Retro motels make the hottest new hotels

I admit to a bit of an obsession about motels. Nothing posh, mind you, but those fabulous old motels of the 1950s and '60s that dotted the Australian landscape on my childhood road trips.

There are still some left, although many were rebranded "motor lodges" in the 1970s and others fell victim to re-routed highways and the modern desire for something fancier, which are now called "resorts".

The old motels were not destinations in themselves but offered convenience as pit stops on those achingly long drives we Australians have to endure to get anywhere. They were a good alternative to rooms above the pub, which for many decades were the only source of respite in remote towns.

If you had a family, pubs weren't always so savoury, but motels held the guarantee of airconditioning, tea-making facilities, a fridge and, sometimes, a swimming pool.

The inland motels were rarely booked out so you could pull up quite late at night and find a room. The front office was sometimes manned by a person who was a bit oddball, but I've never heard of a real-life Norman Bates. Still, motels are popular locations for film noir and hard-boiled murder mysteries for a reason – the anonymity of them is conducive to sleazy activity once the polyester curtains are drawn.

Motels were a luxury for my family. We travelled north from Melbourne each Christmas on a very limited budget, which meant dad would pitch a tent for us in a variety of camping grounds, mostly in inland towns, as we avoided the coast road.

One year, the temperature soared to near 40 degrees, so my parents splurged on stopping at a couple of motels during the trip. We'd hire a room for the day, mum and dad would rest in the airconditioning, and we girls would romp in the pool (in T-shirts, hats and noses covered in zinc, I should add). When night fell, we'd set off again and drive in the cool.

The simple motel was such a treat in those circumstances. Even a synthetic mustard-coloured bedspread or a Butternut Snap sealed in plastic seemed exotic to me at the time. I remember one that was glamorously called the Zebra Motel and I think it was perhaps in Dubbo.

I often fantasise about buying a motel that is a bit down at heel and turning it into a retirement village of sorts, with friends installed in every room and a concierge in the office to manage our activities. It's a bit of a pipe dream, as the motels in desirable coastal locations are pretty pricey, if you can find one. But, what fun it would be!


Brisbane sisters Elisha and Siobhan Bickle love motels too, and rescued an old 1960s motel, the Hideaway, on Cabarita Beach in northern NSW, thinking they could renovate it into a holiday home for their numerous children. Cabarita ("Cabbo" to the locals) is a sleepy seaside village that has managed to retain its charm despite the coastal development that has rampaged down the coast below Coolangatta.

Instead, Elisha and Siobhan turned the neglected building into Australia's hottest new hotel. They named it Halcyon House for the "halcyon days" of classic Australian beach holidays they remembered from childhood.

Read Traveller's review of Halcyon House

They added another storey, whitewashed the walls and furnished the motel in summery blue and white fabrics, adding collections of objects such as sea shells and framed seascapes bought at op shops to give it all a homey feel.

They also created an acclaimed restaurant, Paper Daisy, with food by chef Ben Devlin, "Queensland's best young chef", and which has on its menu a classic prawn and avocado sandwich. Guests are greeted with ice-cream and Eskies and umbrellas are handed out for the beach. Bicycles with baskets are freely available for a cruise along the boardwalk.

Playing the nostalgia card was a smart move by Elisha and Siobhan. Shortly after opening, Halcyon House was named runner-up best hotel in the world and best new hotel by online booking site Mr & Mrs Smith. While the prices reflect a five-star resort, it's the authenticity that's captivating everyone who stays there. It's such a far cry stylistically from the high-rise hotels of the Gold Coast, it is hard to believe the motel is only a 15-minute drive from that airport.

Hopefully the success of Halcyon House will inspire others to conserve and love our wonderful old motels.

The writer was a guest of Halcyon House.