Ojai: The Best of Small Town Charm
Nestled in a scenic valley amongst the Topatopa Mountains of Ventura County, the town of Ojai is the best possible mixture of quintessential small-town America and Half Moon Bay. Whereas the pressure to embrace funky, new-age spirituality can be overwhelming in that northern California destination, in Ojai, its subtle influence is welcoming and comfortable. Although primarily a tourist destination, this place feels much more like a relaxed and lovely small town that you alone were fortunate enough to discover.
Just four and a half square miles in size, travel is often by foot or bicycle since almost everything is a short walk or ride away. The climate and scenery make both options ideal. With majestic mountains as a backdrop, the natural beauty and mild weather is rejuvenating and encourages being outside. Most remarkable is the fact that nothing in this rather idyllic place feels “packaged,” contrived, or pretentious.
Although you can find the latest trends in food, therapeutic offerings, and retail, this town of 8,000 residents manages to feel relatively unaffected by the pressure to create things simply to appeal to visitors. A city ordinance prohibiting chain retailers, plus the relative affordability of the surrounding area, ensures businesses can be locally- owned and operated. Although many things have changed over the 30 years we have visited, so much has remained the same that each stay is like catching up with an old friend.
Every old friend has a story or history that makes him or her unique, and Ojai is no different. In 1917, a series of seemingly unrelated events changed the town radically: two devastating fires, the deep pockets of one frequent visitor, and World War I. It all began with a forest fire, which destroyed the church and many homes. Just months later, the rustic, western-styled downtown arcade was devastated when a pot of syrup boiled over in a candy shop and a blaze ensued. With much of the town in ruins, a wealthy industrialist from Ohio miraculously stepped forward to help. His name was Edward Libbey. He had become so enamored with the town and its people that he personally financed and pushed forward the rebuilding. This all happened at a time when Spanish Colonial Revival architecture was in vogue, marking the end of its former western style. So where does WWI play a role? Strangely enough, from 1874 until the end of this action-packed year, the town of Ojai was actually known as Nordhoff in honor of Charles Nordhoff. A well-known American journalist who often wrote about California, Nordhoff emigrated from Germany at the age of five. But with anti-German sentiment so rampant by the third year of WWI, many Americans felt the need to rid themselves of anything German. Although Nordhoff was just about as American as apple pie, he lost his place on the list of American cities. His name, however, lives on as a street in Northridge and on many buildings within Ojai. For its new name, the town went back to its roots choosing a Chumash Indian word (meaning moon), which was already the name for the surrounding valley as well as the original Rancho where settlement first began – Ojai. As for the man who saved the town? Edward Libbey is memorialized with downtown Libbey Park and is celebrated each October on Ojai Day.
TO SEE AND DO IN OJAI
Pick up an Ojai Village Walking guide anywhere in town (or online at ojaiwalkingmap.com) to visit boutiques, restaurants, olive oil and wine tasting, and local artists shops.
- Ojai Valley Museum: Permanent exhibits include the evolution of the valley, indigenous flora and fauna, the Chumash culture, and the Rancho period. Rotating exhibits feature many local and regional artists.
- Ojai Cafe Emporium: Best breakfasts, lunch, and baked goods in old Lumber Company Building (ojaicafeemporium.com).
- Suzanne’s Cuisine: Chef Suzanne Roll locally sources the ingredients for excellent dinners. If possible, sit in the garden (suzannescuisine.com).
- Ojai Vineyard Tasting Room: Located across from the Emporium, this local winery’s whites and lighter bodied reds are quite good, and the staff is knowledgeable and friendly (ojaivineyard.com).
- Cloud Climbers Jeep & Wine Tours: Sightseeing in the surrounding country roads and private gardens. With someone else doing the driving, you are free to absorb the amazing vistas and indulge in local wine and olive oil sampling (ccjeeps.com).
- Ojai Farmers Market: Lots of free samples, crafts, and food on Sundays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
- Libbey Park: With its centerpiece fountain and bandstand, it feels more like the park in the musical, Music Man. Located on the Main Street.
- Post Office Bell Tower: This 65 ft. tall bell tower is designed after the campanile that resides over Christopher Columbus’ tomb in Havana. Bells ring on the hour with patriotic tunes at 12-noon. The need for earthquake reinforcement keeps the tower closed to visitors, but its 1,530 mailbox rentals pay for improvements to Libbey Park.
- Arcade: Filled with modern shops, the historic arches on this block-long arcade house are a good example of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. It sits directly across from Libbey Park and the Post Office.
Montecito: A 40-minute drive North takes you to this town of Mediterranean estates and luxury just south of Santa Barbara.
Camarillo Premium Outlets: A 35-minute drive South takes you to some of the best outlet shopping.
WHERE TO STAY
There are many inns and bed and breakfasts in the area, but nothing beats the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa. Begun by Edward Libbey as a private country club in 1923, it underwent a recent $90 million renovation. This rambling Spanish style resort has a superb golf course and world-class spa. If a simple walk through visually beautiful vistas and a fragrant herbal garden isn’t enough to awaken your senses and creativity, the Artist Cottage and Apothecary have classes and the spa offers all manner of healing and cleansing. I’ll take watching the sunset sitting beside one of the many fire pits with a glass of wine while listening to local singers at the relaxed Oak Grill restaurant any day.