I recently fled fog-riddled Santa Barbara for a visit to the nearby and sunny dale of Ojai. No stranger to the back road that leads there, Route 150, I began to unwind as soon my car was hugging its curves. As I traveled through farmland flanked with wild grasses, shady oaks, and views of Lake Casitas I felt assured that relaxation was on the way.
Ojai was the setting for the classic 1937 Frank Capra movie Lost Horizon, starring Ronald Colman, in which a plane crash delivers passengers into a utopian Shangri-la. Today this valley still has a feeling of quiet enchantment. My destination, the lovely Lavender Inn bed and breakfast, was Ojai Valley’s first schoolhouse. This pet friendly inn built in 1874 (and only 35 miles from my door) has a comfortable fireplace room, a veranda, a flourishing garden and pond, and a sunlit yellow, blue, and white tile kitchen where the Ojai Culinary School holds classes. My bedroom, the Garden View, had pomegranate walls and lots of comfy bedding, a private balcony, and fresh gladiolas. Although I arrived in 90-degree weather both the inn and the spa cottage where I had my hour-and-a-half massage were comfortably cool.
My masseuse, Ann Bowles, has 32 years of bodywork experience and is certified in many modalities. Using pure organic oil and a combination of deep Swedish massage and somatic therapies she transformed my taught body into suppleness. A true testament to the healing value of the massage; I didn’t want to move off the table when it was done. In keeping with the spa’s theme of healing the inn hosts an annual three-day retreat for women with cancer called InnCourage. A program adopted by the Ventura County Medical Foundation it includes spa treatments, massage, counseling, a cooking class, and more.
I ate well on this trip. Starting with a lunch at Feast Bistro, which features New American fare, I had a satisfying veggie burger with just a hint of garlic. The 5 p.m. wine and cheese hour at the Lavender Inn includes enough gourmet food to count as a small meal. I later dined at Azu, an elegant Mediterranean restaurant dressed in warm contemporary décor, and dinner was superb. I chose to be seated in the romantic candle lit room past the bar and began with the gazpacho that had just the right amount of bite. Azu has a full tapas and entrée menu and it all looked so good I had a hard time choosing. I decided on the Syrian Chicken Salad entree. Each forkful carried a lot of flavor; tasty chicken, shaved Manchego cheese, greens, tomatoes, artichoke hearts, and green olives. It was all unified perfectly with a zingy lemon mint vinaigrette. For dessert I savored some home made coffee gelato (one of a dozen flavors). The next morning I sipped some green tea with pomegranate and rose petals made by Ojai’s own Zhena of Zhena’s Gypsy Teas before breakfast. The buffet spread included mixed vegetable frittata, chicken sausage, cantaloupe and strawberry salad, yogurt, and muffins. I ate on the veranda with a view of the lush wedding garden.
Things to Do
An essential part of Ojai’s charm is that it is still a small town (population: 7,775) and none of its restaurants or shops is owned by chain businesses. This rural town of cowboys and artists has a comparatively large artistic culture, a downtown that’s easy to walk, and there are great stores and art galleries to explore.
If you’re looking for an item made in this artsy town stop in the Made in Ojai shop just across the street and up a stroll from the inn. There you can find leather sandals, boots, belts, and handbags accented with abalone shell and deer antler buttons made by Joann Webb. There also are handmade soaps, knitted and crocheted items, mugs, glassware, and tomato lavender and strawberry lavender jams from the New Oak Ranch.
If you’re in the market to so do some home decorating there are several shops including Jones & Company, Kava, Down Home Furnishings, and Human Arts Gallery. In addition to whimsically painted furniture Human Arts Gallery has handmade clothing, bags, jewelry, glassware, ceramic items, wooden jewelry boxes, Chris Roberts-Antieau’s playful framed appliqué art, and books and cards by the fanciful Brian Andreas. Firehouse Pottery and Gallery has ceramics for sale and classroom space for teaching working in clay.
The Ojai Valley Museum has a Chumash Interpretive Garden and there are two exhibits to check out. One is a natural history exhibit of the valley’s fauna and the other is a display of paintings and some crafts called Made in Ojai. There’s some serious talent worth a look here.
If you yearn to stretch your limbs there are miles of bike trails, including trails around Lake Casitas, and Ojai on Horseback provides horses for hire. The Forest Service on Ojai Avenue has information on plenty of good hiking trails.
The valley’s beauty has long attracted people drawn to the spiritual realm. In the 1920s, Indian religious philosopher Krishnamurti settled in the east end of the valley. He likened the locale’s beauty to a sacred place. Today his former home is the Oak Grove Retreat and Krishnamurti Library. On a garden-covered hilltop the Krotona Library houses 10,000 volumes. Founded by the Theosophists in 1926, their beliefs encompass Western and Eastern wisdom.
Full moon meditations occur monthly at Meditation Mount, which has an awesome view of the valley. Spiritual teacher and author, Byron Katie, who has founded The Work, a system of four questions to alleviate personal suffering, currently lives in and has her headquarters in Ojai. Time magazine has called her “a spiritual innovator for the new millennium.” Every locale has its own particular resonance; Ojai’s peacefulness is a great backdrop for personal contemplation or just plain old relaxation. Being so close by, it’s worth a trip just to find out for your self.
• Ojai Visitor’s Bureau, www.ojaivisitors.com , 1-800-OJAINOW
• Lavender Inn, 210 E. Matilija St., 646-6635; www.lavenderinn.com
• Azu restaurant, 457 E. Ojai Ave., 805-640-7987
• Feast Bistro, 254 E. Ojai Ave., 805-640-9260