The world’s most popular Airbnb listing isn’t easy to find.
From San Francisco, the journey begins with an hour’s drive on Interstate 280 and a windy crossing of “Killer 17” – one of the most accident prone freeways in California.
In the small coastal town of Aptos, you ascend into the Santa Cruz Mountains, past centuries-old sequoias and herds of deer. After a few miles you lose cell service and have to rely on the paper instructions printed in advance.
When you spot the group of weathered mailboxes you cut to the right and go up a steep single lane driveway until you reach an old mint green shed.
You park and walk up the driveway, past black cats, giggling chickens, and dense thickets of foliage.
Here lies the famous Mushroom dome.
Most booked establishment on Airbnb (The Hustle)
Over the years, this 100 square feet geodesic structure hosted more than 5.8,000 Airbnb guests From all over the world.
People have traveled here from over 40 countries – Djibouti, Mongolia, China, India, Australia, Peru – on 6 different continents. It was the subject of Press articles, Instagram shootings, and video tributes.
The Mushroom Dome is the most booked and desired establishment on the Airbnb platform, 5.6 million other announcements, including a house in the shape of the elephant, a Cave in France, and a 12th century Scotsman Chateau.
What makes it so popular? Why are people flocking here? And how has the fame of this tiny cabin impacted the owner’s life?
One recent afternoon in August, I went there to find out.
The origins of a legendary cabin
Within seconds of getting out of the car, I was greeted by Katherine “Kitty” Mrache, the owner of the 71-year-old Mushroom Dome.
With kind eyes and hair of white feathers, Kitty emerged from her garden, a crowd of hummingbirds in tow.
“You made it,” she beamed.
Kitty migrated to the woods in 1984 when her parents – a famous geologist And one anti-war activist – moved here from the Bay Area suburbs in search of solitude. They asked her if she would be interested in joining them if they bought her land next door.
“Hell yeah! ” she said.
For the next decade, she lived on the property, amassing an income as a Kumon instructor, Montessori teacher, and crystal healer.
Kitty poses in front of the Mushroom Dome (The Hustle)
In the mid-90s, Kitty’s parents allowed a recently homeless friend to build a small cabin on the 10-acre property.
Kitty agreed – as long as the structure was 100 square feet or less.
A local builder sold the woman a set of blueprints for a unique geometric structure; with the help of an ex-Navy SEAL, she built it from scratch and lived there for 7 years before getting married and moving out.
After Kitty’s parents died, her family sold the property. But Kitty, who still lived next door, wanted to keep the strange cabin.
“We rented a crane and loaded it onto a flatbed truck,” she says. “And then I got to see a house fly.”
A jack-of-all-trades, she has fitted out the displaced cabin like a crash pad for her children. She hand-cut 144 wooden triangles, built a foundation and modernized the roof with elastomeric paint.
When she and her husband, Michael, became empty nests, they decided to try their hand at overnight rentals.
One of the first to adopt Airbnb
In July 2009, Kitty listed her cabin on Craigslist for $ 60 / night, but quickly discovered that the site was teeming with crooks and unreliable guests.
“People would book it and then cancel at the last minute, never to hear from again,” she says. “They didn’t prepay so I would just lose income.”
She looked for an alternative and came across a new short-term rental platform called Airbnb.
At the time, the company was 11 months young and relatively unknown.
Kitty decided to give it a go and signed up.
The Mushroom Dome was the 8,357th property to join Airbnb. Almost all of the other listings were for urban properties in San Francisco and Manhattan. Kitty’s house – a strange-looking dome in the middle of the woods – was something strange. And it worked in his favor.
In 2 weeks, the Mushroom Dome was full.
Since then, the popularity of the cabin has not diminished
Today, the Mushroom Dome is so popular that it only has 2 or 3 vacancies in a typical year.
Customers usually need to make reservations up to 8 months in advance. Even Kitty’s own children – now grown adults – have to face the masses to get a night on the schedule.
Despite her popularity, Kitty chose to keep her property relatively affordable at $ 156 / night, ~ $ 100 / night cheaper than hotels in town.
“I don’t want the technicians to stay here,” she said. “I want it to be accessible to all types of people.”
Its guests range from millionaire founders to lower-middle-class families who are saving all year to stay here.
Part of Kitty’s success can be attributed to Airbnb’s marketing love affair with her cabin.
She joined the platform when the company had only a few employees working in an apartment. To this day, she knows the founders by first name – and they see her as the embodiment of the company’s stated purpose: to help ordinary people monetize their extra space.
