In the 1950s and sixties, when road trips were the trips, motor lodges dotted Southern highways. From Texas to Virginia, a recent resurgence of the roadside motel is delivering the character and convenience of the properties’ yesterdays alongside the modern amenities today’s travelers crave. If you check into one of these newly opened (or reopened) accommodations, you can rest your head in retro style.
Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
The Wayback (Pigeon Forge) and Rocky Waters Motor Inn (Gatlinburg) are blasts from the past developed by brothers Mahavir and Dev Patel. Opened in 2023, the Wayback has a flashback-Florida feel that fits quirky Pigeon Forge, with a palette of white accented with soft pink and seafoam green and a cabana-ringed pool that offers swim club memberships to locals, too.
Dating to the 1930s, Rocky Waters was left to the Patels by their parents and is set to reopen this March after a top-to-bottom revitalization. With the exterior’s new natural hues, it blends into its streamside surroundings. “You might not even notice there’s a hotel there,” Mahavir says. With exposed wood beams, wood floors, and wood paneling on accent walls and fireplaces, guestrooms have a chic cabin vibe, and there are fun extras like a kit for fashioning a fly-fishing hook.
Both properties usher guests into a bygone era; for the Patels, the throwback appeal is personal. “Growing up at Rocky Waters, we’d get excited about every guest. Dev would engage with them and, at bedtime, share stories as if he knew them,” Mahavir says. “There’s something extraordinary about people we meet on the road.”
Charleston, South Carolina
For decades, this low-slung landmark provided a place for travelers to relax. In the 1990s, it fell into disrepair and eventually closed to the public. A Charleston native saved it from a planned demolition, led the push to get it on the National Register of Historic Places (noting its designation as the first modular-built motel in the South), and renovated it in 2022. It’s now handing out keys again, and its swinging Burgundy Lounge serves locals and guests gin cocktails and hosts regular live music. The flat roof and coral hue exude vintage flair, and recent reviews rave about comfy beds, smiling staff, and an inviting pool. (Daily pool passes allow locals to refresh with a dip, too.)
This swanky spot in the “bourbon capital of the world” was the Parkview Motel in its former life. If its seventy-year-old walls could talk, they’d likely tell about the time Colonel Sanders showed up and made fried chicken in the attached restaurant, Toogie’s (which is still cooking today).
Per the original design scheme, no areas are standard size, making furnishing the rooms an exercise in creativity. Undeterred, the current owners opted for chic and minimalist platform beds and barrel side chairs and maintained midcentury details like the geometric breezeblock walls.
The lodge’s location has also long been part of its appeal. For decades, it’s served tourists visiting My Old Kentucky Home State Park across the street. Today, crowds come for a taste of brown-water heritage at some of Kentucky’s most renowned distilleries before checking into the hotel for a bourbon slushy by the pool.
Boone, North Carolina
This 1950s motel was recently reimagined and renamed for the North Carolina High Country’s abundant rhododendron, which puts on a show around this recently renovated mountain perch. “You’re above all the city’s bustle, so you can see activity below, but straight out your window, the view is all mountains,” says Christine McDonald, chief operations officer for Loden Hospitality, which runs the property. Loden kept many elements of the original design but amped up the summer camp vibes. Adirondack chairs ring cozy firepits. Rough-sawn wood furnishings mingle with polished pieces and leather. The fifty-four rooms include kitschy folding camp stools and artwork by North Carolina artist Josh Gajownik, who also worked closely with the Loden team on the lodge’s redesign. The camp theme continues at the on-site eatery Canteen, where buckets of beer and bottles of wine come in sky-blue Coleman coolers, which also replace ice buckets in rooms.
When the Galveston native Keath Jacoby moved back home with her husband, Dave, the duo noted the waterside city’s warm hospitality but also a dearth of hotels that appealed to younger crowds. “There is a lot of Victorian-era architecture here, so we went a different direction,” Keath says. When they discovered a midcentury-modern gem—the shuttered Treasure Isle Motel, right on the beach—they partnered with longtime friend and developer Robert Marcus to give it a polish. “We wanted it to feel like you were visiting your weird aunt’s home: eclectic but cozy and relaxed too,” Keath says.
They added coastal touches like rattan light shades and seagrass rugs. They ordered tons of colorful cement tiles, handmade by a family in Nicaragua, to embellish spaces like the patio and the rooftop bar (with its stellar Gulf views) as well as Lucine’s restaurants. The food alone is worth a visit; executive chef Leila Ortiz creates American “fine-ish” dining that layers French technique and Texas twists, resulting in dishes like griddled blueberry muffins with chicken liver mousse.
After taking a neglected roadside building down to the studs, the owners of this 1959 motor lodge didn’t just bring it back, they went far out, man. Doorways of its ten rooms are like portals to different eras and aesthetics, from hot pink parrots in the Havana room to Pac-Man’s nemesis ghosts rendered in neon in a totally eighties-themed room. They hired area artist Keeley Farmer to create the bold murals and went with colorful patterns in wallpaper and upholstery throughout. Another plus: A pass to the nearby Cloudland Canyon State Park and its awe-inspiring panoramic views is included in the cost of a stay.
After the most recent of multiple renovations to a classic 1960s motor motel, the Grey Pine Lodge reopened in the summer of 2023. With twenty-two serene rooms, a charming on-site shop, and string-light-illuminated alfresco gathering areas with firepits, it’s the ideal resting place after a day of exploring the area’s hiking trails. A one-mile private path meanders its wooded acres, and there’s easy access to dozens of other trails in the adjacent Shenandoah National Park and on the Appalachian Trail. Its location in a tranquil nook of the Shenandoah Valley brings an additional perk: close proximity to brewery and winery trails to slake thirsts summoned by fresh mountain air.