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Ojai California is an overlooked travel destination

by Staff

A few of us Minnesota gals were mistakenly pronouncing it “O-jay,” as we planned our January weekend getaway to Ojai, Calif. But by the time we landed at Los Angeles International Airport, we got it down: “Oh, hi,” the name casually welcoming us to this charming town of 7,500, tucked into the shadow of the Topatopa mountains.

Our first impression of downtown Ojai was that it resembles a mini version of nearby Santa Barbara, with its distinct SoCal architecture of contiguous archways and terracotta tile. By our third night, the place was really speaking our vacation love language, with its blend of outdoorsy activities and creature comforts. We’d gone on a hike, hit the upscale consignment shops, and whiled away several hours on a winery’s sunny patio. Now we were tucking into plates of enchiladas at Agave Maria Restaurant & Cantina, when we spotted Jon Bernthal, a.k.a. Mikey on “The Bear,” dining with friends.

Ojai’s relaxed affluence likely appeals to Hollywood stars being “Just like us!” — there’s a reason Sunset magazine calls it “L.A.’s Favorite Boho Getaway.” The town feels equal parts hippie and high-end. There are fancy spas and fine dining. But also a ban on chain businesses. Ojai is folksy enough that its public transit is a trolley. And its enchanting outdoor bookstore, Bart’s Books, maintains a “throw coins in slot” policy for after-hours purchases.

Ojai has long been known as a spiritual place, but don’t ask me to explain the “electromagnetic vortex” supposedly generated by plate tectonics. We did see plenty of the town’s new-age vibe incarnate. For example, a group drumming and chanting on the grassy main plaza next to a sign that read, “Let’s talk about reincarnation, meditation, yoga, plant-based diet.” And a flyer posted on a sidewalk pole addressed to people seeking group cuddles. And a woman near the co-op in a meditative embrace, literally hugging a tree.

Horses and hiking

Guest accommodations in Ojai range from fancy resort (Ojai Valley Inn) to vintage-glam hotel (Capri), to rustic-chic Wes Anderson habitat (Ojai Rancho Inn), to upscale “trailer park” with Airstreams for rent (Caravan Outpost). Because we had a larger group, we went with an Airbnb on the edge of town, next to a working lumberyard, our first clue that Ojai was more rural than we’d expected.

The place is country enough to have several ranches within a short drive. The next morning, Ojai Valley Trail Riding Co. outfitted us with horses (one had been ridden by singer Joe Jonas, our guide noted) for an hourlong meander through the Ventura River Valley Preserve. The ranch owner is a longtime horsewoman and confidently reassured those of us who hadn’t sat in a saddle since middle school.

The terrain was rocky and verdant, with a river running through it and a mountainous backdrop. One especially striking natural feature was a dry riverbed, lined with white boulders left behind after the water had cut a new path.

Wining and dining

While spending time in nature was the highlight of our trip — the next day, we went for a picturesque hike just outside town — between excursions our focus was on Ojai’s terrific food and wine scene. Our best breakfast (egg sammies, passion fruit pastries) was at the Dutchess, housed in a historic building that was originally a bakery. I’d go back for the restaurant’s Burmese dinner menu and drinks at the handsome wooden bar.

One evening, we ate picnic-style at Ojai Rôtie‘s outdoor patio (with heat lamps and throw blankets to take off the post-sundown chill). The restaurant’s famous sourdough boules paired perfectly with a French/Mediterranean spread of roasted chicken, charred eggplant, hummus and salad.

We sampled wine at two spots, which we enjoyed for different reasons. At Ojai Vineyard‘s quaint downtown tasting room, we liked the personalized attention and wine geekery. Old Creek Ranch and Winery was pricier (including table reservation fees) and we were largely left to fend for ourselves, but our sunny seats overlooking the vines proved a beautiful, comfortable spot to spend a few hours sipping flights.

On our last day, we lucked into a homegrown treat we can’t get in Minnesota: a fresh crop of pixie tangerines at the Ojai farmers market. But we also felt a sense of déjà vu at Sanders & Sons Gelato, as we perused the flavor options, listed on an artfully decorated chalkboard sign. Where had we seen that before? Turns out owner Sanders Marvin’s first high school job was at famed Minneapolis scoop shop Sebastian Joe’s, which displays its menu in the same way.

I chose a citrusy Pink Moment sorbet, which made me realize we hadn’t managed to catch its namesake: the brief period that precedes an Ojai sunset, when the mountains take on a rosy hue. We also missed the local hot springs, which were closed due to a road washout. And we ran out of time to stop by the nearby olive farm for an oil-tasting tour, or get a spa treatment, or hit the shops, or hike the Los Padres National Forest.

We’ll have to say hello to Ojai again.

Getting there

Ojai, which derives its name from the native Chumash word for moon, sits about 30 miles inland from Santa Barbara. Without traffic, it’s a little under a two-hour drive from LAX via the doublewide freeways. Or a little over two hours if you take scenic Hwy. 1, along the ocean. (With traffic, all bets are off.)

Along the coastal route, Paradise Cove Beach Cafe in Malibu makes a great pit stop with a beachside dining area as large as the portions. The place has a touristy vibe — a group of nuns shared fried calamari served in a ginormous martini glass. Its postcard-perfect, cliff-lined beach has been the setting of many films and photo shoots, including “Beach Blanket Bingo” and the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ Safari” album cover.

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