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Adventure Meets Culture in French Polynesia

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Adventure Meets Culture in French Polynesia

La vie heureuse” is a phrase often used in Tahiti, which translates roughly to “A happy life”. As it happens, there is not much in the way of that when you’re in French Polynesia. From the unbelievably clear turquoise waters to the enchanting waterfalls, mystical valleys, rich cultural history, and fauna bursting with color and life, it is a land that seems almost unreal until experiencing it in person.

I have to admit that for all its beauty, Tahiti hadn’t been a destination high on my list because I had always considered it a “honeymoon destination”. However, I was proven completely wrong about that misconception recently during an opportunity to attend a trip in collaboration French Bee and Tahiti Tourism. A new addition to the ever-expanding options of low cost airlines, French Bee had just launched a new route from Paris to San Francisco to Tahiti and I was lucky enough to participate in their inaugural flight from San Francisco, (full breakdown available here.)

During my week spent exploring the islands of Tahiti and Moorea, I discovered that French Polynesia is brimming with so much more than just picture-perfect beaches and luxury resorts; that discovery and immersion of all of the artistic and cultural aspects of a different country that make travel so intoxicating for me is all here, in a destination I so easily overlooked previously.

Traditional Polynesian welcome with harmonies from a conch shell at Fa'a'ā International Airport upon French Bee's inaugural flight from Paris > SF > Tahiti.

Traditional Polynesian welcome with harmonies from a conch shell at Fa'a'ā International Airport upon French Bee's inaugural flight from Paris > SF > Tahiti.

Upon landing at Fa'a'ā International Airport just before sunrise, we were immediately greeted with a fragrant jasmine lei, the sweet smell instantly bringing attention to the fact that yes, we had just arrived in paradise. Rhythms of Polynesian drums and mellow guitar melodies bounced off the walls as dancers swayed to the music, smiling at us as we began a week of unforgettable adventures.

In this write-up, I’ve gathered my highlights of where to stay, play, discover, and eat on these two magical islands, honeymoon or husband not necessary. In fact, all of these locations would make for a fabulous girls trip or solo getaway, depending on your travel preference. Happy trip planning!

TAHITI


STAY: LE MERIDIEN TAHITI

While Tahiti certainly has no shortage of accommodations, from 5 star resorts to guesthouses and humble yet cozy family-run pensiones, I felt completely relaxed and at ease upon checking into Le Meridien Tahiti. Refreshing myself with the Malin + Goetz amenities, I immediately took a walk around the grounds to gaze out at the idyllic overwater bungalows, waves gently lapping on the shore, and waded through the lagoon.

Poolside at Le Meridien Tahiti

Poolside at Le Meridien Tahiti

An overwater bungalow at Le Meridien

An overwater bungalow at Le Meridien

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SHOP: MARCHE VISIT FOR FLOWER CROWNS

In the age of social media, what’s a visit to Polynesia without at least one ‘gram with a gorgeous flower crown feeling like a Tahitian princess? Although a few hotels may be able to procure one upon request, a more fun way is to make a stop at the Marche in Papeete. While Sunday at sunrise is a the most popular day among locals who are there to buy the freshest catch possible, the Marche is also open most days if you're more keen on shopping for jewelry, locally made products (soaps, oils, shampoos), and of course, leis & flower crowns. Just a short 15-20 minute taxi ride from most of the hotels surrounding the island, its a great way to take a peek into daily life and bustle on Papeete and see beyond what most tourists experience on the edges of Tahiti. Once you arrive, its hard to miss the rows of local artisans weaving leis and flower crowns on the outer perimeter of the market. A fun little tidbit from Tahitian culture for the ladies: If you wear a flower tucked behind your right ear, it signals that you are “taken”, and if you wear it behind your left year, you’re “single”…

Papeete Marche: 23 Rue du Père Collette, Papeete, French Polynesia

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DISCOVER: MARAE + WATERFALLS

Tahiti’s mountainous interior is rich with stunning landscapes of full of streams, waterfalls, trees of tiare, aka the Tahitian gardenia, the most ubiquitous flower on the island. A “circle tour” around the perimeter of the island with stops at significant maraes is a great way to get a sense of the culture and history that binds the Polynesians together. Maraes were sacred gathering places for religious and social rituals, many times for prayer and sacrifice to the Tahitian gods for good fortune and abundance. A rectangular structure of carefully selected basalt rocks, many of the maraes standing today have been lovingly reconstructed by Tahitians eager to preserve their culture and share it with visitors and the next generation.

