Anyone driving in the US will encounter kitsch diners and gaudy motels, but the roads are also lined with oddball museums and unique amusements – New Testament mini-golf anyone?
1. Winning tip: Freight car motel, Pennsylvania
Visiting Amish Country on our road trip from Philadelphia to Chicago, we stayed in an old caboose (railroad wagon): the Red Caboose Motel in Ronks. The motel consists of a string of old carriages in bucolic countryside. On the farm beside our caboose we watched Amish men in wide-brimmed hats farming with old-fashioned tools; we bought produce from women in bonnets and long dresses, and waved to Amish children peering from buggies. The cabooses vary; larger units cater for families with bunk beds, whereas the smaller baggage car is more basic. There’s a dining car restaurant and even a honeymoon caboose with whirlpool bath.
2. Florida island restaurant
Stepping into the Bubble Room on North Captiva island, off Florida, is akin to stepping into every dream of 1950s America. From the vintage toys inside glass tables, to momma’s own cooking in the kitchen, you’re overcome with the sights and sounds of this playful restaurant with a kitsch Christmas theme. The hardest part will be choosing which room you’ll eat your dinner in.
3. Hooked on barbed wire? Texas
The Devil’s Rope and Route 66 Museum in McLean, just off the old Route 66, is housed in a former (underwired?) bra factory. Barbed wire was used extensively in ranching, and many of the 2,000 different patterns of wire, and the tools used to construct the fences, are displayed here. Not grabbing you yet? There’s also a photographic and textual history of the dust bowl (the 1930s period of dust storms caused by drought and poor farming methods) and cattle rearing. You can even buy barbed wire art, including some unique sculpture; and there’s a section devoted to Route 66 memorabilia, including the original Big Texan Steak Ranch cow, an old motel sign.
4. God’s golf course, Kentucky
The Bible mini-golf at the Lexington Ice Center, set in gardens with waterfalls and streams, was worth stopping at for sheer quirkiness alone. You can choose from three different courses, Old Testament, New Testament or Miracles, where you’ll find holes called Mount Sinai and Jonah and the Whale, for example. We played Miracles … it’s as underwhelming as you might imagine!
5. Classic roadside cafe, Montana
As you head south from the west side of Glacier national park, side-step the main US93 in favour of the scenic MT-35 which hugs the eastern shore of Flathead Lake and takes in cinematic Montana farmlands and landscapes along the way.Echo Lake Cafe in Bigfork is the perfect place to refuel. A classic American roadside cafe with a menu to match (lunch from $9.40), wooden booths, outside seating, excellent bottomless coffee, and impeccable service. Be prepared to queue up alongside the locals; it’s definitely worth the wait.
6. Kitsch amusement park, Indiana
Just south of Interstate 64 in Indiana you’ll find the bewildering, charming town of Santa Claus. Although the town features many Christmas-themed attractions, the main draw is the appropriately named Holiday World amusement park. The place is planned around four holiday-themed sections: Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas and is as kitschy and wonderful as it sounds. With amazing wooden rollercoasters and a superb water park, Holiday World is a must see if you ever find yourself driving through southern Indiana.
7. Big Sur literary stopoff, California
The Henry Miller Memorial Library is on Highway One at Big Sur. It is dedicated to the renowned writer and describes itself as a “place where nothing happens”. In the winter it’s a beautiful spot where you can stop off and enjoy the stunning coastal surroundings, browse novels and enjoy free tea and coffee. During the summer it hosts a variety of cultural events – from film screenings in the forest, to intimate gigs on a makeshift stage. For a man who said memorials “defeated the purpose of a man’s life. Only by living your own life to the full can you honour the memory of someone”, Miller certainly has the most beautiful one I’ve ever been to.
8. Wild west jailhouse, Arizona
We found this little corner of the wild west while driving through Arizona’s Tonto national forest. Founded as a mining camp in 1875, remote Globe in Gila County has remained a real frontier town – you can still find a few unique stores and old-time diners. There’s also the notorious Gila County courthouse, now the beautiful Cobre Valley Center for the Arts and the adjacent rather spooky Old Jailhouse. Globe’s history is laced with murders, hangings, stagecoach robberies, Apache raids, vigilante justice and links to the Clanton brothers of Gunfight at the OK Corral fame. Phineas Clanton married, had a ranch and is buried there.
9. A desert oasis, Arizona
We first stumbled across Rosie’s Den on the way to see the Great Wash (the westernmost part of the Grand Canyon). The exterior had a Bates Motel feel to it – clapboard shack with fading paint, windows thick with desert dust, a disused pickup truck surrounded by tumbleweeds and a rather sad looking Joshua Tree emerging from a gravel pit. Inside, there were just a few wooden tables, one elderly server and a short counter, so we weren’t expecting much. Then the menus arrived. Between the four of us we ate steak and mashed potatoes, biscuits and country gravy, pancakes and eggs, a cheeseburger and fries, and lemon meringue, blueberry and coconut cream pie. Rosie’s has undergone many changes since. The original building burned down, then Rosie passed away, but her son rebuilt, landscaped and refurnished it. He extended the counter, installed a jukebox and hired more staff. New menu items were added and the place now sells cocktails. But Rosie’s still has a huge amount of nostalgic charm and good, homemade food. It’s not just a roadside stop – it’s a destination itself.
10. Giant hole, Arizona
Meteor Crater is an enormous and well-preserved meteor crash site in the middle of the desert. Everything about the build-up to the crater – the billboards, the gift shop, the museum – is wonderfully kitsch, but seeing the 1.2km-wide crater itself is a surprisingly powerful experience. It is just a six-mile detour off Interstate 40 (which replaced the old Route 66) about 20 miles west of Winslow, and is well-signed – you can’t miss it. The flat, dry landscape on this stretch of highway can be a little repetitive so this unique stop-off is certainly the best thing to break up the journey! At $18 entry this is a bargain – be sure to walk the crater rim for the full experience.