Alone in the garden, I ate breakfast while the scents of juniper and rosemary wafted on the breeze. The sun warmed my face, and the call of the brilliantly blue scrub jay rang from the tree canopy above. The scene was about as good as it gets for this mom, who had escaped to a girls weekend in Southern California last February.
I had forgotten how a quiet Minnesota winter can dull my senses — until I woke up in the Ojai Valley, where the temperatures hovered near 60 degrees, citrus trees fill gardens and orchards and birdsong rings in the air. I suddenly felt alive again.
At least that’s how it was for me and my girlfriends as we took a break from our kids midwinter.
When I told people about my upcoming trip to this oasis called Ojai, I was often greeted with, “O-what?”
Ojai (pronounced Oh-hi) is roughly 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles, I would explain, only to be met with blank stares.
I had not realized how hidden this gem was until I began planning the trip.
So how did I find out about it? Many moons ago, when I lived in Los Angeles and was recently married, my husband’s extremely generous boss had gifted us a weekend away in this charming village in the shadow of the Topatopa Mountains, and we never forgot it.
The town has fewer than 10,000 residents, and is surrounded by mountains, citrus groves, olive groves and vineyards. Its streets are quiet, the homes and landscaping are artwork in themselves, and while walking along admiring the gardens, you might be surprised by the two emus in one neighbor’s yard.
Succulents grow from the cracks in the rocks, and building walls are covered in gorgeous murals. Ancient cactuses, towering palm trees and amazing aloe plants surround the colorful homes. One neighborhood walk was punctuated only with the birds overhead and the backyard chickens of many residents. Ojai is the quiet contradiction that one might need from bustling Los Angeles.
The people I met there boasted about the area’s artists, musicians, foodies, ranchers and spiritualists. The town has a local music scene and wonderful dining and shopping options, not to mention the spas. In a valley, the town is surrounded by fabulous hiking. And it’s only about a half-hour’s drive to the ocean.
Because of the outstanding weather (highs in the mid-60s to mid-80s March through November) most restaurants and shops have more square footage outdoors than inside. One of my favorite places to visit, Bart’s Books, is completely open-air; a sign encourages people who find books on outdoor shelves after hours to simply throw payment through the slot in the door.
Beyond shopping and hiking, a large number of ranches dot the area. One afternoon, my friends and I took an hourlong ride with the female-owned and -operated Ojai Valley Trail Riding Co. (which our guide later told us is referred to locally as “estrogen ranch”).
It was through this adventure that we learned about the recovery local nature was making from the Thomas Fire, which had nearly taken the ranch in 2017, with firefighters hosing down the animal barns for several days until the wind miraculously shifted and all was saved.
The more I thought about this town and the escape it provided, the more I related it to our own Grand Marais — an artist colony away from the noise and full of local charm. In Ojai, chain stores and restaurants are kept out of city limits, per an ordinance in 2016. So if you want a Starbucks or some McDonald’s fries, you might have to drive a bit. But who would want that when a local shop is usually within walking distance and the locals are so friendly?
When asked for recommendations, shopkeepers filled us with ideas about live music, area shops for the best crystals, cheap massages that the locals find vs. the pricey ones aimed at tourists. And they all fawned about the farmers market.
The market is the real deal. Specializing in organic produce, it is packed with the sweetest strawberries, a kaleidoscope of flowers, caracara oranges, perfectly ripe grapefruits, amazing olive tapenades, miniature pies, the sweetest dates, textiles from Africa, and the list goes on.
We decided that the best way to visit this town is to arrive on a Saturday night and head to the market Sunday morning to gather provisions for your stay. We visited the market on our last day, and consequently had to stuff our carry-on luggage with produce for the journey home.
Fortunately, excellent restaurants were easy to find. We had several delicious meals, but were completely enchanted by Tipple and Ramble, a patio and picnic store that also supplied us with fabulous wine and tapas that we’ll be talking about for years. The cafe’s garden patio looks like a feature for any editorial spread (or your favorite Instagram feed) with a bright color palette, large umbrellas, hammocks and a small trailer in the back that serves as a bar.
Should you find yourself there and empanadas are on the menu, do not, I repeat, do not skip them. We could have spent an entire evening in this charming spot, but it offers only tapas and closes at 7 p.m., encouraging you to have a real meal at one of the many other restaurants in town.
Although Tipple and Ramble’s patio, among many in Ojai, is the perfect place to settle in with a glass of wine and a book, don’t lose sight of the shopping in the area. The main drag has tons of fantastic boutiques. On El Roblar Drive, a shopping street in Meiners Oaks (just one block from Ojai), I found beautiful Turkish towels at a great price, artistic wooden spoons and aromatic body oils along with adorable gifts for my son.
And speaking of kids, is Ojai a place for kids or a family vacation?
Horseback rides, hikes and great food are never a bad idea. Many of the hotels have swimming pools, the key to many a child’s favorite vacation. But I would suggest saving this trip for your best friends or a romantic getaway. The slow pace and attention to books, art and nature might best be enjoyed by adults.
And if you can leave the children at home, you might find yourself in the most relaxed and Zen state you’ve been in for years.
Leslie Plesser is a Minneapolis-based writer and photographer. Find her work at shuttersmack.com.