Motel renaissance: 7 modern motor inns worth planning a road trip around

Canada's coolest roadside attractions might just be where we lay our heads this summer.

Canada's coolest roadside attractions might just be where we lay our heads this summer

(Photography: Lauren Miller for The June Motel)

Motels are having a moment. Maybe it has something to do with the resurgence of mid-century modern design and the fact that kitsch reads especially well on Instagram, or maybe there's something more to it — perhaps a hint of nostalgia and a sense of longing for the incomparable connection that results from an epic road trip.

Motor hotels first hit the scene in the mid-1920s with the popularization of car travel. Typically single- or two-story buildings with rooms opening directly onto a parking lot, these types of properties became especially prevalent in the late 1940s and '50s with the construction of highways throughout North America. For the road-weary, motels offered an affordable alternative to pricey hotels and more comfort than dodgy roadside auto camps.

The 2400 Motel in Vancouver is one of Canada's earliest examples of the "motor court," which offered a series of detached cottage-style accommodations. Built on Kingsway, the principal route into the city at the time, it has remained virtually unchanged since opening its doors in 1946. Many similar properties suffered a much different fate as motels began to fall out of fashion in the 1980s.

"In the '80s and '90s, the hotel industry expanded with large chains such as Holiday Inn, Travelodge and Howard Johnson taking market share away from independent motor inns," says Scott Hart, general manager of the Drake Motor Inn in Ontario's Prince Edward County. "Business travellers wanted affordable, reliable and consistent accommodations — to walk into a room in Baltimore or Belleville and know exactly where the desk, TV remote or hairdryer were. The motor inn sector fell to the wayside, unable to compete with the discounted rates and homogeneous offerings of the large chains."

These days, instead of looking to cookie-cutter accommodations, travellers are gravitating toward properties that are more quirky, fun and experiential.

"Travellers, especially millennials, are looking for more than just a comfortable room with typical hotel amenities," says Karly McRae, owner of Lakehouse Boutique Hotel in Wasagaming, Man. "They are looking for a unique experience that connects them to a place or that has a look, feel or philosophy that they can identify with."

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"What was once old, with a little creativity, is new again," says Marc Daoust, owner of Lighthouse Motel & Cottages in Conquerall Bank, N.S. "As life has become so fast-paced, there seems to be an ongoing trend toward nostalgia," he adds.

"With all the complications involved with air travel today, car travel is ever more appealing," says Hart. "The simplicity of packing up your car and heading out to see what adventures are ahead isn't offered by air travel — especially with a family."

It helps that modern motels are more chic than shabby, trading musty carpets and threadbare towels for thoughtful décor and complimentary cruiser bikes.

From Vancouver Island to Nova Scotia's South Shore, we'll introduce you to the properties that are reviving road trip culture in Canada. Though some have adopted the "hotel" moniker, you can rest-assured that these seven spots have all the car-park charm you'd expect from an elevated motel experience.

Hotel Zed

(Courtesy Hotel Zed)

With properties in Victoria, Kelowna and plans to open a third location in Tofino in 2020, the Hotel Zed brand is proof that motel culture has taken off in British Columbia. President and CEO Mandy Farmer prides herself in offering unpretentious, retro-inspired accommodations with a large helping of the unexpected.

"In every room you will find brightly coloured rotary dial telephones from the '70s, a yo-yo, a comic book and furniture from the 1960s," says Farmer. "There's also a vintage VW shuttle bus to take you around town, a hot pink water slide in Victoria, roller skates, skateboards and cruiser bikes for free, Ping-Pong lounges, typewriters and a mini disco with a fog machine in Kelowna." 

The Burrard

(Photography: Martin Tessler)

A converted motor hotel originally built in 1956, The Burrard offers throwback charm and modern comforts in equal measure.

All rooms face an interior courtyard filled with palm trees and Ping-Pong tables, and cruiser bikes are available for guests wanting to explore the city on two wheels. Inside the recently refurbished rooms you'll find high-end amenities such as pillowtop mattresses and Nespresso machines.

There's also an on-site comfort food restaurant to satisfy your cravings and free passes to a nearby gym where you can work off your fondue dinner.

Lamphouse Hotel

(Courtesy The Lamphouse)

With a prime location in downtown Canmore, Alta., Lamphouse Hotel boasts fabulous service and world-class views of the Rocky Mountains.

Thoughtful, local-inspired details like woodsy-chic decor, bath products from Rocky Mountain Soap Co. and fresh pastries delivered to your room each morning serve to elevate the experience.

Lakehouse Boutique Hotel

(Courtesy Lakehouse)

Situated inside Manitoba's Riding Mountain National Park, Lakehouse Boutique Hotel offers all the appeal of a cozy cabin inside a converted motel.

"We have worked really hard to create an experience for our guests that offers more than just rooms facing a courtyard," says McRae. "Our brand is really centred around the history of Clear Lake, how our property fits into that, and how we can integrate local food, produce, architecture and historic photos into all aspects of the property." 

An on-site ice cream, coffee and smoothie bar is especially welcoming in the summertime, while winter visitors will love unwinding beside a roaring fire in the communal lounge.

The June Motel

(Photography: Lauren Miller)

Perhaps the most buzzed-about property in Prince Edward County, The June Motel combines a mid-century modern aesthetic with wine-country charm.

"Think bright pink doors, neon signs, Solair chairs, rattan furniture and retro wallpaper," says co-owner April Brown. "Being in wine country, we also embrace the rosé-all-day lifestyle with welcome glasses of wine at check-in."

Add to this an indoor/outdoor lobby bar, nightly campfires and breakfast in bed on request, and it's easy to see why the property has become so popular. A second June Motel property is slated to open in Sauble Beach in 2020.

Drake Motor Inn

(Courtesy Drake Motor Inn)

The Drake Hotel Properties brand is expanding into the motel market with a quirky throwback spot that's set to open on May 31. Located in Wellington, Ont., just up the street from its popular sister property the Drake Devonshire, Drake Motor Inn promises fun, impeccably designed, pet-friendly accommodations for wine country explorers.

Amenities include free bicycle and Polaroid camera rentals, a communal fire pit in summer and a skating rink in winter.

Lighthouse Motel & Cottages

(Courtesy Lighthouse Motel & Cottages)

Blending modern Canadiana and coastal elements, the recently refurbished Lighthouse Motel & Cottages boasts 500 feet of waterfront and a small private beach as well as plenty of green space with communal barbecues and picnic tables for al fresco dining beside the LaHave River.

Situated just outside of Bridgewater, N.S., the property provides the perfect jumping off point for exploring nearby Lunenburg and some of the province's most beautiful beaches and fishing villages.

Jen O'Brien is an award-winning editor and freelance writer based in Toronto. Follow her @thejenobrien.