Located off Highway 101 just 30 miles south of Santa Barbara and 14 miles inland from the ocean, the idyllic Ojai valley has attracted visitors since the Chumash Indians discovered it 8,000 years ago. (The Chumash named it “ojai,” or “nest,” because of the way the mountains encircle the elongated east-west valley. It’s pronounced “Oh, hi.”) In 1937, Frank Capra brought Hollywood to this real-life Shangri-la to film Lost Horizon, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono are rumored to have hidden out here in the early 1970s. If that’s not testimonial enough for you, too, to relax and spend some quality time together with your hunny here, read on.
Today the tranquil Ojai valley offers many enticements as a getaway, or as a stopover on the way to or from L.A.: hiking, fishing, boating, golfing, horseback riding, mountain biking, and jeep touring. Unique shops, well-priced lodging, and accomplished restaurants vie for attention in town.
The Ojai Valley Museum provides a good orientation. Housed in a Mission Revival-style 1919 church, it displays historical exhibits as well as the work of local artists and has a native plant garden out back.
The Spanish mission-style Arcade lining the north side of Ojai Avenue dates to 1917, when it was specifically designed to unify a collection of shops and businesses. Today it still provides the same function. HumanArts purveys creative home accessories from nationally known artists--everything from Southwestern-style painted furniture to artsy pewter measuring spoons. No tea-lover can resist Tottenham Court, a gift shop extraordinaire. With cramped aisles and creaky, worn wooden floors dating back to 1910, it is an atmospheric, cozy spot to browse everything English. Wall murals are worthy of a look-see, and stopping in for lunch or tea time in the tiny dining room is a delight. Another good spot for breakfast or lunch is Bonnie Lu’s Country Cafe, where tables are formica and seating is either in comfy booths or on stools at an old-fashioned counter. If you have kids in tow, cross the street and let them run down their batteries at tranquil Libbey Park’s colorful playground.
Open-air Bart’s Books is also worth a browse. Located just a few blocks from the arcade, it has outside bookshelves galore arranged in a courtyard surrounding an interior house, where cookbooks are found in the kitchen but of course. Customers can relax on a tree-shaded patio and leisurely thumb through selections before purchasing. Reminiscent of 17th-century Hay Castle in Hay-on-Wye, Wales, it might be the only such outdoor bookstore in the U.S. The store buys and sells used books, so pack along a few of your tired tomes to trade.
Whatever you do, don’t miss Wachter Hay & Grain, a family-owned farm supply store just off the main drag that stocks live pot-bellied pigs, goats, guinea pigs, chicks, and finches as well as feed, outdoor furniture, and plant pots.
Low-key Meditation Mount is another local attraction. Situated out of town to the east, past Boccali’s homestyle Italian restaurant and past the lush orange and avocado groves up on rural Reeves Road, it is perched at the top of a quiet hill. This center strives to radiate “its energy of light and love to humanity,” and visitors are invited at no charge to explore the grounds and stroll the path leading through the garden to an expansive valley view.
It would be a shame not to stay long enough to enjoy at least one of Ojai’s peaceful nights, and the best way to do this is with the Romance Package at the Rose Garden Inn-a spacious vintage motor court just three blocks from town center. The package includes a $60 certificate for dinner just down the road at Suzanne’s, where use of top-notch local ingredients and a sophisticated menu make it one of the area’s best restaurants. The inn has 16 warmly patinaed knotty-cedar rooms plus two detached cottages with fireplaces. Facilities include a hot tub, sauna, hammocks, and bench swings, and it has two mature rose gardens and a small forest of cacti. Afternoon popcorn and a simple continental breakfast are complimentary, and children under 10 stay free. Though the inn is on a main road, traffic comes close to a halt by bedtime and provides a murmur in the morning to gently awake you. Remember to bring your walking shoes, bicycles, skates, and horses so you can enjoy the scenic 16-mile, hills-to-ocean Ojai Valley Trail that passes right beside the inn. This is a “rails-to-trails” conversion of a 100-year-old railroad line that once hauled oranges from local orchards to markets around the world. It now links the town to Foster Park in Ventura.
When departing, exit toward Ventura, taking Highway 33 via Oakville for a scenic drive past horse farm after horse farm.
If heading toward Carpenteria and Santa Barbara, take Highway 150 past groves of orange trees and glistening Lake Casitas. It doesn’t take long to reach Highway 101, and then the hillside town of Summerland just south of Santa Barbara.
If you’re lucky, the rambling farmhouse with a friendly atmosphere that is the Summerland Beach Cafe will be having its Burger Madness special. That’s definitely the time to order up the excellent Back to Basic Burger or Cheeseburger in Paradise. Breakfast and a large selection of omelettes are available any time. Outdoor seating here provides a glimpse of the Channel Islands across the freeway.
Before hitting the road, stop in across the street at Botanik for scrumptuous flowers and at Enchantwood for antiques and home decorations. Both are in converted houses, and you’re sure to find something to act as a delightful souvenir.