Motel Makeovers: Meet the Australian Road Trip Icons Turned Haute Hotels

Motel makeovers: how savvy hoteliers are breathing new life into the classic roadside motel

Wide open spaces, miles of endless road, spectacular sunsets, faces smeared with zinc and ticking off a checklist of ‘big things’ - from bananas and pies, to whales and roos and everything in between - the great Aussie road trip is the stuff of pure nostalgia. And there’s another institution that went hand-in-hand with these road trips of yesteryear: motels.

First appearing in Australia as early as 1937 (the first was the West End Motel in Ballina, NSW) but it was really the post-war boom of the 50s and onwards that marked the motel’s heyday. Taking a cue from America - and in particular its iconic Route 66 - Aussie motels largely followed the same path of development. As with the US of A, our far-flung distances, combined with prohibitively expensive air travel, meant that these structures - complete with their neon signs and kitsch designs - ended up peppering the Australian landscape.


Pitstops as opposed to destinations, the no-frills designs represented the romance of the open road. But after a few decades, the once ubiquitous structures fell out of fashion. A victim of shiny new chain hotels, which boasted larger room numbers and polished finishes, these once beloved properties were left to slowly decay. Until now that is.

Bannisters by the Sea in Mollymook, NSW, is a 60s motel turned luxury boutique hotel

A new breed of savvy hotelier is stepping in to save the iconic structures from the wrecking ball. Whether driven by a desire to preserve the architectural style, or by rose-tinted memories of motor travel’s golden years, or by the simple fact that many of these old motels are positioned on prime real estate, it’s a trend that is rapidly gaining momentum worldwide.


A timely revival given the fashion for mid-century and Americana, these reimagined motels are less ‘fleabag’ and ‘Bates’, and more high thread count sheets with an onsite day spa and paddock-to-plate restaurant thrown in. And spearheading this movement in Australia is 60s motel-turned-luxury boutique hotel, Bannisters by the Sea.

Since being acquired in 2002 by owner, Peter Cosgrove, the south coast property in NSW has steadily become a destination in itself. And true to form, like many motels of old, the age old adage, location, location, location, was what sealed the deal.

Bannisters by the Sea is one of Australia's most impressive motel conversions

“I first came to Bannisters more than 15 years ago,” recalls Peter. “And I was struck by it's magnificent location on the headland looking out to sea.” Perched high on a clifftop overlooking the golden sands of Mollymook’s Surf Beach, the area has long been a popular hangout for locals and visitors.

“It has been a form of continuous improvements rather than one big bang,” he says of the refurbishment. “One of the first thing we did after buying the property was replace the old plastic pool with a modern infinity pool - you can lean on the edge and look out to sea all day. I think it’s a match for anywhere in the world.”


Spoiled city slickers will love the rooms equipped with sea view balconies, day spa and pop up champagne bar. And last year saw two of its penthouses undergo a makeover courtesy of Aussie fashion legend, Collette Dinnegan, marking her first foray into interior design. And if that isn’t enough A-list for you, Bannisters is also home to the only restaurant of British seafood king, Rick Stein.

Converted motel, Sherwood in Queenstown, has become one of NZ's best stays

Across the ditch, Sam Harwood, similarly fell in love with the location of a dilapidated motel, rather than its bricks and mortar. Set on three acres of alpine hillside in Queenstown overlooking Lake Wakatipu, Sherwood was formerly part of the country’s largest chain of motels.


“Our reasoning for purchasing was more pragmatic than any great drive to preserve the mid-eighties, mock-Tudor design!” says Sam, laughing. “Instead, we saw a 3.5-hecate site overlooking lake Wakatipu that offered scale, scope and space.”

Converted motel, Sherwood in Queenstown, has become one of NZ's best stays

Indeed, the exterior belies what’s going on within. A hipster haven, the motel features a large biodynamic vegetable garden, bar serving organic wines, yoga, meditation and pilates studio and Ayurvedic massage.

Renovating with a commitment to sustainability, the kit out is ingenious, including rubber flooring made from used car tyres and the largest private solar installation in New Zealand.

“Hotel renovations are a hugely wasteful process,” he explains. “So we’ve made a conscious choice to respect what was there and to endeavour to have the lowest possible impact on the environment.”


