Known as “the nest,” the verdant Ojai Valley is surrounded by the Santa Ynez Mountains and covered with citrus trees and centuries’ old oaks, and is regarded by the early Chumash Indians as a place of healing. Much later it depicted Shangri-La, the idyllic valley in Frank Capra’s 1937 Hollywood classic Lost Horizon. It’s easy to imagine why. At sunset the sky glows a vibrant pink as the last rays of light dip below the Topa Topa bluffs. A bell sounds at this “Pink Moment,” as it’s called, to signal the day’s end.
Nestled in the valley is the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, a historic Spanish-Colonial retreat, which for nearly 90 years has hosted movie stars and moguls, generations of families, and couples looking for romance. In 1923, Ohio glass manufacturer Edward Libbey, considered the founding father of the town of Ojai, commissioned famed Beverly Hills architect-to-the-stars Wallace Neff to design a clubhouse for Libbey’s private country club and golf course. The original building, now known as the Neff Lounge, remains the heart of the retreat. Most recently renovated in 2011, the resort is owned by Chicago’s Lester and Renee Crown. It has more than 300 rooms and suites, and if money is no object, you can lease the Crowns’ own 10,000-square-foot mansion, “Casa Elar,” for about $10,000 a night.
The resort’s Spa Village, with a 50-foot bell tower and Moroccan fountain, houses an expansive spa and fitness center, offering daily mind/body classes from t’ai chi to qigong, cardio-boxing to water aerobics. The village has its own pools for soaking and sunning, and the Herb Garden Café for healthy salads and wraps. At the Artists’ Cottage nearby, guests hand-paint silk scarves, take art lessons, and explore their inner selves through Mandala, Sanskrit for “circle,” a sort of cosmic diagram used in meditation and to figure out one’s place in the universe. There’s also an apothecary where you can custom blend your own scents and spa treatments. For relaxation and contemplation, stroll paths lined with lavender in the resort’s herb garden where you can picnic, meditate, or read at shaded tables.
The inn has five restaurants in all, including fine dining at Maravilla (Spanish for “marvelous”), and al fresco offerings at Oak Grill. For more casual dining (and drinking), the wood-paneled Jimmy’s Pub is a favorite local watering hole. The complimentary truffle oil chips with Parmesan and parsley are worth every last calorie.
The town of Ojai is an easy walk or bike ride away, and boasts a San Diego connection. Local architect Richard Requa designed the iconic post office and tower, taking inspiration from Havana’s Campanile. He also created a Spanish-Colonial arcade to house the stores along Ojai Avenue. There are several blocks of gift shops, cafes, art galleries, and tasting rooms. Stop in at Casa Barranca for a sip of the local wine (there are three wineries in the area), or order butter cakes and lemon ricotta tarts at Knead’s, a family-run artisanal bakery. At Azu Restaurant & Tapas Bar, sample Serrano ham and Manchego cheese, lamb kabobs, or honey-baked Brie, paired with wines by the glass (25 in all). Bocali’s is a local fave for pizza, pasta, and hearty home-style Italian cooking. On Sundays, there’s a popular farmers’ market in town where you can buy Ojai olive oil, fresh produce, and, in season, sweet pixie tangerines for which the valley is famous. Each summer, the Libbey Bowl hosts the Ojai Music Festival.
Ojai is a relaxing, peaceful place to unwind, whether for a weekend or a week. If you have more time, head a half hour’s drive northwest to the beaches of Santa Barbara. But then again, you may never want to leave the “nest.” (800/422-6524, www.ojairesort.com) ANDREA NAVERSEN