Ojai, California was recently surrounded by a ring of fire. The locals say the town was saved due to their 7 vortexes. Some say it was because they housed and fed the firefighters for free, and it was just a plain miracle.
Rumor has it you may feel high in Ojai. I was told that it’s because everything is “living” in this small town. I have yet to find the hidden healing hot springs. Deep in Ventura County and 14 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean lies this peaceful haven of 8,000 people. Surrounded by the Topa Mountains and juniper oak trees, Ojai is known for its “pink moment,” a fleeting period before sunset that washes the jagged mountains with a rosy glow. This is due to the valley running perfectly east-west, making the unique geography one of only a few such valleys in the world. Ojai may be one of Southern California’s last small-town utopias.
As we parked at the end of the quiet Signal Street, we were eager to get into nature just a few minutes outside of the town’s center. Five years ago I discovered the lush Shelf Road Hike encompassing the town with fragrant orange blossoms and trees engorged with citrus spilling over on the trail, along with magnificent views of the valley. Now, that same hike is surrounded by charred land, although the Ojai Pixies (small tangerines) and oranges still remain. There is strong evidence of spring as green growth is desperately sprouting through the blackened earth and mountains. Signs of rebirth surround us all along the trail.
Ojai is the kind of nouveau hippy kind of place where you can find stores like Elemental Apothecary filled with organic, wild crafted small batch herbal remedies to help solve every condition, and where I was advised a rose quartz egg inserted into my vagina may help my fertility. Nearby at Rainbow Bridge Natural Foods, you can browse a plethora of natural healthcare products to see how you can replace your mass-produced crap.
One evening before dinner we practiced yoga (a first for my husband) at a movement studio called Hamsa, and instead of Shivasana, we ended with invigorating our spirit with energetic Indian dancing called Bhangra. The whole hour class was enhanced with live music with a sitar and drumming and felt like a healthy reset of mind and body before we indulged at the iconic Deer Lodge. This 1930’s gas station and general store – turned culinary haven – offers an incredible beer selection and all the BBQ and meat options you can dream up. We indulged in their outstanding fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and shaved Brussel sprouts. Stay late for live music and dancing, conversations with the locals, and overall a very merry time.
If you want to really get a sense of Ojai, spend at least a couple nights. We stayed at a Mission Revival Style inn called Su Nido in a one-bedroom suite with kitchen, private balcony, and a peaceful courtyard with fountain situated a short walk to everything. Nearby we stumbled upon Tipple and Ramble, an Instagram-worthy wine and cheese patio with colorful retro furniture, blankets, cooler, and hitch. In town we dined at Azu Restaurant and Bar, our favorite now, especially for their exceptional California Mediterranean style tapas incorporating the Ojai Pixies (tangerines) into each dish as well as using juices squeezed right from Ojai’s citrus orchards into their craft cocktails and their own Pixie Beer. There is an enchanting gorgeous private dining space and patio in the back too. They feature Ojai Valley Brewery on tap and over 20 local and international wines by the glass including wines from The Ojai Alisal Vineyard.
One morning we walked from Su Nido Inn to meet friends for breakfast at the charming Lavender Inn, a historic bed and breakfast that reminded me of my mom’s home in Connecticut. Built in 1874 and once Ojai’s first schoolhouse, the cozy home is now transformed into seven guestrooms with lavender gardens, onsite spa treatments, and a kitchen ready for gourmet cooking classes. We ate a homemade breakfast on the veranda in the backyard garden complete with vegan chorizo, eggs, berry parfait, and freshly brewed coffee.
My last visit included a night at the super hipster Ojai Rancho Inn with massive wood walls (that creak and pop) and a Jacuzzi in the room. Brought to you by the Shelter Social Club, this place screams “throwback California” with its backyard games, pool, and laid-back vibe. There’s even a small bar that beckons you with its sign offering “Vinyl and Beer.” Inside make new friends over candle glow and a fireplace ledge covered with gems. One night we find ourselves at the popular new fast-casual restaurant called The Nest where many of their items had already been sold out. We devoured Bao Buns, Beach House tacos with calamari, Korean Brussel Sprout Tacos, Ahi Poke Bowl with black rice, and healthy blended drinks plus specialty cocktails like the Oaxaca, made with Mezcal, tequila, pineapple ginger, lime, turmeric shrub, and a hibiscus Himalayan sea salt rim.