While there are a few tour operators that do the “circle tour”, its also possible to rent a car or a driver and do this at your leisure, skipping stops that don’t interest you or lingering at the ones that do. A couple of my favorite stops, pictured below, included Marae Arahurahu and Mara’a Grottoes.

Marae Arahurahu

Marae Arahurahu

Freshly fallen tiare at Marae Arahurahu

Freshly fallen tiare at Marae Arahurahu

Waterfall at Mara’a Grottoes

Waterfall at Mara’a Grottoes

Marae Arahurahu

Marae Arahurahu

EAT: LA PLAGE DE MAUI

Being an island, Tahiti is a seafood lovers dream. Fresh, quality seafood can be found at almost any restaurant, many times inexpensively if you’re having the local favorite- poisson cru. One of the most memorable meals for us was on our way back from Teahupoo, at a deceptively humble restaurant on the side of the road called La Plage de Maui, decorated with charming mix of Tahitian kitsch and maritime tchotchkes. 

A mix of French and local Polynesian flavors, every dish here from the appetizers to the dessert was authentic and delectable, made with so much love and warmth. It was a tough decision but I ordered Paraha Peue from Vairao’s Lagoon - fresh whole fished steamed with ginger olive oil and local root vegetables and it was gone in minutes.

La Plage de Maui: PK 7,7 - Cote mer | Toahotu, 98719, French Polynesia

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Paraha Peue from Vairao’s Lagoon

Paraha Peue from Vairao’s Lagoon

Tables facing the Tapuaemaui Bay, named for Maui, a Tahitian legend who lived near this bay.

Tables facing the Tapuaemaui Bay, named for Maui, a Tahitian legend who lived near this bay.

Tahitians don’t chase happiness. Happiness comes naturally to them. You only need to see them in the water, with a beer in their hand, splashing each other or waving to every stranger they see on the road, to know this. Happiness is in the air: in every hibiscus flower that opens early in the morning, in the sweet aroma of the pineapple plantations, in the smile of the people lolling around idly, resting slothfully in the warm breeze that ruffles the surface of the lagoon.
— Carol Vorvain

MOOREA


If you have limited time to spend in French Polynesia, 2 days is sufficient to get a feel for Tahiti, the cultural center of the islands, and then hop on the Terevau ferry onto Moorea, which is one of my favorites of the Society Islands. A captivating blend of adventure, nature, relaxation, and culture, Moorea is only a 30 minute ferry ride away yet feels like a world apart. Tickets for the Terevau can be purchased online or in person, and there is a comfortable cafe on the upper level with drinks and snacks as you watch the ferry come in carrying a mix of locals and visitors.

On arrival in Moorea, we were whisked to a private beach by friendly Pierre and his company, Enjoy Moorea. As we marveled at the rugged natural beauty of our new surroundings, wandered around, he prepared a delicious platter of fresh local fruit to start the day - pineapple, grapefruit, passion fruit, and bananas, all beautifully served on a banana leaf. Was everything sweeter and tastier because we were ingesting it in such lovely surroundings? We may never know the true answer to that...

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We ate our fruit while gazing out here and fell in love with Moorea right away.

We ate our fruit while gazing out here and fell in love with Moorea right away.

After breakfast on the beach, we headed inland and up the mountain to drive through Moorea’s pineapple plantations. It was incredible watching the landscape and climate change as we ascended the mountain in a 4x4 Jeep. From the warm sunny breeze on the coast, the air gradually became cooler and mistier, adding to the mystique of Tahiti’s extraordinary landscape and of course, making for some gorgeous landscape shots.

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EAT + DISCOVER: TIKI VILLAGE

Tahitians come from an incredibly rich history of rituals and traditions, so a hands-on experience is no doubt the best way to immerse yourself in Polynesian culture, at least for a few hours while at Tiki Village. For me, a cooking class is always an enjoyable way to experience local ingredients and learn cooking techniques practiced in the region. Although it didn’t involve any technical “cooking”, I loved seeing how simple it was to make the popular Tahitian dish - poisson cru - fresh raw tuna marinated in coconut milk, lime juice, salt, and pepper. Like my mantra for California cuisine, less is more in this case, and the fresher and simpler the ingredients, the easier it is to prepare a delectable dish thats both healthy and appetizing.

