Check in to a piece of Americana with vintage motel stays
Motels are having a moment.
Those retro-style, drive-up motor lodges, just this side of kitschy and featuring low-slung buildings, come-hither neon signs and center courtyards, are on the comeback trail. Typically mom-and-pop operations, each offered an authentic experience then, and plenty of nostalgia now.
St. Clair Motor Lodge
After being boarded up for nine years, the former St. Clair Motel, originally opened in 1952, underwent extensive renovation in 2020—new plumbing, bathrooms, electric, flooring, decor, heating and air conditioning—and reopened as the St. Clair Motor Lodge.
Family owned and operated, this 2023 Best in Kentucky winner is a Falls of Rough roadside gem, located across the street from Rough River Dam State Resort Park and offering vacationers the best of both worlds.
“This property is a blend of the old and new,” says owner Jill Evans, a consumer-member of Meade County RECC. “All interior spaces have a nod to vintage while incorporating modern conveniences. While our rooms are very comfortable, the focus of the property is still the outdoors. The lake and hiking trails are what draw people to the area, and after a day of activity, there is a beautiful common space to cook or gather and firepits to relax by.”
Each guest room has a tiled bathroom, outdoor seating, smart TV, free Wi-Fi, coffeemaker and mini refrigerator. Deluxe accommodations include a kitchenette and private patio with seating. The motel’s indoor common area includes an equipped kitchen, large-screen TV, dining table and board games.
“It is a slice of heaven in rural Kentucky,” says Evans.
Clay City Inn
Built in 2002, Clay City Inn, served by Clark Energy, isn’t quite vintage, but it has the look, charm and atmosphere of a yesteryear motel—and it’s within 20 minutes of Red River Gorge Geological Area and Natural Bridge State Resort Park.
Lyndsey and Charlie Raymond took ownership of the eight-room motel in 2021. Renovations, which are ongoing, have brought new windows, heating/cooling units and 50-inch TVs into all rooms. The grounds show off fresh landscaping, and a firepit and grill invite impromptu gatherings.
“All rooms are receiving new bathrooms, flooring, beds and décor,” says Lyndsey Raymond, a consumer-member of Clark Energy, noting two rooms are completed and a third is underway. “We are all about country charm. “Our new rooms are rustically modern with a Bigfoot theme.”
Charlie Raymond is the founder of the Kentucky Bigfoot Research Organization. The inn offers private Bigfoot hunts as well as a small selection of Bigfoot-inspired merchandise.
“In time, we intend to open a Bigfoot Museum on the premises,” says Lyndsey Raymond.
Lakehouse Inn at Sledd Creek
When travel enthusiasts Brad and Cindi Cook became owners of Gilbertsville’s old Bel Air Motel in October 2022, they brought everything they love (and hate) about hotels into redesigning the 1950s-era property.
What emerged after taking the original motel down to the studs is the Lakehouse Inn at Sledd Creek, a boutique hotel experience less than a mile from Kentucky Lake, fully modernized and upgraded with contactless check-in and an app to communicate with the front desk, plus rooms individually decorated with custom furnishings and high-end bedding, linen and towels.
Outside are two swimming pools (one shallow for lounging and one deeper with bar seating), pool house with shower rooms, a screen for “dive-in” movies and custom gas firepit with seating for 12.
“Our pool is spectacular, with 5,000 square feet of patio and 48 lounge chairs with foam floats that double as cushions,” says Cindi Cook, a consumer-member of West Kentucky RECC. “In-pool umbrella holders provide afternoon shade—and did I mention our pools are heated and cooled with custom light shows and fountains?”
How did Brad and Cindi Cook come up with the idea of transforming a 1950s motel into Lakehouse Inn at Sledd Creek, a boutique hotel? They’ll explain it in this video.
Bardstown Motor Lodge
In Bardstown, Weyland Ventures Hospitality took an original 1960s motel and renovated it to fit the needs of today’s traveler.
“With the increase in bourbon tourism, the company saw a need for boutique properties closer to the bourbon distilleries that offer guests an immersive experience into the bourbon lifestyle,” says Laura Crawford, director of sales and marketing. “Common Bond Hotel Collection was born, with Bardstown Motor Lodge and Toogie’s Table being the first properties.” (Myriad Hotel, the second hotel in the collection, opened in Louisville in a former disco ball factory, along with restaurant, Paseo.)
The mid-century-inspired hotel, located near My Old Kentucky Home State Park and the amphitheater that’s home to the outdoor musical, The Stephen Foster Story, is unmistakably authentic: Guest rooms flow seamlessly into breezy outdoor spaces with welcoming firepits, a swimming pool, poolside bar and a retro-styled rec room.
“The setting stokes your curiosity and evokes nostalgic memories of summer camps and road trips with friends and family,” says Crawford. “There’s ease here. There’s comfort here. There’s fun here.”
The restored 1855 Mammoth Cave Stagecoach is now stationary and will be on display at the Mammoth Cave Hotel, but watch it on the move, and learn some stagecoach history, here.
Road trippers seeking classic Americana will find it at these motels, upgraded with the amenities 21st century travelers appreciate.
418 E. Stephen Foster Ave., Bardstown
6031 Winchester Road, Clay City
7428 U.S. Highway 641 N., Gilbertsville
13857 Falls of Rough Road, Falls of Rough
OTHER RETRO MOTELS
7 Gables Motel
8064 U.S. Highway 27, Burnside
Facebook: Burnside 7 Gables Motel
This quintessential vintage mom-and-pop motel features a kidney-shaped pool and proximity to General Burnside Island State Park and Burnside Marina on Lake Cumberland.
601 N. Dixie Highway, Cave City
A huge draw to Cave City, this National Register of Historic Places site is one of only three remaining Wigwam Villages of seven built in the country before 1950. It is currently under renovation to restore it to its 1930s-era glory.
1000 Natural Bridge Road, Slade
Served by Clark Energy, the hotel was built in 1970 and is owned by the Abner family. It offers guest rooms, two-room suites and cottages—which will be getting an upgrade. Abner’s Motel in Stanton, which opened in 1955, is also owned by the family.
2768 Lincoln Farm Road, Hodgenville
Family owned and operated, this circa 1950s motel—a 2023 Best in Kentucky winner—has been refurbished and updated to its log cabin look to reflect its location next door: the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park.
506 S. 12th St., Murray
Visitors step back to a simpler time in clean and cozy rooms that offer a no-frills way to explore Murray and the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area.
171 Hotel Road, Mammoth Cave
The 1965 hotel has received a full renovation and is expected to reopen in November 2023. It is the permanent home of the Mammoth Cave Stagecoach, has four accessible rooms and is part of a larger lodging complex that includes the 1930s/1940s-era Woodland Cottages and Hotel Cottages and circa 1960s Sunset Terrace Rooms.
688 U.S. Highway 25 W., Corbin
KATHY WITT is an award-winning travel and lifestyle writer based in Northern Kentucky and the author of Secret Cincinnati and The Secret of the Belles.