming West Palm’s old Mt. Vernon Motor Lodge with splashy wall colors and modern furniture, the repeat guest is considering canceling his lease. “Biba appeals to my sense of design and at $80 a night I could almost move in,” he says.

Having turned vintage properties into boutique hotels in the 1990s, smart, contemporary designers now eye once neglected motels, transforming them into stylish but affordable lodgings that stake out a new middle ground between fashion and function.

By eschewing room service, dry cleaning, and other conveniences for which hotels charge amply, motels keep rates reasonable. Like traditional motels, updated models feature characteristic low-rise architecture, private room entrances, and an active pool area. But the boutique motels up the luxe factor by offering 300-thread count sheets, Aveda toiletries and, in some cases, trendy lobby bars like Hotel Biba’s which dishes charcuterie and spins deep house music.

While boutique motels remain a small subset of the 52,000 lodgings nationwide, their numbers are growing. Many new “moteliers” have spin-off projects in the works — Orbit In, for example, plans another Palm Springs property next year.

In addition to price and style, nostalgia boosts the appeal of neo-motels. “There’s great Americana to roadside motor lodges,” says Chip Conley, founder of Joie de Vivre hotels, the first to remodel a motel with San Francisco ‘s Phoenix . “They make people feel comfortable.”

Hope Springs ; Desert Hot Springs , CA

A Zen-like compound of 10 rooms rings three hot spring-fed pools in this desert design oasis. Ultra-spare rooms each contain a platform bed, cantilevered shelf and one 50’s-era chair each. Guests do most of their lounging on cushy poolside chaises. Rates start at $150 (

Hotel San Jose; Austin , TX

Music fans flocking to Austin ‘s South Congress district often stay here. Vine-climbing arbors and a bamboo-ringed pool have replaced the interior parking lot of this Depression-era motor court. Funky cowhide rugs and vintage Eames chairs animate minimalist rooms. Rates start at $69 (

Atlantic *Bentley *Capri; Southampton , NY

Three overhauled motels in the fashionable Hamptons feature custom trapezoidal highboys, wood and chrome desks, and downy beds. Rates start at $180 (

Hotel Biba; West Palm Beach , FL

A 1940s Bahamanian Colonial motel in the historic El Cid neighborhood underwent a colorful makeover by Barbara Hulanicki who designed the Biba fashion line of the 1960’s. Though smallish, the rooms feature uncluttered modern furniture. Guests can also linger in the Asian garden and grab a drink at the bar. Rates start at $79. (

Orbit In; Palm Springs , CA

Owner Christy Eugenis took a mid-century modern motel back to its heyday, filling 10 rooms– dubbed Cha-Cha, Leopard Lounge, Rat Pack Suite, etc. – with period furniture by designers Noguchi, Bertoia, and Eames. Lava lamps at the boomerang-shaped pool bar cleverly conceal dataports. Rates start at $189 (

Wild Palms Hotel; Sunnyvale , CA ,

From the Joie de Vivre Hospitality company comes this sunny Silicon Valley motor lodge that mimics a Mediterranean bungalow. Ikea wicker pieces, a bold paint palette, and mosaic tables set the tone. Fun and functional poolside office cabanas serve the wired set. Rates start at $135 (