Tiki Village: Moorea Bungalow, Moorea 98729, French Polynesia

Tiki Village

Tiki Village

Simple ingredients for poisson cru: fresh coconut, lime, salt, pepper, fresh tuna, carrots, cucumber, onion, tomato

Simple ingredients for poisson cru: fresh coconut, lime, salt, pepper, fresh tuna, carrots, cucumber, onion, tomato

Poisson Cru

Poisson Cru

STAY: INTERCONTINENTAL MOOREA

As in Tahiti, there are many options for accommodations in Moorea, and I was grateful for a warm and welcoming stay at the Intercontinental. Its sprawling grounds with lagoons and pools are easy to navigate, and there is so much to experience on site. Rent kayaks or stand up paddle boards, take an exercise spin class in one of the lagoons, indulge in the spa (below) or gain awareness about the sea turtle conservation efforts at the Te Mana o Te Moana Association, an independent non-profit with a mission to conserve and rehabilitate sea turtles and educate children about marine life. (The group is independent but their offices are on the Intercontinental grounds).

Intercontinental Moorea: Tiahura, Moorea, 98729, French Polynesia

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REJUVENATE: HELENE SPA AT INTERCONTINENTAL MOOREA

With its distinction as the first spa in Tahiti, Helene Spa has a lot to live up to, and from my immensely relaxing experience there, it exceeded my expectations. I loved how much all aspects of the spa showcased the natural qualities of the islands, both through the indigenous ingredients and various treatments that stem from ancient Polynesian healers.

If you do indulge, arriving early to settle in and relax is highly recommended. Prior to your treatment, you have the option of soaking in the river bath or the rain shower - while I opted for the rain shower, it seems like either choice is equally calming. During the massage, I chose from the monoi oil, tiare oil, or coconut oil, all naturally harvested, and sank into a deeply relaxed state. Every bit of the experience felt so personal and soothing. I emerged feeling renewed, not wanting to leave this cocoon of comfort.

Helene Spa: Pk 24.5 Haapiti MOOREAHaapiti 98729, French Polynesia

Guests have the option of soaking in a traditional river bath at Helene Spa before treatments.

Guests have the option of soaking in a traditional river bath at Helene Spa before treatments.

Stunningly gorgeous flower bath that looks up to views of the mountains.

Stunningly gorgeous flower bath that looks up to views of the mountains.

A few of the natural ingredients used in massage and beauty treatments - monoi oil, tamanu, tiare, Tahitian vanilla.

A few of the natural ingredients used in massage and beauty treatments - monoi oil, tamanu, tiare, Tahitian vanilla.

EAT + STAY: SUNSET RESTAURANT AT HIBISCUS HOTEL

On our 2nd day in Moorea, we spent a few hours at the Hibiscus Hotel, a lovely mid-range accommodation option that falls between a guest house and a luxury resort. With its scenic Bali-esque huts situated around the lush green property, it was definitely a place I could imagine spending a few days at. Several of the bungalows are equipped with kitchens and being walking distance from a few convenience stores and makes it a comfortable yet budget-friendly option for a group of friends or a family. Our favorite part of the hotel was the water-facing restaurant, Restaurant Le Sunset, where we had a hearty breakfast of traditional American items like eggs and pastries, but not without a side of poisson cru. We marveled at the serene views and soft island breeze as we lingered over a casual meal that felt as if we were on a friend’s patio.

Hibiscus Hotel: PK 27, Seaside, Haapiti BP 1009Papetoai 98728, French Polynesia

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Huts at the charming Hibiscus Hotel

Huts at the charming Hibiscus Hotel

Perfect views during breakfast at Hibiscus Hotel

Perfect views during breakfast at Hibiscus Hotel

DISCOVER: SHARK + RAY LAGOON EXCURSION WITH TEMOANA TOURS

And now for the grand finale of my must-do list- a lagoon excursion with the warmest hosts - Teva and Joanna of TeMoana Tours. Conveniently, we were picked up by boat just outside of Sunset Restaurant after our breakfast (above) and again greeted with fragrant jasmine leis. We sailed around Cooks and Opunohus Bay, witnessing the mountainous peaks rise up from the island as we imagined the explorers who came upon Tahiti centuries ago did.

