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. Ojai has no chain stores or fast-food outlets within city limits. And it is the only place in the world where the seedless Pixie tangerine is grown.
To make this trip even more interesting for kids ages 4 through 11, pick up a copy of Tessa on Her Own by Alyssa Chase (Marsh Media). With gorgeous watercolor illustrations depicting California poppies, lupines, prickly pears, yuccas, orange blossoms, and more, it tells the story of a fox that learns how to live on her own in Ojai and is the perfect story to read before, during, and after a trip to this scenic area. Factual information about the story’s animal characters--a red fox, California quail, ground squirrel, coyote, mule deer, and raccoon--is included on the endpapers. Another children’s book that mentions Ojai is The Worry Stone by Marianna Dengler (Northland Publishing/Rising Moon). This folktale picture book should appeal to children ages 8 through 11.
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. Human Arts Gallery purveys creative home accessories from nationally known artists--everything from Southwestern-style painted furniture to artsy pewter measuring spoons. 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 one good way to do this is at the Rancho Inn—a spacious vintage motor court just three blocks from town center. 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. 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.
Another good way to spend a peaceful night is at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa Originally built as a country club in 1923 in the traditional Spanish-colonial style of Southern California, this 206-room resort now offers plenty of pampering for both parents and kids. Rooms are large and comfortable, and many feature small open-air patios. In the former hacienda that is the property’s core, the Vista dining room offers a well-priced buffet breakfast each morning and tree-top views of the scenic mountain-backed golf course dotted with 300-year-old oak trees. The Oak Cafe has both outdoor terrace and indoor fireside seating. Special kids’ menus are available at both, and children under 3 eat free. A room service kids’ menu also offers inexpensive things kids like to eat, like Mickey Mouse waffles and a Red Baron mini pepperoni pizza. The Camp Ojai children’s program, which operates daily year-round, has a staff of trained counselors to supervise potty-trained children ages 3 through 12. Among the activities are art projects in the club house, Native American stories in the property’s authentically constructed Chumash thatched house, and pony rides at the stables. Full-day, half-day, and evening programs include a meal and t-shirt. Among the resort’s recreational facilities are a tennis center with eight courts (matches in the country’s oldest and largest amateur tennis tournament have been held here since 1895), an 18-hole golf course, two heated swimming pools and a hot tub, a health spa with another pool plus a fitness center, complimentary bikes to use on the area’s extensive off-road bike trails, and a stables with both scenic trails for guided horseback riding and a children’s petting farm. Visiting the property’s large cage filled with colorful birds is also especially enjoyed by children.
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 hungry, stop at the rambling farmhouse with a friendly atmosphere that is the Summerland Beach Cafe. If you’re lucky, the Burger Madness special will be on the menu. 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.
Ojai Visitors Bureau
Carole Terwilliger Meyers blogs at Travels With Carole.
Ms. Meyers is also the author of “Miles of Smiles: 101 Great Car Games & Activities”
copyright 2015 Carole Terwilliger Meyers; updated 2020