The Spirit of Ojai
Explore the delightful hamlet and feed your soul, commune with nature of simply luxuriate
It’s a Saturday morning inside Lulu Bandha’s airy yoga studio on a downtown Ojai side street, and our instructor, Katie, asks if anyone wants to share community announcements. A woman pipes up that today is Tomatomania!, with heirloom tomato seedlings available at Flora Gardens Nursery. Another woman announces that the Ojai Valley Museum is hosting an art reception this evening and refreshments will be served. Oh, and don’t forget, the yoga studio receptionist urges Katie, please tell us about your newborn chicks. Everyone coos.
That’s Ojai in a nutshell: small town (population 7,500) mindful of spirit, nature and culture. It straddles high-end and hippie, hiker and Harley. That makes the Ventura County hamlet a something-for-nearly-everyone destination.
I’ve been visiting off and on for 30 years and find that Ojai never seems to change yet somehow manages to stay up to date. My husband and I are avid travelers who continually explore new places yet eagerly return to Ojai for long weekends to shake up the senses.
Ojai stays in harmony with its artistic and spiritual legacy, developed by early residents artist Beatrice Wood, author Aldous Huxley and, especially, mystic/philospher J. Krishnamurti. The likeminded are drawn to the valley’s mind-body retreats to contemplate and seek inner peace or to one of the “healing” spots, including Meditation Mount, where reflection is practiced in service to humanity and the world.
For those who prefer to be moved by moving, the area offers challenging mountain hikes, well-kept tennis courts and two 18-hole golf courses. The Valley Trail for bicyclists and horse riders extends 9.5 miles to the beach in Ventura.
My tastes run cultural, so my favorite time to visit is June, during the annual Ojai Music Festival, most of it taking place at Ojai’s centerpiece, Libbey Park. Featuring wall-to-wall programs of contemporary, sometimes avant-garde music, the festival turns Libbey Bowl into a musical nirvana, more intimate than such fabled outdoor meccas as the Hollywood Bowl or Tanglewood. With many festival performances outside the park, the Ojai Valley comes alive from sunrise (literally) to Ojai’s unique sunset (they call it the “pink moment”) to the lip of midnight.
A different artist serves as music director each year. The 69th Ojai Music Festival, curated by percussionist and conductor Steven Schick, runs June 10-14.
Even though our most recent trip happens before the music festival, I’m content with yoga and window-shopping. Just as when I first visited, downtown is inviting and walkable, though today the shops are nicer, the food is farm-to-table and the art can be pricey. A Jersey Mike’s has snuck in, but the town center remains refreshingly free of chains (Starbucks and McDonald’s are 7 miles away).
Before heading to Ojai Avenue, we make the ritual walk to Bart’s, the 50-year-old bookstore that opens to a courtyard lined with warrens of shelves packed with used and new books, plus an indoor room displaying rare first editions. Sometimes we arrive with a bag of books to turn in. Never do we leave empty-handed.
In town itself, all roads lead to Rains of Ojai, which began in 1874 under another name as a hardware store. Today it sells quality house goods, fancy foods and casual clothing. It’s always my starting point.
From there, walk in any direction and you’ll find women’s apparel, art galleries, design shops and candy stores, with restaurants and indie coffee shops sprinkled about. New and older shopping favorites include Fig, offering gift and home items; Human Arts Gallery, showing colorful, often whimsical, art and furniture; and Tipple & Ramble, a smart indoor/outdoor furnishing shop (check its website in advance for pop-up dinners by a local chef served on the shop grounds).
On a weekend trip, a final must stop is Ojai’s Sunday morning farmers market in downtown. The selection and the quality of the produce and other foodie goodies is tremendous. We head home laden with strawberries, granola, Pixies (Ojai’s signature seedless tangerine available March-June) and bottles of locally brewed bottles of cold coffee.
There’s nowhere quite like Ojai. As we head out, I spot a place where you can have your pet’s soul read.
Don’t miss Knead Baking Co. for breakfast or lunch, or to satisfy your sweet tooth. The baked goods are irresistible, and the artisan sandwiches are among the best tastes I’ve had in Ojai. 469 E. Ojai Ave.
For a bigger lunch or for dinner, try Osteria Monte Grappa, across from Libbey Park. No reservations, so be prepared for a wait and you’ll be rewarded with satisfying rustic Italian cuisine in a lively atmosphere. 242 E. Ojai Ave.
The Ojai Beverage Co. has an impressive choice of wines and beers to buy or drink on site. Up front is the store, with 800 types of beer, 400 wines and a full range of spirits. And if shopping makes you thirsty, head to the back, where it’s part restaurant and part tap room. Create your own beer flight from the menu of 50 craft beers. Order a pretzel on the side or the tarted-up pub food. 655 E. Ojai Ave.
For the full-on resort experience, settle in at the gracious Ojai Valley Inn & Spa on the outskirts of downtown. You may never want to leave. The largest suites are 1,900 square feet; the basic guestrooms are comfortable and well-appointed. For a splurge, rent Casa Elar, a 10,000-square-foot villa.
The Inn’s expansive grounds include four pools (including one recently renovated as an adult pool with fancy cabanas), a tennis club, an artist’s cottage and an apothecary. The 18-hole golf course has hosted PGA Senior Tour events. A full-service spa sits adjacent to one of the pools and includes a large and airy fitness center with on-site trainers and a daily schedule of classes. By early August, the resort will have eight restaurants. Brand new, and partly open, is Olivella, replacing venerable Maravilla. Guestrooms from $400 and suites $700-$6,000. 905 Country Club Road.
Just two blocks from Ojai’s main drag is the boutique hotel Su Nido Inn, with one- and two-bedroom suites, most facing onto a quiet courtyard offering tables and chairs and the aroma of night-blooming jasmine.
Since I like an early stretch, I found Lulu Bandha’s around the corner. Also nearby: a new home for Ojai Day Spa, with a wide range of massages and body treatments. Su Nido’s comfortable rooms, all with king beds, include a small kitchen area supplied with complimentary breakfast bars, fruit juices, water and fresh fruit. One-room suites from $269 on weeknights, higher on weekends and during special events. Two-bedroom suites from $439. 301 N. Montgomery St.
Leave Orange County between morning and evening rush hour and it’s a stress-free drive, under three hours via the 405 north to the 101 north to California State Route 33.
Tip: Add a few minutes to your drive and detour off the 405 at Camarillo toward Santa Paula and take Route 150 for a winding, scenic arrival into the east side of town past fields of walnut and citrus trees, ranch homes and wineries.