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The California Highway 1 (and U.S. 101) Hotels

Written by Mark McElroy

When we began planning our drive up California’s Highway 1 (also U.S. 101, which extends into Oregon and Washington), we fantasized about eliminating schedules, avoiding reservations, and checking into whatever roadside motel we encountered at the end of each day.

Knowing what I know now, I’m glad we didn’t do that.

During our trip (taken in early August, just as the heavy travel season waned), we did see many vacancies at the end of each day — but most of these were in motels that would have made sleeping in the car seem like a luxury by comparison. Meantime, properties in the budget range ($100 a night), with any charm or character ($120-$140 per night), and anything reviewed as a “good value” ($140 and above) were booked up tight.

So: I was very happy that, before we made the drive from LA to Seattle, I booked us into a total of eleven hotels. In case you’re planning your own Great American Road Trip along the west coast, here’s the honest, unvarnished truth about the rooms we stayed in along the way.

Biggest Disappointment: Glenn Tavern Inn (Santa Paula, CA – $115). With the Ventura County Fair in full swing, nice rooms were either fully booked or priced out of my budget. To save cash, we drove 15 minutes east to Santa Paula to stay at the historic Glenn Tavern Inn. The young staff is attractive, welcoming, and chatty, and the lobby looks like mountain lodge from the 1950’s:

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But all the charm ends the minute you’re in the room, where chipped paint, ragged curtains, time-worn linens, wheezy air conditioning, and a dirty shower (with sharp, rusty protrusions) await:

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Biggest Surprise: The Sandpiper Lodge (Santa Barbara, CA – $250). Everybody in Santa Barbara wants to be on State Street, and the Sandpiper Lodge, a tidy older property, is on State Street — though far, far away from the sights most folks would come to Santa Barbara to see. (That said: the location makes for a much quieter stay than you’d ever have in the nightclub district.)

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The helpful staff upgraded us to a spacious suite, with a full kitchen, a living room, and a bedroom. Photos on the site depict crisp-looking rooms with modern designer colors, but our suite was firmly entrenched in the peach, turquoise, and golden tones of the early 1980’s. Even so, our room was immaculate and comfortable.

Most Character: The Madonna Inn (San Luis Obispo, CA). With its Alice in Wonderlandmeets The Hobbit decor — and more than 100 rooms, each named for its unique fantasy theme — I doubt there’s a more quirky property than the Madonna Inn anywhere in America. We enjoyed early morning strolls along nearby pasture trails, and we got a kick out of our “Swiss Bell” room:

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Unfortunately, creaky ceilings (not good when paired with heavy-footed guests in the room just above us) disturbed our sleep, and the famed rock waterfall shower brought back past-life memories of drowning in a stone-lined well. We’re glad we stopped here, but staying more than one night in this kind of over-the-top environment will likely exhaust all but the most devoted disciples of kitsch. (If you’d like to see more photos and have a detailed tour, I have an entire post dedicated to the place.)

Worst Choice: Courtesy Inn (San Simeon, CA). The Courtesy Inn is close to Hearst Castle, but that’s the only good thing we have to say about it. Our second-floor room was dark, with droopy curtains and sparse, particle-board furniture. The one upholstered chair featured dubious stains, and the free wifi was slow as molasses. We didn’t feel unsafe here, but we were very happy to leave this tired, depressing room behind us. Had we booked more than one day, we would have left early.

Best Value for the Money: America’s Best Value Stagecoach Lodge (Monterey, CA – $155).While a bit removed from the sights in Monterey, the Stagecoach Lodge is attractively landscaped and tidy. The spotless rooms, freshly painted in designer colors and outfitted with firm beds, felt especially opulent after our stay in San Simeon’s tired, dingy Courtesy Inn.

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We enjoyed answering email while relaxing on the sunny patio just outside the clean, well-equipped laundry room (a nice find when you’re on the road). The room price includes a free breakfast that was too heavy on processed carbs for our tastes, but that others might enjoy.

Best Choice: Hotel Monaco (San Francisco, CA – Credit Card Points). We blew a lot of credit card points to book the Hotel Monaco for two nights (and parking our car cost us a whopping fifty bucks a day), but after more than a week on the road, the Hotel Monaco was a cool, quiet, opulent respite for two road-weary travelers:

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(Photo Credit: Hotel Monaco)

It’s smack in the middle of the action around Union Station, with convenient connections to streetcars and other public transportation in easy walking distance. If you stay there anytime soon, be aware their popular restaurant is closed — so there’s no room service, and breakfast is limited to fruit, cereals, and “Bagels a la Sysco.”

Strangest Night on the Road: Humboldt House Inn (Garberville, CA – $159). Somehow, we accidentally booked a smoking room — eeew! — but the Humboldt House Inn was still our best option, given that, apart from a $500 per night room at a local resort, this was the only vacant room in town. We opened the doors and windows and made the best of it, but kept our suitcases on the balcony to keep our clothes from absorbing the odor of tar and nicotine exuded by every fiber and fixture in the room. Our efforts may have been in vain, though, given that virtually everyone on the balconies around us seemed to be smoking particularly fragrant “medicinal herbs,” which may explain why the folks at the hot tub and pool were as, um, friendly as they were.

Most In-Room Signage: Table Rock Motel (Bandon, OR – $148.50). We scored the “Honeymoon Suite” at the Table Rock Motel, which did feature an as-advertised view of the ocean (with just a bit of another hotel and a road between us and the water). With its 1950’s era kitchen and bath fixtures in good shape, we felt like we had stepped back in time. Any nostalgic coziness, though, was marred by the handmade paper warning signs taped to every free inch of wall space. “$500 fee for smoking in the room!” “Do not flush paper towels down the toilet!” “Wifi password is tablerock!” “No cooking crabs in this room!” “Wash your own dishes or you will be charged ten dollars extra!” Who wants to spend a honeymoon in a room where the signage makes you feel as though your strictest maiden aunt is scrutinizing your every move?

Biggest Joy: Weiss’ Paradise Suites (Seaside, OR – $190.75). A bit of a splurge, but worth every penny, we loved the aptly-named Paradise Suites. How nice, near the end of our journey, to find ourselves in a private bungalow, with a full kitchen, dining room, large bath, and quiet bedroom! From the billowing tide of fresh flowers growing at the front door to the prime location (with easy walks to the beachfront promenade and the bustle of Broadway, the main shopping street), everything about Weiss’ Paradise Suites was perfect, perfect, perfect:

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The property is weathered enough to feel authentic, but loved enough to be kept in top shape. I grinned from check-in to check-out, and can’t say enough about this sweet-spirited little motel.

Most Efficient: Crowne Plaza Airport Hotel (Seatac, WA). Rather than stay at our beloved Hotel Andra in the heart of Seattle, we went with an airport property closer to the convention Clyde wanted to attend. The Crown Plaza here is nothing swanky, and the drive to town and back is a bit of a long haul. That said: it made getting to the airport for departure as easy as it could be — and when the thumpa-thumpa-thumpa bass notes of a late-night quincinera party on the 13th floor had our 12th floor room vibrating like a jackhammer, the staff whisked us to a quieter 3rd floor room with efficiency and grace.

About the author

Mark McElroy

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