It’s only 80-some miles from Los Angeles, but it may as well be 8,000. Ojai, or “the Shangri-La” as natives like to call it, certainly is the mystical and harmonious valley depicted in the movie Lost Horizons (filmed in Ojai in 1937). The small-town charm is lost on no one, and oftentimes strangers will wave to you as they drive down the street (they must, after all, know you from somewhere).
Whether you’re an outdoor enthusiast seeking fresh air and majestic views, an art collector looking to “gallery gallivant,” or a foodie seeking innovative eats, Ojai’s got you covered. Here’s how to live it up on a weekend getaway to Ojai.
What to do
Get “Zen-sational.” Whether you’ve got spirituality in spades or none at all, Meditation Mount is a little bit of magic. The hustle and bustle of day-to-day life disappears as you stroll through the International Garden of Peace, inhaling the oleanders and listening to the little sounds so often overlooked in daily life—bees buzzing, leaves rustling in an afternoon breeze… Down below, Ojai stretches out in all its glory. (Note: The Mount is located about five miles outside of downtown Ojai, but experienced bikers could bike up the main road. Otherwise, the only way to reach it is by car.)
Chill out among art and antiques.
Nearby, the world-famous Bart’s Books is not to be missed. The largest independently owned outdoor bookstore in the world, Bart’s is unlike anything you’ve ever seen, with more than 100,000 new, used, and rare books. The small house is filled with cases of rare books, while the used books spill out into the courtyard. Each room of the house also contains books of a fitting subject matter. (Interested in perusing an old Julia Child cookbook? Look no further than the kitchen!) After hours, Bart’s operates on the honor system: Customers put money through a slot in the door and may take books of their choosing. The air-conditioned (and fabulous!) shops and art galleries in Ojai’s Arcade are a great way to cool off and catch up on your shopping. Marvel at Josh Simpson‘s stunning glass planets at the Primavera Gallery, and then wander over to the Human Arts Gallery for affordable and funky glasswork, sculpture, jewelry, and furniture. And the collective antique mall, Treasures of Ojai, is a perfect place to lose yourself for the afternoon—and to find a good bargain (or three).
Horse Around. Saddle up to explore the magnificent Ventura River trails and the foothills of the Los Padres National Forest. Melissa White, founder of Western Trail Rides, keeps it intimate by taking out no more than four riders. There’s no caravan system here, and White takes her riders and horses on different trails every day—because the horses get bored too! White has five horses available for rides, and explains that “Each horse has his own personality, and I like to pair up the personalities of the horses with the personalities of the riders.”
White offers a real personal touch and considers the horses much more than her business: ”These boys are my family,” White says. “I always knew that I was going to have four children, I just didn’t know that they were going to weigh 1,000 pounds!” (Western Trail Rides offers one-, two-, and three-hour trail rides for $60 per person, per hour.)
Get into the groove. Finish up the day with a concert in Libbey Park. Every Wednesday night in July and August, the Rotary Club of Ojai-West offers a free concert in the Gazebo from 7:30-9 p.m. Ojai natives turn out in droves, camping out up to an hour to secure the perfect front-and-center seats on the grass. The band’s musicians range in age from 13 to 73, and the vibe is decidedly “old-time Americana”—and all-around heartwarming. The evening began with Phil “The Voice” Harvey leading an enthusiastic sing-along of “The Ojai Song,” (Ojaians truly do love “this little valley, this valley of ours,” and with good reason!), and then the band played a medley of Sound of Music songs while children lined up for 25-cent balloons and popcorn. You don’t get much sweeter than that.
Where to eat
After working up an appetite in the Arcade, hit Feast Bistro, which fills the gap between Ojai’s high- and low-end restaurants by providing affordable gourmet. My perfectly juicy EEL River Organic Beef Burger was served with warm, salty pommes frites, and the Buffalo Blue salad was a perfect mix of spicy chicken, fresh greens, and tangy blue cheese crumbles. Feast Bistro also offers alluring specials, such as “Wine Wednesday,” when all bottles of wine are 50% off.
For a beautiful atmosphere, check out Bodee’s—and be sure to sit near the water. The magic of Ojai becomes particularly apparent dining outside, when you realize that you are neither too cold nor too hot and that there’s not a single bug out to bite you. Furthermore, the steaks at Bodee’s are cooked to perfection. And the patio, decked out with lighted oak trees and a stone water fountain, make you feel as though you are dining in a magical garden.
The Ranch House offers an upscale, classic dining experience. Its indoor dining room may feel a bit dated, but the lush l garden (ask when reserving) is a fabulous setting to enjoy melt-in-your-mouth scallops in a unique, lightly curried corn sauce. Dessert aficionados will also enjoy the lime cheesecake or the fudge pie, made fresh in the Ranch House’s bakery.
Where to stay
For elegance and relaxation in Ojai, look no further than the Su Nido Inn (from $189). “Su Nido“ is Spanish for “your nest,” and the suites here truly are the perfect “nests” for a weekend getaway. The one- and two-bedroom suites are gorgeous and equipped with a fireplace, kitchen, and patio. Each room has its own unique theme and artistic touches, from 1930s retro to modern Manhattan. As much as there is to do in Ojai, you could make a whole weekend out of lying on your feather bed, soaking in your tiled tub, or snuggling in front of the fireplace.
If tiny Su Nido is full, its larger (and less expensive) sister hotel Casa Ojai Inn (from $114) offers 45 guest rooms, a complimentary breakfast, and a saltwater swimming pool. It’s also Ojai’s first green hotel, with non-toxic cleaners, fluorescent and energy-star rated lighting, water-saving fixtures, and much more.
Take Amtrak to Ventura. If you’ve brought along your bike, it’s an easy 12-mile ride (the off-road trail is paved, relatively flat, and runs parallel to Highway 33). Otherwise, take the Gold Coast Transit Route 16 to Ojai.
Photos: Elise DePuydt, Will and Stephanie Coeler, Sarah Destin, Su Nido Inn