The Best Western in Galena, IL looks unremarkable from the outside — just another hotel chain off the highway. Inside, it’s a different story. There’s a stone-walled cave room, a shell-shaped bed in the aquarium room, and a classic honeymoon suite filled with mirrors. “What a nice surprise,” Margaret Bienert says to the camera, soaking in a foamy bath and drinking wine from a plastic cup with her husband, Corey.
As a travel video series, Margaret and Corey’s A Pretty Cool Hotel Tour is charming and goofy. The California-based duo, now in their 30s, have been together for over 11 years and naturally play off each other’s energy. In Miami at Executive Fantasy Hotels, for example, they do improv comedy with sex furniture, trying to figure out how it’s supposed to work. At Toledo’s Designer Inn & Suites, Bienert checks the bed for hairs and finds a leftover candy. On their popular Instagram account, which has nearly 90,000 followers, the mood isn’t quite so kooky. The still images of their themed room adventures have a more dreamy and ethereal vibe, transporting you to a time and space that feels divorced from time and space.
Hotels are, philosophically, otherworldly. Even the most generic motel is a liminal space, hanging somewhere between regular life and fantasy, but themed rooms take it a step further. They create fantasy within reality. Putting that fantasy on social media both exposes the illusion while creating another. It’s a deviation from the bland millennial aesthetic that floods other travel influencers’ feeds. You know the look — white walls, exposed brick, mid-century modern tables. That style is specific to nowhere, found all over the world. Themed hotel rooms, on the other hand, are specific to only themselves. “These designs shake you into processing what you’re looking at,” Bienert told ELLE.com.
“You can’t walk in and just think, ‘Oh, that’s pretty.’ A true themed hotel room should be three dimensional. What can I touch? What can I sit in? I want there to be a shape,” she said. At the Anniversary Inn in Salt Lake City, the duo plays foosball in the Player’s Clubhouse and relaxes in the Venice suite’s gondola bed. The kitsch becomes part of the adventure and builds a narrative.
In her essay about the architecture of honeymoon resorts, Barbara Penner writes that sensory engagement is part of the desired effect. The rooms are supposed to appeal to the body. It’s an invitation “to feel, to stroke, to recline onto, to sink into, to grasp, to indulge, to consume.” After all, this is about romance and sex. Historically, themed rooms can be traced back to bridal chambers on Mississippi River steamboats starting around 1840. Frilly and regal, they were designed to make women more comfortable with losing their virginity.
Around the 1950s, the aesthetic of honeymoon hotels shifted to capture the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. There are raised platforms that look like a stage, props, lighting, and mirrors. In these rooms, you’re the star of the show — a notion that, when Bienert started the project, was a stark departure from her upbringing in purity culture, a strict form of abstinence practiced by young Evangelical Christians that requires no physical, emotional, or spiritual intimacy with others until marriage.
“I grew up super religious, and sex was something that I didn’t talk about or think about. The first time I visited a themed hotel, it transformed my view of sex and how I could participate in it,” she says. “Seeing myself in all the reflected surfaces made me feel like I was the lead in a 90s romantic comedy. It felt like it was for me. When you’re not sure how to be sexy, or not sure if you’re allowed to be, the room creates an environment where it’s inescapable.”
While many sexually-driven spaces are geared towards men (like adult theaters or brothels), themed hotels might be the only mainstream venue explicitly designed for women to explore their eroticism. Bienert says, “It’s not like, bam, an elaborate sex swing and mirror above the bed. The rooms draw you in, they romance you. It’s more about the pleasing lighting, the light pink curtains, and having a glass of wine in the hot tub. Then you notice the mirror and the sex swing in the closet when you’re ready for it.”
Renowned couples therapist Esther Perel writes that because women are often socialized to be caretakers, they might find it difficult to focus on themselves in sexual situations. Among cis women in heterosexual relationships, women are more likely to identify as objects for the purpose of male satisfaction than the subject of their own fantasies. Perel urges women to give themselves permission “to feel [their] own narcissism” as an entrypoint for sexual freedom.
In her own life, Bienert has noticed the link between being seen and feeling good.
“If lots of mirrors in a hotel room freak you out, I want people to wonder why they’re afraid to see themselves. I’ve noticed that a lot of women in my life, especially from other generations, don’t want to be in group photos or want to stand in the back. I really don’t want to feel that way about myself, and I don’t want other women to feel that way. We should give ourselves permission to prioritize ourselves, be allowed to feel good and be seen,” she says.
Staying in a themed hotel room can provide more than a new window into our sexuality. Studies show that sharing new experiences makes us happier in our relationships. Although it wasn’t their explicit intention, Bienert agrees that the couple’s adventures into the unknown have drawn them closer together. “When you’re in your relationship groove, there aren’t many moments for you to dress up and do something special. The hotels make us step outside of the norm,” she says.
While some travel accounts are aspirational, making us covet faraway places and luxury experiences, Pretty Cool Hotel Tour is a relatively accessible way to broaden your horizons without straying too far from home. The rooms usually cost less than $200 a night and are generally close to major cities. But if you’re looking for your own themed hotel experience, Bienert recommends staying open-minded about the experience—even if that means bringing your own bleach and sheets. While some hotels are top notch, others are lagging in their cleaning services and general hospitality.
“I want people to understand that it’s part of the character. Sometimes you have to wipe down a tub and put up with the smell,” says Bienert. “Don’t go to a themed hotel and leave a two-star Yelp review because you expected it to be perfect.” She hopes that her project will generate more customers for the hotels and keep them from closing.
Because of COVID-19, however, their travel plans have been delayed. As they find ways to continue A Pretty Cool Hotel Tour, Margaret and Corey are temporarily living in Palm Springs and designing their own themed rooms for a friend’s vacation home. “It’s called The Rainbow Getaway and each room will be a different color. We’re not going to push it too far,” says Bienert. “But I currently have $1,000 of pink fake fur that’s definitely going up on the walls.”
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