Warm smell of colitis
When interpreted at face value, this is just a straightforward reference to a desert plant called colitas.
But this "colitas" has been the source of much speculation. The "desert flower" thing certainly works, though people disagree over exactly which flower Henley might have been referring to.
The other suggestion, preferred by people who like to find hidden drug references in every song (what's up with those people), is that "colitas" refers to a part of the marijuana plant. As in, the speaker has been smoking dope, so he obviously smells it in his car.
To which we respond: quite possible. Drugs were a big part of the Eagles' lives during that period. But they don't otherwise figure much into this song, so we'll go with flowers for now.
Up ahead in the distance,
I saw a shimmering light
It's unclear whether the shimmering light that singer Don Henley references here is the Hotel California or the city of Los Angeles up in the distance.
It's easy to imagine the shimmering light coming from an old neon sign outside the gaudy Hotel California. But it's also possible that the light in the distance is coming from the congested, sprawling urban space that is Los Angeles.
After all, Eagles guitarist Don Felder once explained that "if you drive into LA at night you can just see this glow on the horizon of lights and the images that start running through your head of Hollywood and all the dreams that you have" (source).
I heard the mission bell
The mission bell that the narrator references here is the bell tower at the top of a Spanish mission or church.
The Spanish settlers built many of these churches in what was then part of Mexico, but is now part of the American West. The architecture is so recognizable that it has its own name: "mission-style."
Sure enough, the album cover for Hotel California depicts a hotel constructed in the Spanish mission style at dusk, with the words "Hotel California" lit up like a neon sign.
Her mind is Tiffany-twisted,
She got the Mercedes bends
A really masterful line by Don Henley here—and yes, he intentionally wrote "Mercedes bends" and not "Mercedes Benz."
The woman's mind has been "twisted" by Tiffany, the super-expensive jewelry store with the iconic blue-green boxes. Tiffany is a total status symbol for the wealthy.
She also has a case of "the bends," also known as decompression sickness. You get the bends, for example, if you surface too fast while scuba diving. But the speaker makes a clever pun: Her case of the bends is caused by the expensive car, the Mercedes Benz. Basically, her whole worldview is warped by money.
So I called up the captain, "Please bring me my wine"
He said, "We haven't had that spirit here since 1969"
He calls for "the Captain," who might be the Wine Captain, the person who serves wine in restaurants. But "Captain" obviously has connotations of ships and ocean travel, as if the speaker were suddenly at sea.
He asks for wine or, rather, "my wine." He has become rather demanding, hasn't he?
Nonetheless, the Captain sounds pleased that somebody has decided to get drunk around the place. It's like when a really cool and fun person walks into a really lame party. But hey, aren't they dancing in the courtyards? That sounds pretty fun to us, but the Captain sounds jaded instead.
The speaker's request for alcohol reminds El Capitan of the heady days back in 1969, the year of the Woodstock Festival that arguably marked the height of the 1960s counterculture. The patrons (or prisoners) of the hotel no longer have the spirit of 1969.
Bring your alibis
This is the first suggestion that all is not right at the Hotel California.
The last verse of the stanza is jarring. Visitors to the hotel are instructed to "bring their alibis." In legal terms, an "alibi" is a way of proving you didn't commit a crime because you were somewhere else at the time.
Are they suggesting that the patrons at the hotel are criminals, or that they need an excuse for not being somewhere else?
Mirrors on the ceiling
The pink champagne on ice
What had originally sounded like an upscale, swanky hotel suddenly sounds a little sleazy.
Mirrors have been placed on the ceiling so that people can watch themselves have sex, and "champagne" sounds sophisticated, but "pink champagne" sounds kind of tawdry.
Could the Hotel California just be an upscale house of sleaze?