Meet the Couple Photographing the Country’s Kitschiest Hotels
A Pretty Cool Hotel Tour’s Margaret and Corey Bienert on kitsch, relationships, and heart-shaped tubs.
While there are lovely boutique spots and cool little inns all over the US, most hotel rooms aren’t particularly special. Think beds covered with neutral linens, a (hopefully) clean bathroom decked out with tiny toiletries, and maybe a desk if you’re lucky.
But if you’re looking for something a little more interesting, there’s a whole world of theme and fantasy hotels out there, just waiting to be discovered. Often throwbacks to an era when more Americans were looking for heart-shaped tubs, mirrors on ceilings, and beds that looked like Cadillacs, these kitschy hotels make getting away a lot more fun. They run the gamut in terms of location and price, and they’re also—unfortunately—increasingly hard to find.
For Margaret and Corey Bienert, these little slices of Americana are livable works of art, which they’ve long been documenting on their Instagram account A Pretty Cool Hotel Tour. In their new book Hotel Kitsch, they take readers inside more than 30 of the country’s quirkiest roadside getaways, from the delightfully pink Trixie Motel in Palm Springs to the Cove Pocono Resorts in Pennsylvania, which boasts bathtubs that look like champagne coupes. Below, the Beinerts tell Thrillist how they got started on their kitschy journey, which hotel rooms are the coolest around, and whether heart-shaped tubs are actually comfortable.
Thrillist: How do you define “kitsch”?
Margaret Bienert: The word has changed meaning over the years, at least with our generation. I feel like it previously meant something was negatively tasteless or over the top. When I use it, people in the older generation might say, “That's so rude,” and I'm a little caught off guard. Because to me, it means playful. Sometimes a motel is literally copying the look of a beach in a room, and that feels kitsch to me. They’re taking inspiration from something real to make something fake.
How did you first get into the world of kitschy hotels?
MB: We have a production company and we were traveling for work. We were staying at a ton of hotels, but they were always the same in every city. I wanted to find something that could be a little bit more fun, because it felt like we weren't getting any new experiences. We’d work, and then we’d go back to the same old hotel rooms.
I started looking into weird things that were out there to experience, whether it was Airbnb options or unique hotels. On a work trip, we stayed at the Cove Haven resorts in the Poconos, which have heart- and champagne glass-shaped tubs. That was the best experience I’d ever had at a hotel. It was just so cool and weird. So that inspired us to start researching. There are 30-plus locations in the book, but we’ve been to well over 50.
How do you decide which hotels to visit (and when)?
MB: For the first couple years, I had a list of hotels to visit. But because we were funding the project ourselves, we couldn't just suddenly go to all these hotels. It took us five years of traveling to make this book because we have to earn money for five months and then go travel for a month or two, then earn money for another five.
Corey Bienert: When we were first starting out, we were going to some of the smaller towns where the hotels were more isolated and getting less interest. The longer we've been doing the project, though, we've broadened our search. Also, there are new places that have opened and the market has changed, which has been a positive thing.
MB: For us, a heart-shaped tub is enough to go visit a hotel. Because sometimes, if there's a heart-shaped tub, you'll find that there's actually other stuff too, but they just don't advertise it. So if we can find a heart-shaped tub, and we show up and ask for it, then we'll ask, “Do you have any other theme rooms?” and that's how we've found a lot of unique stuff.
Every once in a while, I’ll reach out to a hotel and say, “We’re doing this series and we’d love to photograph your rooms,” and they’ll say, “Oh, we’re actually going to be doing some updates next year, if you want to come then.” Then I’ll tell Corey, “We have to go now because if we don’t we’ll miss the weird ‘80s or ‘90s decor.”
What are some of the more unique themed hotel rooms you’ve seen?
MB: There was one near Chicago where you could sleep in a bed that looked like a sandwich.
CB: We went to this bed and breakfast in Idaho called the Lions Gate Manor and they have a Phantom Of The Opera suite. It’s almost an entire floor unto itself, and there’s a spiral staircase that leads down through a bookshelf door. It’s super elaborate and very unexpected. We’ve seen other Phantom Of The Opera-themed rooms, but certainly not as elaborate as that one. It felt like you were on the set of the movie.
MB: They even have a two-way mirror, and if you turn on the light behind the mirror, you see a masked man standing there. That was actually really funny, because for years people have been like, "There are definitely two-way mirrors in all these hotels," and I’d say “No, there’s not,” but when we went to that one, I got to do a video that was like, “Oh my gosh, you guys, we literally found a two-way mirror in this hotel.”
CB: There's nothing cookie cutter about any of the rooms at that hotel. They're all custom-envisioned and custom-created, because the owners are set creators so they came up with the concepts and how to make them a reality. It's just wild that somebody can not only have imagination for something like that but then also the ability to execute that idea.
What’s it like to stay in these hotels as a couple?
MB: It's been fun to get out of our comfort zones because these rooms can be so extravagant, but also romantic in their design. It does create environments to have new experiences and conversations, because you may have never seen something before, whether it's a heart-shaped bed, a heart-shaped tub, or even the erotic furniture that some places have; it gives you this private space as a couple to talk about something or experience it and not have it be weird. Even if it is a little weird, the hotels are very private.
I think that it’s good for couples to have different experiences and to be pulled out of their day-to-day routines. Even if we're done with the project at some point, I still think I'll want to take trips to these places because they're so experiential.
Are heart-shaped tubs actually comfortable?
CB: They’re surprisingly roomy. They’re perfect for two people to sit in, because you each sit with your back at the top of the heart, and then your feet just kind of touch each other at the tip.
MB: I want one in our house because our bath is so much smaller and cramped. Having a heart tub where you can spread out and both be in there and have your own little pocket… I don't know, I think it's brilliant.
Have you brought any elements from these hotels into your own home?
CB: We have a bed that we acquired from a hotel with a honeymoon room in Southern California. It was near Carlsbad and it was called Cardiff By The Sea. We visited last year right before they did a big remodel, and as we were checking in, the guy was like, “We're gonna be remodeling that room and we’ll probably get rid of all the furniture and stuff.” And so we were like, “Here's our information—You let us know. We will buy it from you.”
MB: Three days later we got a call: “Do you want the heart-shaped furniture?”
CB: The bed is completely custom carved out of wood. It’s heart-shaped and it's one of a kind, like nothing we've ever seen before. The thing probably weighs 600 pounds. It’s massive.
Is there a holy grail hotel or spot that you’re hoping to get to?
MB: Japan. I know how cool their theme hotels are. They call them love motels. But I've really wanted to focus on finishing a series of American hotels before we even do too much research because it can be such a rabbit hole. Their hotels are just next level.