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Returning to Ojai, California – The Town L.A. Didn’t Ruin!

Story by K. Pearson Brown

Ojai is one of the few places in the world where a rare and wondrous pink tinted sunset occurs (photo credit Michael McFadden)

Ojai is one of the few places in the world where a rare and wondrous pink tinted sunset occurs (photo credit Michael McFadden)

It was my third trip to Ojai in five years, and delightfully, not much has changed. This adorable town of about 8,000, nestled in the Ojai valley, seems to have escaped the shuttering of independent shops and eateries that has plagued LA. Surely the recession has hit Ojai, but perhaps because of its small-town attitude, where folks take care of one another and life is simpler, they have managed to maintain their charm and economic vitality without giving in to Pottery Barn and Taco Bell.

The Inn Place

Ojai Hotels

Bungalows at Blue Iguana Inn feature private entrances and gated patios (photo credit Betty Jane Brown)

The accommodations in Ojai reflect the way of life of its residents. Mostly visitors will find small inns, with all the creature comforts of high-end hotels, but with a low key and casual atmosphere. My family lodged at The Blue Iguana, a Santa Barbara style bed and breakfast with modern amenities such as HD flat screen TVs in every room, but also with its own full kitchen, so we could prepare meals at “home.” Our bungalow also featured its own private fenced-in outdoor dining area and patio and French doors in every room opening to the outdoors.

Each morning at the Blue Iguana we enjoyed a complimentary continental breakfast of bagels, pastries, cereals, juice and coffee, and my son’s favorite, hardboiled eggs. Guests could take breakfast to their own private patios or bungalows or sit with other guests in the breakfast nook or on the communal patio outside.

It was a couple of minutes by car from the inn on the town’s main street, Ojai Avenue, into the center of town, heralded by what used to be the only stop light in town, at Signal Street. Shopping in town offered many charming small boutiques that thankfully resembled nothing of the GAP. My favorite clothing shop was The Kindred Spirit, featuring comfortable and stylish modern hippie fashions and shoes, like the Spring Step European wedge loafers I picked up there. Another fun to browse was Kingston’s Candy shop, which is like a trip into a Little Rascal’s episode with its bins of vintage-style candy, sodas and other novelties, like Big Buddy chewing gum.

Eat Local

An entrée from Feast Bistro, an eatery that features fresh house-made dishes in a casual setting with a patio that backs up to the Arcade’s grassy plaza (photo credit: courtesy Feast Bistro)

An entrée from Feast Bistro, an eatery that features fresh house-made dishes in a casual setting with a patio that backs up to the Arcade’s grassy plaza (photo credit: courtesy Feast Bistro)

I had thought I had tried all the best restaurants in town during my previous visits, but I was thrilled to find a plethora of undiscovered outstanding options for gourmet tastes, including the enchanting Azu. The restaurant had an earthy, artsy feel, with a cozy fireplace, wood benches — for which I asked for and was given a cushion for my poor bad back – and a front-room bar with well-dressed locals gathered for conversation and laughter. The service was friendly and casual, and Chef Laurel Moore’s Spanish and Mediterranean comfort cuisine menu was creative and reflective of the local bounty, such as blood orange and spinach salad, Cabra salad of Ojai organic greens and honey baked brie, drizzled with Ojai organic sage honey.

The next day we lunched at Feast Bistro, a quaint eatery along the town’s famed Arcade, a long pavilion of shops, that backs up to a grassy landscaped area where purveyors sell locally grown fruits and vegetables, jams, honey, bees wax candles, olive oil, free range eggs and chicken and a variety of crafts at a year-round weekly farmer’s market, every Sunday, rain or shine.

The knoll behind Feast Bistro restaurant was a great place for my son to play while we waited for our food. Since we all had walked up an appetite, and everything on the menu looked so yummy, we ordered entrees to share. We started with the locally sourced Eel River organic beef burger with cheese, a perfect complement to the Buffalo Blue spicy chicken breast on a bed of mixed greens and veggies, topped with Bleu cheese crumbles. My son enjoyed a huge platter of pomme frites, served as he ordered, half garlic, half parmesan. We finished off our hearty meal with a plate of still-warm Cookies of the Day.

All Aboard 

Ojai, California

Downtown Ojai offers shoppers plenty of boutiques and restaurants and not a single chain establishment (photo credit Michael McFadden)

We wanted to see more of Ojai outside of downtown, so we hopped aboard the Ojai Trolley, which for a fare of fifty cents is a great way to get around the town. Though the wooden bench seats didn’t make for a very comfy ride, and the trolley meanders through some of the less glamorous sections of town, it was still a fun ride. The trolley also offered the chance for us to see some of the good-neighbor attitude of Ojai in action, as the locals aboard the trolley greeted each other as they boarded and were quick to help a man in a wheelchair get aboard.

The Ojai Way

We were happy even as tourists to experience the small town feel of Ojai, which by the way is Ventura County’s smallest city. At the local park across from the Arcade I met a mom who lives in town. We pushed our kids on the swings side by side as she gave me the local scoop on the schools and community, which was all good. Then my son joined in with a group of kids on a spinning merry-go-round, and I chatted with their parents, more friendly locals. We strolled deeper into the park to find an outdoor concert theatre with a magical gate made of handing pipes that actually played music when you walked under them.

The Road to Ojai

Kids in Ojai

The friendly small-town feel of Ojai is a welcome change from city life for visitors from LA

Though this oasis sits in Ventura County, just 12 miles inland from Ventura, the great thing for Angelenos is that it is just about a 90-minute car ride from our bustling city. We made the trip in a luxurious seven-passenger Mazda CX-9, which featured super comfy reclining leather seats and was more than roomy for our family of four, with space to spare for all of our luggage and even my son’s 20” bike that we brought along. It also featured the best navigation system that I had ever used, which not only led us directly to our final destination and a few side trips, but it warned us of traffic ahead and offered alternative routes and advised me when I had drifted over the speed limit, which can be easy to do when the ride is so smooth. The rear-seat entertainment center with a DVD player also came in handy for my son.

Our trip goes to show that three times is a charm, as were my first and second visits to Ojai. And already I am planning a fourth.