I think under-the-radar Ojai is the next Palm Springs. Its year-round warm climate, natural beauty and laid-back vibe make it the perfect setting for a weekend escape. And similar to how the revitalization of its desert ally began, a new breed of stylish hotels and shops has started to crop up and attract a younger, design-savvy guest.
Nestled in a scenic valley thirty miles east of Santa Barbara, the peaceful town is a famed refuge for self-betterment and spiritual retreat. It’s the ultimate “get away.” Here, you can eat healthfully and luxuriate in sunny day spas. The Spanish architecture and cactus-and-palm-tree-dotted landscape feel like Old California: tranquil and uncluttered — which is exactly how you’ll feel after a visit. But it’s not all crystals and dragons. As more folks from LA start to flock, a youthful, hip spirit has started to take hold.
Here’s 7 reasons why it’s become my new favorite spot in California:
#1) The Lush Landscape
Ojai’s landscape is like spinnin’ Southern California’s greatest hits: oak, olive, citrus and palm trees mingle with all manner of cacti and succulents. The bounty of produce also means a thriving, year-round farmers market. The magnificent Topatopa mountains are an ever-present backdrop and play the leading role in Ojai’s famed natural phenomenon, “The Pink Moment,” when fading sunlight casts a radiant hue over their bluffs. Just beyond town, the Los Padres National Forest flaunts some of the most striking landscape you’ll see in California. Take it all in with a leisurely cruise into the hills, strolling the side streets or renting a bike from our good friends at The Mob Shop.
#2) Hip Budget Lodging
Every town has motels. But few have inspired owners who turn them into design-driven destinations. The ultra-stylized Ojai Rancho Inn cheekily plays off of Ojai’s new agey reputation as home to a vortex of groovy vibrations. The property’s earthy, hand-crafted decor includes beautiful lamps from Heather Levine. Grab a book and a cold one and kick it in the attractive pool area that sports porch swings, shuffleboard, fire pit and a teepee.
The Capri Hotel is a mid-century, err, motel property reimagined in true Palm Springs fashion: clean lines, palm trees, a prominent pool and retro details like VHS & record players in guest rooms. Two things I love about this easily enjoyable spot: 1) You can take pleasure in carefree drinking with a free shuttle to The Deer Lodge, a kitschy lodge-like bar & restaurant also owned by the Capri; and 2) When I commented that I appreciated them playing The Munsters in the lobby, the young gal at the front desk said that she was asked to “go get classic black & white films” so she grabbed that. Of course!
#3) Luxury Lodging!
The Ojai Valley Inn & Spa is a true 5-star resort. Wander it’s sprawling grounds filled with twisted, old oak trees and Spanish style casitas. A thoughtfully designed garden & vista lies around every corner. Have them prepare a picnic in the Herb Garden or nurse a sunset drink around the fire pits in the Fragrance Courtyard (also the site of toasting s’mores come nightfall). And don’t miss the died-and-gone-to-the-Mediterranean adult pool (no worry: there’s an all-day kids camp if you need it).
The Su Nido Inn is an intimate, upscale Mission style inn newly-built to anticipate your every need. Chile peppers have their own measurement scale: I want one for the delight you experience when stepping through the threshold of a new hotel room for the first time. Su Nido would rank high. The luxurious suites are more akin to a guesthouse of the fantasy friend you’ve always hoped for. It’s two blocks to the center of town, but in Ojai that feels blissfully miles away from everything.
The Lavender Inn is an elegant B&B housed in a historic Victorian home with a garden to make wedding planners drool. Ditto the delectable morning breakfast spread. But here is all you really need to know about the tranquility of the property and care of its staff: Kathy, the owner, will periodically close the inn to host women undergoing cancer treatment to foster their rest and healing.
#4) It’s a Real Life Rancho Relaxo
Ojai is a renowned refuge for well-being and relaxation. Here, wellness collects like morning dew. Check your head at Meditation Mount, an expansive community garden & retreat space perched high above Ojai. Stroll the garden path that leads to a stunning contemplation point overlooking the valley. Stop by the honor-system plant stand where you can take home fruits and greenery from their gardens.
Ojai Day Spa is the real deal. This peaceful retreat is staffed by folks who truly care about your well-being. After a mind-bending massage, lose yourself in the humble, yet beautiful garden where I felt relaxation globules I normally don’t feel outside of Hawaii.
#5) Hip Shops Hooray
Indulge in outdoors nostalgia at Summer Camp, a hip shop that blends vintage Americana with handcrafted jewelry, clothing and home decor.
Modern Folk Living is a stylish shop tucked away in a downtown Spanish stucco. Owner Wanda designed clothes for Patagonia before opening this shop of smartly-curated women’s apparel, jewelry, home goods and all-around desirable items. Note: at last visit, the men’s section was a stack of five t-shirts.
Make sure to stop by Bart’s Books, a funky, fun and quintessentially Ojai institution for 50 years. Brush up on your Krishnamurti — Ojai’s most notable past resident — at this former home-turned-al-fresco bookshop. It makes me infinitely happy that the cookbooks line the cabinets of the repurposed kitchen.
#6) Go Paleo in Style
Like its name implies, Hip Vegan is a stylish outpost serving up a tasty vegan menu for the masses. Yes, really. I love the shaded, succulent-filled outdoor patios. The owner spent time living in Japan before taking over this spot and the simple yet chic ambience reflects it.
On first approach to The Farmer and The Cook, an only-slightly crunchy cafe and health-food shop, you might expect the scent of incense or patchouli to follow. But instead, you’ll be hit by wafts of soulful Mexican food. As the woman who sent me there stated: “They got real chicas in the kitchen.” The strictly vegetarian fare is delicious and made with the produce from their organic farm just down the street. It’s the type of place where you can be on a cleanse and still have a (really good) burrito. Trust me: everything about this place just works. A popular gathering spot with a sunny front patio, it feels like the heart and soul of Ojai.
#7) Relapse (or It’s There if You Need It)
Housed in a former gas station, Knead Bakery now fuels Ojai with hearty, artisan baked goods. Stop by in the morning and grab an insanely tasty breakfast sandwich — egg, cheese, prosciutto and arugula on a housemade english muffin — and a glass of sunshine fresh orange juice made from the citrus orchards down the road.
Half the fun of visiting a new town is tasting their wine and sampling their beer. Which is why I love Ojai Beverage Company. They stock a truly awesome selection of local beer, wine and spirits. You can take it to go or sample it in their large tasting room staffed by fellow booze lovers who just also happen to be incredibly nice. Highly recommended.