Route 66 is easily the most famous road in the U.S. During the 1950s and ’60s, millions of travelers drove all or part of the highway, which stretched from Chicago to California. To accommodate all of these travelers, hotels, motor courts, and one-of-a-kind establishments popped up in cities along the route. The Sleepy Bear TraveLodge in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was one such property. Now, like so many Route 66 vintage stays, it has been reborn as a fun, funky, colorful destination. Opened in late 2022, Hotel Zazz reimagines the motel as a psychedelic mix of midcentury retro kitsch and modern comfort.
A Piece of New Mexico History
Built as a TraveLodge in 1960 and later converted to the University Lodge, Hotel Zazz is the creative brainchild of Sharmin Dharas. Daras, a surgeon, grew up on the property. Her parents owned and operated the University Lodge since 1996.
The hotel is located on Central Avenue. In 1937, Route 66 joined Central Avenue to cross the city. In fact, an iconic 1969 photograph by Ernst Haas of the famous strip shows the TraveLodge sign peeking out from the busy street.
“My parents took it over when I was 7 years old,” Dharas says. “It was built with 54 rooms, and my parents took up three when we were living here.” Now the hotel has 40 rooms and suites. “And the original phone number is the same,” she adds. “We tracked it back to when the first number was listed in the phonebook.”
About four years ago, Dharas announced her intentions to give the hotel a makeover. She was inspired by her world travels as a student when she would stay in character-filled hostels and boutique hotels. “I would see these old hotels being renovated into something modern and fun, and I’d come home and be like ‘I could totally do that. So I’ve always had that dream, wish and aspiration,’” she recalls.
The COVID pandemic provided her with an opportunity to slow down business and concentrate on the renovation. Dharas DIYed most of the rooms by herself, with a little design help from her then 2-year-old daughter. Every color on the property was dictated by the child. Dharas notes, “I asked her every day what her favorite color was, and like every 2 year old, she changed it every day. That’s why it’s so colorful.”
A Feast for the Senses
Dharas says she “zazzified” the hotel, “bringing pizzazz back to the neighborhood.”
The bright white two-story lodging has bold turquoise, hot pink, lemon yellow and lime green accents. And its original breeze block walls and barrel-arched porte cochere remain as eye-catching reminders of the midentury era.
About 50 artists from around the country helped develop the Zazz look. Renowned industrial designer Karim Rashid created the outdoor furnishings. Lena Horgan from Oregon made the metal flowers that decorate the railings. And local artist Kelly Klein and muralist Mauricio Ramirez added colorful flair throughout.
“The whole point is to invigorate all five senses plus a sixth,” Dharas explains. “So you’ll smell something, you’ll hear something, you’ll see something, you’ll taste something, and you’ll feel or touch something. And then our sixth sense is the feelings, the actual emotions.”
Dharas notes that the hotel is a pioneer in in chromotherapy, or color therapy. “When a guest checks in to a Copper King (standard king), we ask them, ‘Purple, pink or blue — what mood are you feeling?’ King rooms come in hot pink with black accents, amethyst purple with mustard yellow, and turquoise blue with white.”
Additional room sizes include double queens, which showcase all the colors found throughout the hotel; the studio king, which features a teal mountain and moon decor; the Banana Suite, with a chic yellow-and-black Hollywood regency vibe; and the Giraffe Suite, which features a vibrant giraffe mural and sleeps seven.
The bathrooms offer rainshower faucets and color-changing mirrors. A positive affirmation on the mirror reads, “Mirror, mirror on the wall. Press the button to see the zazz-iest of them all.”
And all rooms include keyless entry, retro-style Galanz mini-fridges, a coffee maker with New Mexico pinon coffee, and teas made by one of Dharas’s medical colleagues.
Putting the “Zazz” in Hotel Zazz
Immediately upon entering the lobby, guests will notice the presence of giraffes and bananas. The quirky elements are part of Hotel Zazz’s story. “We didn’t know that Zazz was going to become this whimsical, magical place,” Dharas says. “I asked my daughter, if Zazz was an animal, what would it be?” That’s how the hotel’s mascot, Raffie the giraffe, was born.
Raffie lives in the hotel, and guests will spot him throughout the lobby and rooms. And Raffie’s favorite snack is bananas. As such, the signature scent of sweet banana slurpee wafts throughout the property, and guest rooms offer banana bath amenities. Touch the golden banana on check-in counter, and you’re in for a surprise.
Three taps, and a hidden door in the garden wall opens. It leads to a secret speakeasy, Z Lounge. Relax on a sofa in the comfortable living room-style lounge while sipping craft cocktails. A small room tucked behind a beaded curtain offers the perfect spot for a private gathering.
Also make sure to stop by the hydration room. Instead of a dark, drab space with a clanking ice machine, the room is a disco-licious display of lights, mirrors and fun art installations.
The ceiling is covered in mirrored disco balls, while the floor is composed of actual cassette tapes. Many belonged to her parents, but during construction, Dharas put out a call on social media and received additional cassettes from across the world. “We kept about half of them, and we’ve ordered some boom boxes,” she says. “So guests will be able to rent a boombox and listed to some cool cassettes during their stay.” And the red Coca-Cola freezer is packed with popsicles. Every day from 4-5 p.m., the hotel offers a popsicle happy hour for kids of all ages.
If You Stay at Hotel Zazz
Hotel Zazz is located in Albuquerque’s trendy Nob Hill neighborhood. “There’s so much entertainment and so many fun things to do here,” Dharas says. The historic district along Central Avenue is chock-full of more than 300 businesses, including restaurants, bars, breweries, coffee shops, art galleries and more. So park your car at the hotel and explore the neighborhood on foot.
Rates for Hotel Zazz start at about $170 for a double queen or king suite. Wifi is included, and parking is free. Pets are not allowed. You can check Expedia or Hotels.com to see if you can get a better rate.
Hotel Zazz is centrally located for all your travel needs. It’s about 1 mile from the University of New Mexico, about 3 miles from Albuquerque International Sunport airport, and about 5 miles from Old Town Albuquerque. For another historic midcentury property, head about 5 miles west on Central Avenue to El Vado Motel. This unique motor court was one of the city’s first lodgings along Route 66.