The company featured the Mushroom Dome on a series of advertisements in 5 US cities, with the caption: “Millions of Airbnb hosts. Only one like Kitty. He also had a replica of the structure installed on the 4th floor of his San Francisco HQ.
A billboard featuring Kitty’s home in Belmont, California (Via Emilee Goo)
Airbnb says the Mushroom Dome’s prosperity is part of a larger trend on the platform: an increase in the popularity of unique-looking properties.
“Travelers look to unique mansions like cabins, cottages and treehouses to break up the monotony of last year, with the type of stay – not the exact location – becoming the destination,” he said. said a spokesperson for the company. Agitation.
- The platform says it has 170k + of these lists – one 30% jump from 2019.
- Search for “unique” properties (such as hobbit holes and potato houses) exploded 94% during the 1st half of 2021, compared to the same period 2 years ago.
Kitty attributes her success to the emphasis on the human touch.
“It’s kind of a woo-woo for a lot of people,” she says. “But for me, it’s important to focus on the serve, not on what I can get out of it.”
She denounces Airbnb hosts who leave a key in a safe and never come into contact with their guests. Her property, she says, is more than a place to sleep: “It’s a door for people to discover themselves.
Guest books in the cabin are full of traveler notes that describe the dome as a vehicle for transformative experiences. In these tight spaces, guests volunteered, took pregnancy photos, and celebrated milestones in their lives.
Kitty is holding a map showing where all of her guests are from (The Hustle)
Kitty wants to be a central part of this experience.
Practicing meditation for 40 years, she often guides guests on mindfulness quests and metaphysical journeys.
During my 2 hour chat with her – which aimed to focus on what makes an Airbnb listing popular – we discussed:
- Telepathic dogs
- Quantum physics
- Mineral healing
- Thought field therapy (“tapping”)
- Tectonic plates
Raised in the countercultural chaos of the ’60s and sculpted by the New Age spirituality of the’ 80s, Kitty is as unique as the property she rents.
She regaled me with stories about alchemicals, channeling spirits and the night her militant mother once spent in a prison cell with singer-songwriter Joan Baez.
At one point during the conversation, I was struck by the fact that Kitty – not just the Dome – is integral to the popularity of the list.
Kitty reads the reviews left in an old logbook from 2009. “We chose this place as part of our honeymoon,” one guest wrote. “Thank you for giving us such a wonderful place to start our life together. (The commotion)
The Mushroom Dome isn’t for everyone, however.
Kitty received a few bad reviews for being too talkative. Others don’t understand how rustic the property is.
“I asked a woman to bring her mother here from China. They drove all the way, took a look and came straight down the hill, ”she says. “It wasn’t his idea of a good time.”
But overall, guests know what they’re getting themselves into – and a break from city life is part of the charm.
A life saver
Financially, the Mushroom Dome has been a lifeline.
Prior to joining Airbnb, Kitty struggled to cope with her $ 250 / month. Social Security checks.
Today, the cabin reports $ 8,000 / month. ($ 96,000 / year) – more than 8x what the Average Airbnb makes.
The extra money helped her husband, Michael, retire from his work with international students at UCSC Extension School.
“For the first time in our lives, we don’t have to worry about money,” Kitty says.
She is well aware of the controversies around Airbnb. The platform has been mocked for negatively impacting housing stock, rising rents and house prices, and gentrification.
But there’s a difference, she says, between renting a secluded cabin in the woods and grabbing a property in an urban neighborhood lacking housing just to use it as a vacation rental.
The cabin has been a godsend for Santa Cruz County: it brings ~ $ 50k / year in transitional occupancy taxes, and more than 2,000 other landowners in the area – mostly empty nesters over the age of 50 – have followed Kitty’s lead and rented their own additional rooms.
The success allowed Kitty to renovate and rent a second property on the land – a haunt she calls the Hummingbird Haven.
Outside the door, dozens of hummingbirds gather around red feeders, sucking up 2 liters of nectar each day.
Hummingbirds roam the air throughout the property (The Hustle)
Like many Airbnb hosts, Kitty was tense by the pandemic.
Last year it had over 70 cancellations and the Mushroom Dome sat empty for almost 2 months. She stayed positive, using the time to install new hardwood flooring and build a new sofa.
The lull in reservations – a first in more than a decade – also gave Kitty time to reflect on how much this odd little cabin has given her.
“I’m 71 now, and sometimes I think I would like to travel and see the world,” she says, gazing at the redwoods that encase the bridge.
“But then again, the whole world came to me instead.”