It’s this thinking that has also influenced Sherwood’s dedication to become part of the local community, rather than just offering a bed for the night, says Sam: “Our live music programming, educational workshops, co-working and film production studios are all designed to bring our guests and the community together.”

Motel turned celebrity hotel, Halcyon House, has put Cabarita Beach on the global map

Back in Australia, the most recent motel makeover has also become the most lauded. A former 60s beachside motel turned celebrity hotel, Halcyon House is the brainchild of two Brisbane-based sisters, who rechristened the property for the "halcyon days" beach holidays of their childhood.


Despite its position in the previously unknown, sleepy seaside village of Cabarita Beach (halfway between Byron Bay and the Gold Coast) the property has become one of the hottest hotels in the country. Its Californian cool-meets-vintage aesthetic is an Instagrammer's dream - a whitewashed-and-blue palette extends from the restaurant, guest rooms and pool - indeed, there’s even a popular ‘Halcyon Hang’ hashtag to accompany the barrage of social media posts snapped by fans.

Motel turned celebrity hotel, Halcyon House, has put Cabarita Beach on the global map

In-house restaurant, Paper Daisy, has made a name for itself independently. And Halcyon has unsurprisingly garnered serious column inches, even being featured in the coveted Conde Nast Traveller ‘Hot List.’ And its success is a model for the untapped potential in many of our forgotten and forlorn motels.

Love them or hate them (but really, how could you?) the newly chic motel looks set to stay. So, beige, sterile, identikit, chain hotels beware - with bucketloads of charm and a bang for your buck offering, it’s the beginning of a motel revolution.


Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club, Honolulu, Hawaii

The statement pool at Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club, Honolulu, Hawaii

Paying homage to surf’s golden age and the Beach Boys of the 60s, this budget motel turned oasis is an easy walk from Hawaii’s famed Waikiki Beach.

A mid-century aesthetic - and accompanying antiques - have been applied to guest rooms and the art-filled lobby is guaranteed to have you reaching for your camera.

Standout features include the restaurant serving organic produce and locally caught seafood, nightly live music, sunset Pilates and daily movie screenings by the pool. Despite only being open for a year, it’s already a firm favourite with Honolulu’s local creative, hipster set, with artists and fashion designers, adopting the hotel as their unofficial hangout.

The Lake Motel, Lake Taupo, New Zealand

Fully embracing its retro roots, the five rooms that comprise the Lake Motel are almost time capsule-like in their recreation of 60s and 70s styling.

Appealing to design-lovers - who also appreciate modern conveniences, such as wi-fi big screen TVs - the motel happily sites just 220-metres from the shore of New Zealand’s largest lake and within walking distance of Taupo's centre.

The Sails Motel, Brunswick Heads, NSW

The Sails Motel, Brunswick Heads, NSW is a stone's throw from the beach

15-minutes north of Byron, the town of Brunswick Heads is increasingly getting some of its famous neighbour’s spotlight. And one of the newest places to stay in the area is this 60s-era motel reincarnated into a slick Palm Springs-inspired hangout.

A stone’s throw from the beach and an easy walk into town. There are bikes for hire, craft beers for poolside sundowners and a praised onsite restaurant, Fat Belly Kaf, serving modern Greek-Mediterranean cuisine.

10 Hastings Street Boutique Motel & Cafe, Noosa, NSW

Nestled steps away from the golden sands Noosa Heads Main Beach and positioned on a vibrant stretch of restaurants, ice-cream parlours and cafes, a recent $1.5 million refurb has transformed this previously lacklustre motel. Now, designed suites - all boasting private balconies - have slick, beach-inspired interiors. Cool new guest features include a communal barbecue area and garden hot tub. Plus, there’s an onsite cafe serving a yummy menu of dishes made using locally sourced produce.

Hatagoya Kamishichiken, Kyoto, Japan

Hatagoya Kamishichiken, Kyoto is part of Japan’s only motel chain

Part of Japan’s only motel chain, this traditional-style townhouse is one of the best value in Kyoto and for visitors it offers a truly authentic and uniquely Japanese sleeping experience.

For the uninitiated these two-storey wooden townhouses of a bygone age typically feature tatami-matted rooms, sliding screen “shoji” paper doors, cushions for seating and a single low table, which is replaced at night by maids with a sleeping futon. True to form, this two-bedroom apartment is all Zen-like emptiness and even features a decadent Japanese cypress-wood bath.


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