We stopped at a stunningly clear lagoon to snorkel with sharks and sting rays, easily the most memorable experience on the trip. The water was deliciously warm, and the sharks and sting rays simply swam around and beneath us.

After another lagoon stop where we saw a variety of fishes, we docked for a delightful lunch of grilled tuna, poisson cru, and island beverages at a table half immersed in water. It was the ultimate island experience and I can’t recommend it enough if you are on Moorea.

Boarding our boat for the day

Boarding our boat for the day

Sailing around Moorea provides a different perspective of the stunning landscape

Sailing around Moorea provides a different perspective of the stunning landscape

Picture perfect experience

Picture perfect experience

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Incredibly friendly stingrays in the lagoons

Incredibly friendly stingrays in the lagoons

Snorkeling with sharks - an unforgettable experience

Snorkeling with sharks - an unforgettable experience

Waterfront seating for lunch

Waterfront seating for lunch

Pineapple for dessert

Pineapple for dessert

Grilled tuna for lunch

Grilled tuna for lunch

Snorkeling in the clearest water

Snorkeling in the clearest water

DEPARTURE: FRENCH BEE

As it happens, all good things must come to an end, and after a momentous week of new friendships, experiences, and a deeper connection and understanding of this incredible destination, we boarded our flight on French Bee back to San Francisco. With its flexible fares and endless a la carte options for customization, its another awesome option for planning a trip to Tahiti…Bon voyage!

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If you checked out any of my recommendations above, would love to hear about your experience below!

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Friday Five: 5 Essential Stops In Santa Monica: part 1

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Friday Five: 5 Essential Stops In Santa Monica: part 1

Sometimes, its easy to take your immediate surroundings for granted, even in a place like Santa Monica, where the ocean air is always evident. For today's Friday Five, I'm excited to share a few of our local favorites; places old and new that we love spending time at over and over again. 


1. Bergamot Station

Bergamot Station: 2525 Michigan Ave, Santa Monica, CA 90404 | @platformbergamot

While the east side of Los Angeles tends to get most of the credit for all of the hip, artsy haunts, the west side has it's gem, Bergamot Station, tucked just next to the 10 Freeway. A former railroad station from 1875 to 1953, Bergamot Station debuted its transformation into an art gallery in 1994 after Santa Monica City purchased the land from Southern Pacific Railroad to prevent it from being split up and sold. Now as one of the Metro Stops along the Subway to the Sea, it's possible to see over 40 galleries en route to the beach. Current favorite at time of this post: Moses@90 at William Turner Gallery. With so many galleries in one spot, there is almost always an opening or event happening, attended by lots of westside locals. 

Cool courtyard corner at  Robert Berman Gallery

Cool courtyard corner at Robert Berman Gallery

So much light and space at  Latin American Masters Gallery

So much light and space at Latin American Masters Gallery


2. Blue Plate Oysterette

Blue Plate Oysterette: 1355 Ocean Ave, Santa Monica, CA 90401 | @blueplateoysterette

Whenever the seafood (aka oyster) mood strikes, there's no question about where to go. Just minutes away and never disappointing, Blue Plate Oysterette is the go-to restaurant in our household. Sometimes our frequency there alarms us... "Are we becoming creatures of habit?", we wonder...However, each time we place our order of a dozen oysters, the lobster mac, and a crisp glass of wine or prosecco  and settle into the cozy, intimate atmosphere, we are reminded us of why we return again and again. On a gorgeous day (more often than not), sitting on the patio watching the sun set over the Santa Monica Mountains is simply icing on the cake. 

Ocean facing exterior of BP Oysterette.

Ocean facing exterior of BP Oysterette.

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3. LOVE ADORNED

Love Adorned: 2923 Main St, Santa Monica, CA 90405 | @loveadorned

While there is no shortage of shopping on Main Street, Love Adorned is in a class of its own. Stepping into this gorgeous boutique is an instant mood-lifter (possibly because of the huge skylight pouring light right into the middle of the store). Sure, it will make you want to redo all of your decor or rearrange your living room, but feeling inspired is one of the best parts about traveling and discovering, whether at home or abroad. Originating in New York by Lori Leven, the eclectic boutique focuses on handcrafted goods both from her own travels and from local artisans. There is also an cactus garden tucked in back with cute outdoor goods displayed along with a little seating area to soak up the Santa Monica sun. 