Near to the Su Nido Inn also lies a morning must for quiche, a breakfast sandwich, and a loaf of fresh bread to take home. Knead Baking Company is a family owned and operated bakery offering daytime eats, desserts, pastries, and fresh-baked bread. A short drive away from the center of town is the posh Ojai Valley Inn known for its golf course and an award-winning spa. Dating back to 1924, this waspy Spanish hacienda-style resort is a beautiful place to dine offering dramatic views overlooking 200-year-old Oak trees, a rolling green golf course, and sweeping mountain vistas. Enjoy lunch at their restaurant The Oak featuring dishes with locally sourced ingredients and herbs from their garden as well as Pixie infused menu items. From March 23 to the end of April, giant eggs decorated by local artists will be on display all over the property. Also, during Pixie season their Heritage Bar offers a cocktail class with Pixie infused drinks.
The best part of Ojai Valley Inn is their Discover Ojai Center which can create custom itineraries for guests with unique once-in-a-lifetime activities like spiritual counseling at Spa Ojai, olive oil tasting, orchard and wine tours, cave kayaking in Channel Islands National Park, and Plein air watercolor painting and aroma custom blending at the Artist Cottage/Apothecary. My personal favorite is the option to spend time at the Turtle Conservancy, a rare sanctuary (only two in the world) where you can interact with over 300 species of turtles and tortoises. You can even pet and feed a 400 lb Galapagos tortoise!
We participated in their beekeeping and honey tasting experience, a secret dream of mine after teaching third graders about bees and pollination for ten years. A golf cart took us to a remote part of the Ojai Valley Inn property where we suited up in real bee suits and calmed the bees by burning local white sage. Only in Ojai! We had the chance to learn about the honey making process and ask questions to two expert beekeepers. Up close and personal with these vital pollinators, we held the bee frames as thousands of worker bees performed their duties. Afterward, we sampled over a dozen varieties of raw honey pollinated from local plants such as avocado, eucalyptus, sumac, red gum, sage, and citrus.
Another highlight of our time in Ojai was a jeep tour with Cloud Climbers where an exuberant local lady was our driver and guide. Our first stop in the open-air jeep was Ojai Valley Olive Oil Ranch with over 150-year-old olive trees, including French, Italian, and Spanish varieties (some 200 years old that were not taken care of for 9 decades, but persisted). The ranch is the oldest and largest producer in the valley of extra virgin olive oil, known for polyphenols and brain health ingredients. Around 2,500 trees plus neighboring olive groves are handpicked. Learn about the growing, harvest and production here, then sample numerous olive oils. We left with many gifts like Garlic Olive Oil, Pixie Olive Oil and Espresso infused Balsamic Vinegar.
The Porch Gallery was an interesting destination that I may have missed if not one of our jeep stops. Built in 1870, the gallery is the third oldest home showcasing emerging and contemporary art. The gallery partnered with the Carolyn Glasoe Bailey Foundation to create the Thomas Fire Artist Recovery Fund to raise, match, and distribute unrestricted cash grants to members of the creative communities in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties who were seriously affected by the Thomas Fire. Soon the performance artist China Adams will be living here for 20 days and for 4 hours a day will complete massage-generated energy drawings based on words cued at various times during public massages. Anyone can come and watch. A book will be made about the experience with the 20 drawings.
A cruise by Bart’s Books will remind you that in small towns books are not dead. One of the largest independently-owned and operated bookstores in the country, books range from 35 cents to rare thousand dollar finds. The best is their honor system where for a few cents you can snag a book from their outdoor shelves. Our final stop was at the Topa Mountain Winery, a tasting room with wine made from locally-grown grapes. The 2016 Rose of Grenache from Santa Barbara County was a winner.
Support Ojai by visiting one of ten hotels offering special Ojai Love room packages to help raise money for those impacted by the Thomas Fires, facilitated by HELP of Ojai. Guests who book an Ojai Love package will receive 10% off their room rate and a $10 donation will be made in your name. Discounts are also offered at participating restaurants, hotels, and attractions. Learn more on social media at #OjaiLove.