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Ventura and Ojai City Trip - Ojai and Meiners Oaks

Downtown Ojai offers great shopping and a casual, small town feel
Downtown Ojai

VENTURA & OJAI DAY 3: Ojai, Lake Casitas, Ventura County Wine Trail and Meditation Mount

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Ready to chill? Drive (or bike) inland to Ojai, the valley that portrayed mythical Shangri-La in Frank Capra's classic 1937 movie "Lost Horizon." The small, close-knit and friendly community of 8,000 is what makes Ojai special. Shops and businesses are owned by local residents. You'll find no mega-chain coffee shops or big-box stores here. What Ojai does have is plenty of people meditating, artists and musicians. Don't be surprised to discover gleefully decorated mailboxes, a colorful painting hanging on the exterior of a house or a sculptured ceramic on someone's front porch. That's very Ojai. Keep in mind that the weather can be scorching, even when it's cool on the coast. A temperature difference of twenty-plus degrees is not uncommon.

Lake Casitas is viewable from Highway 150 on the way from Ventura to Ojai
Lake Casitas

The most direct route to Ojai from Ventura is via Highway 33. We, however, prefer the scenery on Highway 150, especially when the road first reveals sparkling blue Lake Casitas. The lakeside water park here, open during the summer months, is a big hit with the kids. So consider taking one route in, the other out. Given the summer heat, the best seasons to visit Ojai are fall or spring — especially in early June during the famous Ojai Music Festival, an outdoor institution devoted to modern classical music performed beneath the oaks.

Begin your Ojai day with a breakfast of quiche, waffles or omelettes and coffee at the sprawling and always-busy Ojai Café Emporium. Across the street, the Ojai Center for the Arts not only showcases the works of local artists, but can also steer you to their studios.

The Ojai Studio Artists Tour in early October is another prime time to plan a visit. The self-guided weekend tour allows visits to some 40 studios and gardens of the town's noted painters, sculptors, photographers and ceramicists.

Hiking and biking are great pastimes here. Head to the end of Signal Avenue and hike along Shelf Road for valley views or take the more strenuous Pratt Trail. The Ojai Valley Trail is a 16.5-mile paved bike, walking and jogging path marked by wood railings and dotted with oak trees. Sections wind through woods and past riverbeds and the trail eventually leads back to Ventura. There are also boat rentals on Lake Casitas, where you can fish but not swim.

While winemaking is nothing new in the Ojai Valley, recent years have seen a surge in grape growing, tasting rooms and wine-oriented tourism. The sharpshooter bug that in the early-nineties wreaked havoc with its vine-choking Pierce's disease hasn't been a problem of late, and acclaimed vintners like Adam Tolmach of The Ojai Vineyard and Manfred Krankl of Sine Qua Non (not open to the public) are not only making world-class wines in the Ojai Valley, they are doing so with grapes grown here. A good starting place is the new Ojai Vineyard Tasting Room on Montgomery St. downtown, where you can pick up some info along with a Ventura County Wine Trail map.

Ojai's downtown arcade offers great shopping and one-of-a-kind art galleries
Downtown arcade

Stroll Ojai's downtown arcade with its pretty arches, where art galleries, jewelry stores, boutiques and an old-time department store exemplify the independent flavor and artistic bent of the town. Stop for lunch at La Fonte, a Tuscan-style eatery with a lovely outdoor patio looking onto the plaza. On the other side of Ojai Avenue, Next to Libbey Park, you'll find Los Caporales Restaurant & Tequila Bar with ample portions of hearty Mexican cuisine and a long list of tequilas.

The neighboring community of Meiners Oaks is a folksy place with a couple notable restaurants. The Farmer and the Cook is ground zero for all things organic in the health-conscious Ojai Valley. On the next block, Papa Lennon's Pizzeria serves an eclectic array of salads, wraps and, of course, pizzas. Both establishments have live music and more than a little local charm.

After eating, we like browsing the noted used bookstore Bart's Books, home to more than 100,000 used and rare volumes, where the honor system trusts customers after hours to drop their coins into a metal box to pay for books purloined from the street-facing outdoor shelves. At The Ojai Valley Museum, in a Mission Revival-style building downtown, you can learn about the town's history and check out changing exhibitions. Or head into the Sespe Wilderness, a fantasy of hiking trails, campsites, swimming holes and rugged scenery that begins just north of town on Highway 33.

The famous East Indian philosopher Krishnamurti made Ojai his home and lectured under the oaks to seekers of self-realization until his death in 1986. The Krishnamurti Library, where his lectures are preserved on tape, is open to the public.

The International Garden of Peace at Meditation Mount
The International Garden of Peace at Meditation Mount

If you prefer to seek self-realization through treatments like massages, mud wraps or facials, book an appointment at one of the many spas in the area. The luxurious Spa Ojai at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa offers a long list of services including a Kuyam session which involves a mud scrub, dry heat treatment, inhalation therapy and guided meditation. Reiki specialists perform healing touch sessions at The Oaks at Ojai Health Spa where you can also have reflexology treatments and aromatherapy massages. The Angelic Touch Day Spa performs acupuncture on Tuesdays. They also offer body scrubs, waxing, massages and facials all week long.

At day's end, an Ojai "pink moment" sunset is akin to seeing the green flash in the Caribbean. Prime viewing spots include those from Meditation Mount. Or take Highway 150 to the east end of the valley up Dennison Grade to look out for dramatic views of the entire valley.

After dark, Ojai doesn't boast much nightlife; but that's half the point of visiting. Still, there's usually activity to be found in the town's restaurants and bars, including the sultry and sophisticated Movino, a candlelit downtown wine-and-spirits bar in the arcade that plays foreign films with subtitles on a flat-screen television to the backdrop of live or recorded music. Azu is another lively place for a libation (with 42 vodkas on hand), tapas and conversation with friendly locals. The Ojai Beverage Company has evolved from a liquor store into a bona fide hotspot, with a revolving selection of tap beer — from Belgian whites to American browns and even a locally brewed “Pink Moment” ale — and a brief menu of surprisingly good food. Cultural nightlife is presented in the form of plays performed by local theater companies such as Theatre 150 and productions at The Ojai Valley Arts Center Theater.

The rustic dining room at Suzanne's Cuisine in Ojai
Suzanne's Cuisine

There are several fine choices for dinner, including Maravilla, the fine dining restaurant of the Ojai Valley Inn. In town, Suzanne's Cuisine consistently provides the best overall dining experience, with first-rate California fare and refined yet friendly service. The Ranch House is a venerable institution dedicated to serving local, organic, seasonal cuisine amidst lush surroundings. The casual, family-style Italian eatery Boccali's Pizza and Pasta lures folks to the east end for homestyle Italian food featuring ingredients from their garden.

If your stay includes a Sunday, be sure to visit the Ojai Certified Farmers Market on Matilija Street behind the arcade between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. You'll find pixie tangerines grown nearby alongside fresh lavender, avocados, freshly pressed olive oil, and honey from native bees. Any one of these local beauties is a delicious memento of Ojai — the real-life Shangri-La.

For more information on Ventura, go to www.ventura-usa.com or visit the Ventura Visitors and Convention Bureau at 89 S. California St., Ventura, 805-648-2075 or 800-333-2989.

MORE VENTURA/OJAI INFORMATION


Also check our California Travel Guide.

* Downtown Ojai, arcade and Lake Casitas images courtesy of www.visitojai.com.

(Updated: 05/07/13 CT)

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