Take Highway 101 north out of Los Angeles and in just under two hours you’ll find yourself in Ojai. It’s an idyllic setting paired with a charm still untouched by mainstream tourism, yet with a progressive and artistic enough spirit that will have even the slickest of city slickers reconsidering where they call home.
Though it was a hangout for celebrities in the 1930s, don’t let its glitzy past fool you. Ojai maintains a community-centric vibe that lets locals be themselves while also welcoming in the outsider, as if to say, “We were you once, too.” You don’t need to plan much here, other than to leave your jam-packed schedule behind and let the citrus-infused breeze carry you where it will.
If you are a planner, though, and decide to steal away for a few days in this East-West running valley, here are some notes to ensure your time includes all of the town’s best. Whether you visit just one — or all — of the places on this list, you’ll be left with the impression that Ojai businesses really care, not just about their visitor (though they do!) but also about one another. Collaborations abound in this small town, and the result is nothing short of splendid … much like the legendary Pink Moment, a cascade of pink hues that drapes the Topa Topa mountain range at sunset.
Ojai is full of charming headrests that will appeal to any budget or style. Try the Su Nido Inn if you want a Mission-style dwelling, complete with a gated courtyard, roomy suites, and large, uniquely tiled bathrooms. Likewise, the Emerald Iguana Inn combines the whimsical with the bohemian to offer a choice of guest rooms and one or two bedroom cottages.
Mid-century modern fans will love the Capri Hotel, originally built in 1963 but recently renovated to preserve its vibe while upgrading amenities to the current century. Hipster in scene but not in attitude, check out the Capri’s outdoor pool and its sister restaurant, the Deer Lodge.
If you prefer a slightly more luxurious stay and desire to park your car for the duration of your trip, the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa will have you spellbound from the moment you enter the lobby. Set on 220 acres that include a championship golf course, tennis courts and four dining establishments, this resort encapsulates everything alluring about Ojai without a need to ever leave the property. Though a plethora of events can be enjoyed year-round, try to plan a visit during Serenity Season, six weeks of festive, holiday celebrating that include carriage rides and unique art classes.
It’s simple. The best part of waking up in Ojai is a stop at Knead Baking Company. That’s where architect-turned-pastry chef Bobbi Corbin works (alongside her daughters and son) to serve up fresh bagels, sourdough loaves, pecan sandies — you name it. Try the organic egg sandwich on homemade brioche with Vermont cheddar and baby spinach. You’ll be good until lunch, when you’ll probably want to stop in a second time for a veggie sandwich or slice of quiche.
You won’t go hungry for dinner, either, considering the range of restaurants Ojai has at your disposal. For tapas made from local produce to crafted cocktails you’ll wish you could make yourself, snagging a seat at Azu will satisfy more than just your appetite. With gallery walls covered in art you’ll almost feel as if you’re dining in a museum, sans the stuffy atmosphere or an authoritative silence. (If you’re a meat-eater, you’ll praise the bacon wrapped dates and if you’re not, get your fill with the vegan saffron rice paella.)
Feast Bistro lives up to its name, offering a spread of valley-sourced and locally grown dishes. Nestled along the main street’s shops and galleries, it’s the perfect place to refuel with a gourmet grilled cheese or spicy chicken Banh Mi.
Up the road a bit is Boccali’s, a family-owned kitchen complete with flourishing vineyard and expansive garden. In true Italian fashion the checkered tables beckon large parties — the portion sizes even more so — but don’t be shy to come dine alone. You’ll want the strawberry shortcake all to yourself, anyway.
No matter what drew you to Ojai to begin with, you’ll find ample opportunity to reconnect and recharge here. If you center yourself in nature, ascend to Meditation Mount for sweeping views of the valley. Established as a service to humanity, the Mount offers public space for meditation, yoga, and walking reflection. Take time to sit in the Garden of Peace; bring a sketch book and see what inspires you, especially if coming from one of the many art classes held at Working Artist Gallery.
If you’re invigorated by local culture, sign up for a Cloud Climber Jeep Tour to see the nooks and crannies other tourists might miss. Stops can include an olive grove for oil tasting, a winery tour or even an artist’s personal studio. The tours are fine-tuned to your liking, so be detailed with your interests and trust your guide to know where to drive.
Lastly, what’s a weekend retreat without a little shopping? Being a trove of artisan souls, Ojai makes it difficult to refuse even the smallest of purchases. Art lovers will relish in galleries that include everything from soap and perfume (as seen at OVA Arts) to dining room furniture and one-of-a-kind sculptures. Stop into Tartaglia Gallery to hear what convinced owner Danna to move to Ojai or ask Hallie at Human Arts Gallery how she uses lost wax casting to make a collection of diamond rings. Khaled at Primavera Gallery will point out notable artists, while Lisa and Heather over at Porch Gallery open their space to host unlikely genius. (Think local high-school students you’d swear were Bottecceli incarnates.)
For more wearable art be sure to stop by jewelry designer Jes Maharry’s storefront. Here she offers handmade bracelets, necklaces and earrings in precious metal and faux leather, along with intricately detailed rings that showcase stones with hypnotizing color. If you’re lucky, you may even run into gypsy tea purveyor Zhena, who exclusively sells her healing blends at this location.
Much like its native Pixie tangerine, Ojai is small, sweet and delightfully easy to take in. It’s worth even one day’s escape but consider yourself warned, its quaintness can’t be reproduced elsewhere. You’ll be back.
And you’ll be all the better for it.
Have you been to Ojai? Where are your favorite places to stay, taste and see?
Images via Nicole Ziza Bauer