Getaways

Who Needs Wi-Fi? Off-Grid Can Be a Draw for Vacation Rentals

Tune out and turn off at these gorgeous Oregon Airbnbs.

By Fiona McCann December 21, 2021 Published in the Winter 2021/2022 issue of Portland Monthly

Once, when booking a getway, free Wi-Fi was as essential as hot showers. But in an age of endlessly grim news and unboundaried remote work, staying connected doesn’t seem quite so important anymore.

Enter a whole new genre of Airbnbs, private retreats that not only refuse to provide the connectivity we have come to rely so heavily on, but even advertise the lack thereof as a primary selling point. And for an increasing number of Oregonians, going off-grid is where the vacation begins.

The Summit Prairie elevated cabin

“We always get what I’m sure are autogenerated emails from Airbnb that say, ‘If you’d offer Wi-Fi your place would be more appealing,’” says Dabney Tompkins, who with his husband, Alan Colley, owns one of the state’s most coveted short-term stays. “I’m like, no, it would not.”

Interior of the elevated cabin

Summit Prairie, their 40-foot-high fire tower near Tiller in the middle of the Umpqua National Forest, was built in 2009 and modeled after the US Forest Service’s early-20th-century fire lookouts—because “some people want to have a beach cottage as a second home and some people want a ski condo, but we wanted to have a fire lookout,” says Tompkins. It has no clock, no Wi-Fi, no television, and (act fast) almost no availability.

When Tompkins and Colley open the booking calendar in spring every year and let their waitlist know that their listing is available, “within a few seconds it’s booked for the season,” says Tompkins. Guests seem unfazed by the composting toilet situated down flights of steps and apart from the tower itself. Instead, he says, “We probably have five or six hundred people trying to book maybe 10 or 20 spaces. It’s out of control.”


 

Heather Butler and Denis Kegler’s Nehalem River retreat

They’re not the only Airbnb owners in Oregon making hay on the magic of disconnection. Heather Butler and Denis Kegler’s sleek and exquisitely appointed cabin on the Nehalem River, built in 2018, remains just as deliberately—even defiantly—sans internet.

The Nehalem River retreat’s interior

“We both had pretty fast-paced lives,” says Butler of when she and Kegler built the angular cabin by a hill. “We just needed a place where we could go and be in nature and be fully off the grid, so we decided to not have internet, or any access to TVs, or anything like that.”

They opted for a landline in case of emergency, and now find that guests are equally excited to be off the grid. “It is probably the largest compliment that we get when people are done at the cabin, just how great it felt to be able to completely unwind and decompress and shut off,” says Butler. “A lot of stories are really sweet—like parents that are coming with their high school kids or groups of friends who just want to get away and play board games and read and hike.”


 

Heartland Treehouse

Kean Fleming’s Heartland Treehouse in Langlois, on the Southern Oregon coast, was built with the help of family and friends over a three-year period, with wood harvested and milled on his family’s property. In lieu of the Netflix-and-chill option, guests are encouraged to warm up in the small sauna, take side-by-side baths in tubs on a wooden deck among the fir trees, or hike in the nearby mountains.

The outdoor tubs at Heartland Treehouse

“Guests do generally appreciate a chance to detach from their phones and the doomscroll, and take a couple of days to connect with one another and bathe in the forest,” says Fleming, who points out that places like his treehouse have become particularly attractive at a time when social distancing—in this case, quite a lot of distancing—is at a premium. “The pandemic has made this type of secluded, built-for-two vacation getaway very desirable.”

Tompkins had a similar experience. “Last year when the pandemic hit, [the tower’s popularity] just shot through the roof,” he says. “[People] felt like it was a really safe place to come, and they didn’t have to worry about a lot of things.... I don’t think our guests would come if we had [Wi-Fi]. I think that’s kind of the reason they come here, because we don’t.”

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