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4. COAST AT Shutters On The Beach

Shutters On The Beach: 1 Pico Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90405 | @shuttersca

Whether you're here to grab a cocktail and appetizer or staying at one of the legendary ocean facing rooms, Shutters On The Beach and it's sister property Casa del Mar are two classic beachfront hotels in Santa Monica. Arrive before sunset and snag a seat on the ocean-facing patio with a drink (maybe two) in hand and observe the beach goers, bike riders, rollerbladers and surfers reveling in that so-cal lifestyle. California-inspired bites like spicy guac and roasted rainbow cauliflower are available as you linger over one of the best happy hours on the West Coast.  

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Mini lobster rolls from the lobby bar menu

Mini lobster rolls from the lobby bar menu


5. TWILIGHT CONCERTS AT THE PIER

Twilight Concert Series: Santa Monica Pier | @santamonicapier

There's nothing quite like that gold-hued Southern California light at dusk that exists only on the West Coast. No matter many beach visits we've clocked or how many times we've seen the hazy outline of the pier and the mountains behind it, that light has the power to reenergize and reinspire. And to be in it's presence during live music is even better. Every Thursday from July to September, the Twilight Concert series at the pier draws locals and tourists who picnic and gather on the sand for free music by renowned artists (this year's lineup included indie faves Mayer Hawthorne and Unknown Mortal Orchestra), a truly memorable experience. 

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@hammockliving  at Santa Monica Pier

@hammockliving at Santa Monica Pier


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Eco Luxe At Mango Bay

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Eco Luxe At Mango Bay

A long time ago, I realized that as much as I love the energy of living and working in a city, I long for casual and remote places when I'm away. There is something about a destination that requires time and effort to reach that feels all the more rewarding when you arrive, especially when the staff greets you with fresh cold towels and an icy fresh ginger lemonade during the informal check-in process.

And that's the story of my landing at Mango Bay, after having flown from Nha Trang that morning to Ho Chi Minh City to catch a connecting flight to Phu Quoc Island. (An aside: if time is a precious commodity for you when traveling in Vietnam, Vietnam Airlines is the best and quickest way to city hop). Because Mango Bay is on its own stretch of Ong Lang Beach, away from the cluster of hotels and hostels on the island, they offer airport transfers (for a small fee), which was worthwhile in this scenario. After dealing with taxis, check-ins, boarding, and deplaning for half a day, it's a sweet relief to see the hotel sign without having to haggle with the hoards of drivers vying for your attention. Then I arrived at this:   

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This arresting structure is the center of the eco-resort, where check-ins, breakfast, and other activities occur. Sitting here looking out at the sea with a drink in hand made for a pleasant waiting experience while my room, one of the Plantation Bungalows, was readied.

My personal plantation bungalow. I loved having tea out in the front deck before heading down to breakfast.

My personal plantation bungalow. I loved having tea out in the front deck before heading down to breakfast.

Every morning, the flask is filled with warm water for tea.

Every morning, the flask is filled with warm water for tea.

I had the picturesque two-story bungalow above all to myself. All of the doors along the front and side open out, bringing true meaning to the open-air living. The bottom floor was a living area, with space for luggage, a small desk for tea. Upstairs was the bed, where the staff comes around nightly to pull down the mosquito netting, a staple in tropical locales. 

Breakfast is included with the room rate and was a delight. In addition to the tea (or coffee if you're so inclined), heaping plates fresh fruit and breads, there are choices of American or English breakfast. Since I stayed two nights, I enjoyed every bit of both. I could have lingered at the scenic setting all day, eating fresh food, journaling, looking out at the pristine sea just feet away. 

Waking up early for breakfast was well worth this view.

Waking up early for breakfast was well worth this view.

Breakfast menu options.

Breakfast menu options.

The English Breakfast.

The English Breakfast.

Breakfast setting.

Breakfast setting.

The thing that struck me most about Mango Bay was its dedication to preserving the natural setting it occupies. The walkways between bungalows are unpaved; just enough grass is cleared for one person at a time. While the food, drinks, and attentiveness are fantastic, the place isn't built up; it has a symbiotic relationship with its surroundings, including a snail that decided to make a home in my open air bathroom for the first evening. While I found that somewhat charming, not everyone would agree. 

