Ojai Valley, tucked behind majestic coastal mountains just a few miles inland from Santa Barbara and Ventura, has been a popular getaway for the Los Angeles glitterati for many years. And why not? Just escaping the tensions and anxieties of the L.A. megalopolis was reason enough. But for folks in other areas of the world, the Ojai area has been one of those rather unknown destination secrets. I hope this article just might change that.
A little history: Back in the early 1900’s Edward Drummond Libbey, a millionaire glass manufacturer from Toledo, Ohio came to this tiny hamlet, fell in love with the natural beauty of the area and had a vision that has endured and prospered. With Libbey’s generous support and vision, the town developed with a distinct Spanish architectural influence and has steadfastly resisted major growth and over-commercialization. Today’s residents proudly guard their classic small town quaintness and heritage as Ojai retains its reputation as an oasis of tranquility. Not too surprisingly, the town still has no chain or fast food outlets within city limits. When famous film maker Frank Capra began looking for a location to film his mythical paradise “Shangri-La” for his movie masterpiece, “Lost Horizon,” he chose the Ojai Valley to evoke the image of a mystical utopia. I can only endorse his choice!
What to do and see: Relaxing by your resort or inn’s pool might be at the top of your list when visualizing the serene setting of the valley but if you want to be more active, here are some ideas. A few miles from town center lies picturesque Lake Casitas, home to the 1984 Olympic rowing and canoeing events that I fondly remember attending. Casitas offers some of the best trophy bass fishing in America. Local authority Marc Mitrany is the perfect pick to guide experienced fishermen to those special sure-thing casting spots and he also loves to introduce beginners to this great sport. www.ojaiangler.com No swimming or water skiing is allowed in the lake but kayaking, canoeing and other type boat rentals are available. Appealing camp sites, disc golf and a family friendly fun filled water park are on the lakeside property. www.casitaswater.org
On a recent trip I challenged myself to ride the paved bicycle trail all the way from downtown Ojai to the Ventura beaches- 30 plus miles round trip. And I made it! If you like paved paths, no car traffic and mostly level biking, this scenic trip along the Ventura River bed is a must do! For bike rentals or guided tours go to: www.project-ride.com Long recognized as one of the country’s top two most active tennis towns, the annual Ojai Tennis Tournament, now heading into its 111th year, is the oldest amateur tennis event of its kind in the U.S. Attending the tourney or just playing tennis on one of the area’s many championship courts are inviting options. Can there be any U.S. small town that has more championship tennis courts per capita? I doubt it! www.ojaitourney.org.
Strolling the downtown village with its’ famous arcade built in 1917 and browsing the many distinct boutiques, shops and art galleries is another predilection. A favorite store: Made-in-Ojai features a large variety of locally crafted gift items, jewelry and books written by local authors. www.madeinojai.com Another local institution is uniquely off-the-wall Bart’s Books, touted as the world’s greatest outdoor bookstore, where used book aficionados will find a mind boggling bibliophiles’ haven. www.bartsbooksojai.com
The valley, also well known as an agriculture paradise is famous for their delicious Ojai Pixie Tangerines, olives and lavender. Visits to the local olive or lavender farms where a variety of beautifully scented lavender products and famous mouth-watering olive oils are produced and shipped worldwide is heartily recommended. For visit/tour scheduling check out: www.ojaioliveoil.com and www.newoakranch.com (home to lavender and the Pixie Tangerines).
Surprisingly there are very limited vineyards in the immediate area but, Casa Barranca Winery Tasting Room in the Arcade offers the first certified organic wines from the Santa Barbara region. www.casabarranca.com
Where to Stay and Dine: The crème de la crème lodging option is the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa, one of the few Five Diamond resorts in all of California. Originally built by Mr. Libbey and always a deluxe property, recent additions and remodeling have elevated this property to its most premier status ever. We are sure Mr. Libbey would be ecstatic at the resulting world class accommodations and services. His original dreams for the property and town have probably been exceeded. Special packages can often be a wonderful value when you realize they are offering such an ultimate special occasion vacation experience.
The resort’s state-of-the-art Spa Ojai has been recognized as one of the country’s best and their championship golf course provides one of California’s most dramatic cradled valley/mountain settings. Maravilla, their critically acclaimed signature restaurant was superb and my casual dining experiences in Jimmy’s Pub and Café Verde at the Spa were equally delightful.
When the end of this amazing stay arrived I unequivocally concluded that the inn ranks as one of my top five favorite resorts in all the U.S. www.ojairesort.com The Oaks of Ojai, founded and still operated by author and fitness expert Sheila Cluff and her family, is recognized as one of California’s most popular spa retreats with a loyal following for over 30 years. Special theme weeks and packages are often sold out and their spa cuisine, accommodations and exercise classes/hikes receive rave reviews. www.oaksspa.com
Another highly recommended spa experience is Ojai Day Spa, although sans lodging, their local reputation is exemplary and my personal massage were memorable. www.thedayspa.com
The Emerald Iguana and Lavender Inn are two of the most highly regarded B and Bs in town and for valid reasons. The Emerald Iguana, a striking and stylish inn designed and built by local artists with a sense of joie d’ vivre has been wowing guests for the past few years. Their stunning accommodations and grounds brought me on board the ‘wowed list’. www.emeraldiguana.com The Lavender, an older historic residence located in the heart of town, features creative cooking classes and remarkable antique furnishings. www.lavenderinn.com Su Nido Inn, a charming newer lodging choice within walking distance of downtown is definitely worthy of serious consideration. Their enclosed courtyard design and room décor are very inviting. www.sunidoinn.com
Other dining to consider: Suzanne’s- often acclaimed by some as “the best restaurant in Ojai” and my recent experience certainly couldn’t contradict those kudos www.suzannescuisine.com ; The Ranch House- this rustic indoor/outdoor award winning restaurant, bakery and herb garden has been the talk-of-the-town, yet difficult to describe, for over fifty years www.theranchhouse.com ; Azu- a very pleasurable Spanish influenced tapas dining choice www.azuojai.com ; Boccali’s – for nearly 25 years this casual al fresco Italian dining spot has become an Ojai residents fave. www.boccalis.com ; Bodees -the incredible setting plus fabulous steaks and seafood warrant this few mile drive up into the nearby mountains (side-by-side Harley-Davidsons and Ferraris are a testament to their diverse clientele) www.bodees.net; Feast Bistro-a newer restaurant in town but their New American cuisine is already resonating at high levels with foodies! www.feastofojai.com ; Ojai Café Emporium- locals boasted “best breakfasts in town” and I’m hopping onto that bandwagon www.ojaicafe.com ; Knead Bakery- another newcomer to Ojai but this mother/daughter dessert, bread and quiche artistry is building an ever increasing following www.kneadbakingcompany.com ; Ojai Ice Cream- on a hot day, this locally made ice cream is a must indulgence. (no web site)
Ojai is definitely a getaway for stress reduction and anticipation of new discoveries. Readers should consider this picturesque one-of-a-kind place as a vacation destination especially when seeking to be worlds away from those everyday hassles. With enough lodging, dining and activity choices to satisfy most wish lists and budgets, it just may become your personal “Shangri-La”. For all things Ojai and with links to a myriad of additional inviting events, activities, lodging and dining possibilities go to the newly and attractively upgraded Ojai Visitors Bureau web site at: www.ojaivisitors.com
(Editors note: Versions of this article first appeared in San Joaquin Magazine and other media outlets)