At America's vintage motels, it's 1950 all over again - every single night.
Something about the swath of carpet grass in front of a motel makes you feel like a kid again. Look at that grass, and you think of sleeping in the backseat of the car, wheels eating up the road below, your little brother jostling for more space. You think of the rocket-shaped cookie jar where Dad threw his loose change. He and Mom would empty the jar right before vacation, roll the coins, and exchange them at the bank for traveler's checks.
The motel arose because of America's love affair with the automobile. The motels blazed roadsides with neon, turned to tiki when soldiers returned from the South Pacific and to space-age design when we traveled to the moon. Now its appeal is as much about retro chic as it is about the swimming pool, TV, and air-conditioning. Some motels are registered as historic places. Others, endangered by development, have devotees of mid-century modern design lobbying for their protection.
Around the United States are motels where you can step across the threshold - or stare at the lawn - and enter the past. These are 15 of our favorites.
1. Starlux, Wildwood, New Jersey The Starlux is just one gem in the Wildwoods resort area, known as the center of doo-wop architecture. You know doo-wop: buildings meant to look as if they were transplanted, intact, from Tiki Island or Mars or Candyland (for more, see www.doowopusa.org). This stretch of the Jersey shore is chock-full of 1950s and '60s motels, not to mention chrome-plated diners and elaborate neon signs. Even contemporary businesses are getting in on the act: Subway has a doo-wop sign, and the Harley-Davidson dealership is tricked out like a '50s movie theater.
But the Starlux is the motel most worthy of the Rat Pack. You can almost see Dean Martin in his white sport coat, leaning against the registration desk in the soaring, glass-walled lobby (he probably wouldn't try sitting in the bat-wing chairs, though). Weekend rates start at $89 in the winter, $199 in the summer. (609) 522-7412
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2. Caribbean Motel, which is so doo-wop that it has fake palm trees by the pool. Rates vary wildly, even week to week during the summer, but they start at $60. www.caribbeanmotel.com, (609) 522-8292
3. Kate's Lazy Meadow Inn, Mount Tremper, New York When Kate Pierson of the band the B-52's saw this collection of 1950s cabins (at the time, they were so decrepit they were more accurately called shacks), she fell in love. She bought the motel, on nine acres in the Catskills near Woodstock, and set to work remodeling, with the assistance of designer buddy Bill Stewart. Fittingly, she also called for help from the two artists whose home served as the set for the band's "Love Shack" video. The result: rustic outside, groovy inside. Each cabin is stuffed with colorful mid-century furniture and fixtures (think checkerboard tile, chrome, and vinyl), and some have '50s-style kitchens complete with vintage Frigidaires and stoves. Evidence of Pierson's around-the-world travels is everywhere: Her souvenir tchotchkes decorate the place, and the toiletries are a mix of products used in hotels she's visited on tour. But the place isn't all about decor - there's a creek on the property for fishing and tubing. And hey, it's the Catskills, so there's skiing, hiking, biking, and more to do nearby. Not to mention the eponymous meadow for lazing in. Rates start at $150. www.lazymeadow.com, (845) 688-7200
4. Palmer House Resort Motel, Manchester, Vermont Palmer House has the kind of lawn other vintage motels pine for. For one thing, it's huge - 22 acres. And it's manicured, slightly rolling, so pristine that the white clapboard buildings could be oddly shaped golf balls on a giant's putting green. The lawn invites strolling, perhaps to the tennis courts for a game, to one of the pools, to the nine-hole golf course, to the Ye Olde Tavern restaurant, or to the North Shire Museum & History Center, all of which are on the grounds. Obviously, this is no 1950s kitsch-o-rama; it's the motel, old New England style. And it happens to be in a town that's inexplicably full of well-preserved relics of the grand automobile age, and which attracts leaf gazers in autumn, skiers in winter, fly-fishermen in spring, and outlet shoppers in summer. Rates start at $85. www
.palmerhouse.com, (800) 917-6245
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5. Red Sled Resort Motel, with its own version of the perfect motel lawn, plus a stocked trout pond. Weekend rates start at $98. www.redsled.com, (802) 362-2161
6. Orbit In, Palm Springs, California Furnishings by the likes of Eames, Noguchi, and Saarinen have earned this refabbed 1957 motel the moniker Modernist Heaven - and that in a town where mid-century architecture is the chic magnet. This place manages to make pink bathroom tile look cool. Lounge music floats over the saltwater swimming pool. The poolside bar sports requisite lava lamps and martinis. Even the cups in the kitchenettes are vintage Melmac. Weekend rates start at $229. www
.orbitin.com, (877) 996-7248
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7. Caliente Tropics, where Polynesian-style digs meet the Palm Springs desert. Weekend rates start at $79. www.caliente
tropics.com, (888) 277-0999