An abundance of flora surrounds the landscape.

An abundance of flora surrounds the landscape.

This way for more relaxation.

This way for more relaxation.

Open-air massage spot with sea views.

Open-air massage spot with sea views.

As a destination for wellness, Mango Bay offers spa treatments and daily yoga classes for their guests. Unfortunately, I had to forgo the yoga class because I had booked excursions around the island during my short stay. 

Morning sun breaking through the lush greenery.

Morning sun breaking through the lush greenery.

My gorgeous split-level bungalow.

My gorgeous split-level bungalow.

Beauty all around.

Beauty all around.

Cooking lessons are one of the activities offered.

Cooking lessons are one of the activities offered.

The lowdown on Vietnamese spices.

The lowdown on Vietnamese spices.

Loved the natural state of Ong Lang Beach the resort sits on.

Loved the natural state of Ong Lang Beach the resort sits on.

Natural unpaved walkways blend perfectly into the landscape. 

Natural unpaved walkways blend perfectly into the landscape. 

Vietnamese Capiroska with a side of spiced peanuts.

Vietnamese Capiroska with a side of spiced peanuts.

Because of time, I was a bit torn about staying and enjoying everything Mango Bay had to offer and exploring the rest of Phu Quoc Island. I spent most of my three days on excursions but found nooks of time to experience the simple and serene pleasures of Mango Bay, like the hammock, or a quick happy hour drink. For families, there is no shortage of activities, from resort-led trips to kayak rentals and cooking classes on site.  

I can't imagine a more perfect place to curl up with a good read.

I can't imagine a more perfect place to curl up with a good read.

I managed to sneak in a morning swim in the ocean on my last day here before catching my afternoon flight back to Ho Chi Minh City. Soaking in the clear, warm water while gazing at the scenic panorama was the perfect end to my Vietnam sojourn. I couldn't have been happier that this was my last stop before going home to Los Angeles. 

Kayaks and more.

Kayaks and more.

Welcome area.

Welcome area.

It was terribly difficult to tear myself away from here. I could have easily stayed another week without leaving the resort...

Stay:

Mango Bay Ong Lang Beach, Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam

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A Slice of Malibu History

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A Slice of Malibu History

Built in 1929, the Adamson House in Malibu is easily overlooked while driving on the famed Pacific Coast Highway but is definitely worth a visit whether you're a local or a tourist. Gems like this reignite my gratitude for living in Los Angeles - even after a decade here, there hasn't been a shortage of places old and new to discover. 

The Spanish Colonial Revival style was embraced by Californians after WWI.

The Spanish Colonial Revival style was embraced by Californians after WWI.

Commissioned by Rhonda and Merritt Adamson and built by architect Stiles O. Clements, the Andalusian-inspired house took just about 18 months to complete. Each of the 5 bedrooms has an enviable ocean view. One of the most striking details of the house are all of the hand-painted tiles from the now defunct Malibu Potteries, still remembered for their secret glazes and authentic designs of Moroccan and Mayan tiles, among other styles. 

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The Adamson House sits just in front of famed Surfrider Beach.

The Adamson House sits just in front of famed Surfrider Beach.

Despite staying incredibly busy with their businesses and hobbies, including the creation of Malibu Potteries and running a working cattle and grain-raising ranch with their own railway line to ship supplies in and out, the Adamsons enjoyed leisurely family gatherings on their Malibu property which included a courtyard barbecue area, pool, sycamore lawn, and patio. 

The pointed arch window, indicative of the Spanish Colonial style favored by the Adamsons looks out to the Pacific Ocean. 

The pointed arch window, indicative of the Spanish Colonial style favored by the Adamsons looks out to the Pacific Ocean. 

View of Malibu Pier from the 2nd floor balcony.

View of Malibu Pier from the 2nd floor balcony.

The house was purchased by the State of California in 1968 and preserved by the Malibu Historical Society. In 1983, the house opened to the public as a museum. 

The house is at 23200 PCH and is open for visits from Wednesday to Saturday, from 11am-3pm (last tour starting at 2pm). Parking can be found along Pacific Coast Highway or nearby beach lots. 

A post-tour lunch stop at Malibu Seafood or Malibu Farm is highly recommended!

 

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