Can a weed-friendly hotel reinvent the struggling NorCal town of Scotia?

1923 hotel

I’ve never been a weed person. But with my face down on a massage table in the historic Scotia Lodge spa, in the heart of California’s Emerald Triangle, a massage with cannabis-infused oil didn’t feel like the worst idea. After all, a hotel staff member told me, only about 1% of people absorb cannabis through the skin.

“If that happens, we’ll send you to your room with a movie and make sure you have plenty of munchies,” he said with a smile.

That might be a decent way to spend an evening in Scotia, I thought to myself. At the moment, there isn’t a whole lot else to do in this old logging town, which has been hit hard by a downturn in the marijuana industry.

Owned and operated by Pacific Lumber Company for more than 100 years, Scotia was once one of California’s largest company towns. Workers lived in company-owned homes and were paid in scrip, or currency redeemable in company-owned stores and restaurants. Today, the town’s 270 craftsman homes are transitioning into private hands, and many of the historic buildings sit empty. The area is surrounded by struggling pot farms. Its only saving grace may be as a hub for travelers driving the Avenue of the Giants, but nobody’s done much to capitalize on that.

The Scotia Lodge is weed-friendly and even offers massages with cannabis-infused oil. 
The Scotia Lodge is weed-friendly and even offers massages with cannabis-infused oil. Ashley Harrell/SFGATE

I’ve driven by Scotia countless times on my way up and down Highway 101, and I’ve stopped in neighboring Rio Dell for a swim in the Eel River and some outrageous waffles inside a cannabis nursery. But on this particular trip, I decided to spend a night in the recently restored Scotia Lodge.

After pulling off Highway 101, I drove by the old Pacific Lumber mill, now known as the Humboldt Redwood Company, and parked at the town’s primary tourist attraction, the Humboldt Redwood Company Fisheries Exhibit. The exhibit consists of a few placards about the company, which owns 440,000 acres of redwood and Douglas-fir timberlands, and a system of aquariums containing chinook salmon and steelhead trout at various stages in their life cycle.

I wandered the exhibit and watched as fingerling, smolt and adult fish swam around in their tanks, eyeing me suspiciously through the glass. I was the only one there, and I got the impression they didn’t have many visitors.

There were no other guests during the author's visit to the Humboldt Redwood Company Fisheries Exhibit. 
There were no other guests during the author’s visit to the Humboldt Redwood Company Fisheries Exhibit. Ashley Harrell/SFGATE
A young trout at the Humboldt Redwood Company Fisheries Exhibit in Scotia. 
A young trout at the Humboldt Redwood Company Fisheries Exhibit in Scotia. Ashley Harrell/SFGATE

Back in my car, I drove up Main Street and into town, passing the Scotia Museum and the Winema Theater, built in 1919 (both closed), as well as the Palco Pharmacy, which opened in 1860 and recently shuttered for good. Soon, the gleaming white Scotia Lodge and its stately columns and bright green lawn appeared on the right.

The hotel fell into disrepair after Houston-based conglomerate Maxxam Corp. bought Pacific Lumber in 1985. Maxxam’s reign was controversial; its practice of clearcutting countless acres of redwoods led to years of environmental protests and lawsuits. In 2007, the parent company placed Pacific Lumber into bankruptcy, selling it to an investment group in 2008. The hotel remained closed until 2021, when husband-and-wife team Jon O’Connor and Amy Cirincione O’Connor bought it through their hospitality company, Humboldt Social.

They renovated the grand lobby, ballroom, dining lounge and event spaces, along with 22 guest rooms on the first and second floors. They also opened a casual restaurant, Main + Mill, and started serving craft cocktails at Wonder Bar on the lower level. They eventually plan to build a swim club with heated pools and hot tubs in the lot between the hotel’s wings, but for now, the focus is on the spa, which includes a couple of clawfoot tubs, a Himalayan salt block and a massage room.

The Rio Dell Bridge crosses over the Eel River into Scotia. 
The Rio Dell Bridge crosses over the Eel River into Scotia. Ashley Harrell/SFGATE

A weed rubdown is the kind of thing Humboldt Social is known for. In addition to Scotia Lodge, the company owns several dispensaries, the cannabis brand Social Nature, and another hotel, Humboldt Bay Social Club, which also offers a cannabis-friendly spa. The idea, according to the company’s marketing materials, is to incorporate cannabis into hospitality via “cannabis-infused experiences.” Apparently, even when weed is selling for bottom dollar, there’s hope that people might venture up to Humboldt County to learn about and experience the drug themselves.

To get a weed massage, I had to purchase the cannabis-infused oil ahead of time over the phone, pick it up at the dispensary (or have it delivered), and bring it with me to my appointment. I opted for the $38 Glow, a “cannabis-infused intimate oil” with vitamin E and amber that contains 300 mg of cannabinoids. There was some confusion about whether I’d be picking up the oil or having it delivered, and somehow on the day of my massage, I ended up with two bottles.

I handed one bottle to my masseuse. Despite what the other hotel employee had told me, she claimed my body would absorb the THC; we agreed she would use a third of the bottle.

A room at the recently revamped Scotia Lodge. 
A room at the recently revamped Scotia Lodge. Ashley Harrell/SFGate

Other than the distinctive scent of marijuana emanating from the oil, the massage was pretty typical. I did notice it seemed to be going on an extra long time, though. I had booked a 30-minute massage for $65, but I began to get the impression that I’d been in there at least an hour — and not because I was high. When the masseuse started scraping my skin with a dry brush, I got even more confused.

At the end, the masseuse handed me a bill for a 75-minute “Glow Up” massage: $125. There must have been a mix-up, because the product I ordered (Glow) had almost the same name as the more expensive and longer massage. She apologized, and I forgave her and paid for the more expensive massage I didn’t order. At least I hadn’t absorbed the cannabis through my skin, I thought to myself, feeling totally sober but also pretty relaxed.

The grand lobby at the Scotia Lodge. 
The grand lobby at the Scotia Lodge. Ashley Harrell/SFGATE

I retreated to my room, where complimentary carafes of whiskey and vodka were waiting. I drank those and then descended into the Wonder Bar, which happened to be hosting a twice-monthly karaoke night. Five people showed up, including an older gentleman who really nailed Ray Price’s “For the Good Times.”

I ordered a burger, which turned out to be delicious, and chatted for a while with the bartender. Like many in Scotia, she’d lived in the town all her life. And she likes it just the way it is, she told me.

“We are definitely still stuck in the times here, but that’s what draws people in,” she said. “It’s not busy, and it’s not hectic, but it is beautiful.”

Ashley Harrell