I remember the last time I stayed in a motel. It was 1979, and six–year–old me was too entranced by the vanity lights around the mirror – like for a princess – to notice the slippery bedspreads, threadbare carpeting or hear the mournful hum of the ice machine outside the room that counted as the place’s only frill. I haven’t been back since.
Most North American travellers haven’t either. As flying became more affordable, vacationers traded station wagon getaways for cheap margaritas and sunny skies, and the many “motor hotels” that dot North America’s highways fell into disrepair. Motels became places where only truckers and mopey TV detectives stayed. When the creators of Schitt’s Creek needed to trap the once–wealthy Rose family in the worst place they could imagine, it was in a scuzzy motel. “Apparently,” says Moira in the first episode, “in Hell there is no bellman.”
Well, there’s still no bellman, but motels are back, baby, fuelled by a new generation of owners who are turning the two–star accommodations of their childhood into Instagram–perfect destinations. Netflix’s popular Motel Makeover chronicled the refurbishment of the June Motel’s Sauble Beach, Ontario, outpost, and even Schitt’s Creek got in on the trend – the series ended with Johnny launching a business to turn languishing motels into desirable destinations. Over the last few years, there’s been a mini–explosion of stylish first–time hoteliers getting into the hospitality game with their own takes on the modern motel.
Thanks to Covid–19, their timing couldn’t have been better. Cross–border trips are an obstacle course of travel advisories and testing requirements, and many people are still reluctant to brave communal indoor spaces like hotel lobbies. This has created a horde of travel–starved zombies who are very ready to board a domestic flight or jump in the car and drive somewhere – anywhere! – to get a view of something other than their Zoom background, and I’m one of them. Travelling in my own backyard has never sounded so good, so when enRoute suggested I embark on a tour of Ontario’s hippest motels with a photographer I’d never met – who could even be an axe murderer for all I know (who cares?) – I couldn’t fill up my travel–size shampoo bottle fast enough.