Travel
4 min

Vintage vacations

Airstream trailers, reborn motels and other retro stays for the stylish LGBT traveller

A vintage neon sign at the Holiday Motel. Credit: Aefa Mulholland

If you’re nostalgic for childhood vacations in travel trailers, caravans or motels but time has tempered your tolerance for campfire fare, cramped quarters and drab, done-in décor, fear not: a dazzling array of dapper, design-conscious cabin camps, trailer parks and motels has stepped into the spotlight over the past few years.

For a streamlined stay with style, there are now a slew of reconditioned Airstream options from which to choose. The gleaming mid-century marvels have reclaimed their place in the hearts of holiday-makers, from upstate New York to Colorado to Cape Town to the foothills of the Pyrenees in France.

With its nine retro 1940s and 1950s trailers, Bisbee, Arizona’s Shady Dell RV Park takes you back to a time when the Cold War was still hot and Tupperware was tops. The diminutive copper-mining town in the Mule Mountains is unexpectedly LGBT-friendly and has a lively Pride every June.

Things also stay firmly with one foot in the ’50s in the Belrepayre Airstream and Retro Trailer Park in Mirepoix, France. Europe’s first such camping creation, the park proffers an array of 10 models of Airstreams, ranging from the 1940s to the 1970s. There’s also an aluminum diner and a restaurant/bar with a vinyl-only music policy.

For an even hipper take on tin-can tourism, breeze into Berlin’s Huettenpalast, where a cache of quirky cabins and vintage trailers have come home to roost in an old factory in the Neukölln area of the city.

More uber-cool urban camping can be found in Cape Town on the rooftop of the Granddaddy Hotel, where seven Airstreams nestle alongside mailboxes, barbecues and an expanse of AstroTurf.

Another option that boasts both cabins and trailers comes courtesy of Kate Pierson, of The B-52s. Kate’s Lazy Meadow motel in Mount Tremper, New York, near Woodstock, adheres to the more-is-more school of décor, with nine rustic, over-the-top suites and five similarly spaced-out Airstream trailers. In Kate’s own words, “You’ll find mind-blowing mid-century modern/space-age/rocket-your-socks-off décor.” And that’s an understatement. It’s co-owned and managed by Kate’s life partner, Monica Coleman.

You’ll find plenty more parks further west. It’s another slice of life in the past lane at Utah’s Shooting Star Drive-In. Eight trailers, including John Wayne’s digs from the set of The Searchers, an Airstream-only drive-in section and a posse of classic cars from which to watch films from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s are all on the bill at this eccentric Escalante station.

Accommodations at Astoria’s Sou’wester, in the Pacific Northwest, range from a Silver Streak and a Spartan Manor to a Potato Bug and an African Queen.

At Colorado’s Starlite Classic Campground in the Royal Gorge, 45 minutes from Colorado Springs, Winnebagos, Tee Pee trailers and Sportsmen are just some of the constellations of camping quarters.

Motels have mutated far from the original utilitarian conformity of the reassuringly similar rooms they were known for in the 1950s. Today’s boutique hotels and reborn motor lodges offer distinctly different destinations.

A couple of the most memorable motels are in Portland, Oregon. The Jupiter is a renovated motor inn in the happening Burnside neighbourhood. Offering rooms on the “chill side” or “bar patio” side, depending on your reasons for coming — and your tolerance for noise — the 80-room, pet-friendly place also entices guests with its Doug Fir restaurant and music and club venue. The in-spot frequently hosts local luminaries, including Beth Ditto and Penny Lane. Portland is also home to The Modera, which benefited from a multimillion-dollar mid-century refit in 2008 and is now a luxe haven of impeccable hospitality on the light rail line.

North of the border, in Vancouver, the Burrard Hotel opened in 1956. Fifty years later it cast off its rough reputation and morphed into a sleek modern hotel with loaner bikes, gym passes and oodles of attitude. It’s an excellent address for downtown and gay-village social shenanigans.

Elvis, Dean, Marilyn and Frank’s old favourite, Palm Springs, is another time capsule of a town, with its dozens of impeccably restored mid-century-modern motels, a cool clutch of gay resorts and a stunning backdrop of the 3,000-metre San Jacinto Mountains. So line up the martinis, relive the glory days of this oasis in the desert and avail yourself of the hospitality of super chic moteliers, such as the folks behind the quirky 170-room Ace Hotel & Swim Club, the exquisitely retro Orbit In or the fun Century gay resort.

Savannah, Georgia’s funky Thunderbird Motel has budget boutique billets within strolling distance of the 24 lush, Spanish-moss-draped squares that this southern cityis famed for. It’s also just a 10-minute saunter from the infamous Club One, the haunt of notorious drag queen Lady Chablis, star of the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

Meanwhile, one of the most atmospheric accommodations in LGBT-frequented beach resort Rehoboth Beach, in Delaware, is the snappy Crosswinds Motel. Centrally located, contemporary and affordable, it reopened in 1998, and rooms were renovated from top to bottom in 2012.

Down south, two divine destinations lure lovers of luxe vintage lodgings. The Belmont Hotel, home to BarBelmont, Smoke Restaurant and fantastic downtown skyline views, in the Bishop Arts District of Dallas, is a favourite with queer travellers and other fashion-conscious folks. Austin, Texas’s Hotel San José is a boutique bungalow that opened in the 1930s and now appeals to visiting arts, music and design people. It’s crammed to its groovy gills during South by Southwest. Any time of year, grab a seat at Jo’s coffee shop and watch the action on bustling South Congress.

So, whether you fancy a redone retro room on wheels or an old-school roadhouse with every modern trapping, with all these options to choose from, it’s time for a vintage vacation.