Ojai, California: A Weekend With the Gals
“What about Ojai?” I said when the three of us were discussing our annual girlfriend’s weekend. I remembered Ojai as a hidden horsey destination, known only to Californians living in LA and Ventura Counties.
Back in the mid-seventies my boyfriend’s parents had a second home in Ojai, a mid-size spread with a pool, coral and horses. I wanted to see what the place was like these days.
I heard that it had gotten quite swank and full-of-itself. Hollywood types had “retreat-like” homes on bluffs and overlooking vistas, granola-loving hippies had been pushed out (almost) by five star spas, boutiques, and fancy restaurants.
Ojai is 65 miles north of Los Angeles and 15 miles East of Ventura.
It’s a valley town surrounded by several different mountain ridges, the Black Mountains, Chief Peak and Laguna Ridge to name a few. Lake Casitas sits to its west and is loved by locals and tourists for fishing, kayaking and boating. Ojai is desirable to Los Angelinos because it is close in driving distance yet far from the fast lane.
The weekend was on the chopping block at one point or another for all of us, but finally we managed to put our lives on hold, if just for two nights, and meet at The Lavender Inn.
Right in the middle of Ojai central, The Lavender Inn is a big Victorian home with 7 rooms, individually decorated, and a guest “wedding” cottage in the back. Originally it was a schoolhouse, the first actually, in Ojai.
For us, it made a comforting place to, “come home to each other.” Jody was starting a new job, the day we arrived; in fact, Brigitte was in the midst of moving; I had more flexibility of time, however I was concerned about my kids and my newly widowed mother… But we made it to the Lavender Inn. Our plans were simple. We would eat, drink, talk — about everything constantly, and maybe have a little adventure…
Ojai Eats and Drinks
At the Feast Bistro, Chef de Cuisine, Rosie Brooks was cooking behind a counter in partial view of guests. She was on task, seemingly meditative, as she prepared dish after dish. It’s my impression that many chefs are harried, high maintenance and emotional, perhaps this is from watching too many “Hell’s Kitchen” episodes!
But not Brooks, with calm and confidence she delivered a caprese salad that was like biting into the warmth and richness of summer. This was followed by a Lake Superior whitefish cooked in caraway brown butter and toped with a balsamic reduction, sitting on a bed of parmesan risotto. The components of this dish alone describe its marvelous taste.
Keeping with the slow food movement, Brooks uses local ingredients and why not? Ojai is after all close to one of the richest agricultural environments in the world, Central Valley, California. But she even went “back yard” on us using Ojai olive oil, heirloom tomatoes, peppers and more.
Talking into the Night
We walked slowly back to The Lavender Inn, through the candlelit outdoor patio of Feast Bistro, past some shuttered shops, under an adobe archway, the welcome structure of this lantern lit outdoor shopping space. Back at the Inn (we had our own key) we made our way up the big wide wooden stairs to our room. This was our girlfriend’s getaway, away place. We talked into the night.
I was feeling vulnerable on every front. What, with the death of my father, my husband’s career in flux and walking an emotional tight rope with my soon-to-be freshman daughter. Being able to “spill” to your friends is always great. BUT during a weekend getaway, without the distractions of home “stuff,” it’s worth every effort and penny to GET AWAY! My friends listened, commiserated, gave advice…
Indeed, the Lavender Inn is a retreat to many women in need of comfort and caring. They host an annual InnCourage Retreat weekend for women in treatment for cancer. For three days and two nights women are treated to restorative activities such as facials, scenic walks, make-up lessons and candle lit yoga sessions.
The program is funded through donations and the attendees are chosen based on financial need. Imagine being able to escape hospitals and treatments, to share feelings and connect with new friends also undergoing an amazingly threatening and challenging time. And they get to re-charge while in their pajamas over a late and bountiful breakfast or in front of a fire at night’s end.
The gals and I were deliberately slow to get started the next day. The Lavender Inn breakfast spread wasn’t something to hurry through — potato pancakes with herbs of sage and rosemary, polenta torte, egg soufflé, plus strong, necessary coffee. Once we were ready to greet Ojai by day, we stepped out to check out the shop scene and hop on bikes!
With Project Ride, Kelly Pasco broke the typical bike shop mold to include electric bike sales and rental tours. Located just west of downtown Ojai, in a village known as Meiners Oaks, Project Ride provided us with upright, comfortable French country-type bikes that almost go by themselves! What could be better? You’re living your baguette-in-the-back fantasy as you whizz by fields, riverbeds, farms, corrals and haciendas.
Pasco was our guide to the local attractions of Meiners Oaks, a former women’s penitentiary and a certified organic farm on steroids (well, obviously not on steroids). As far as Pasco knew, there were no plans for the prison, but it was weirdly fascinating to ride by it, a bizarre juxtaposition of confinement in such beautiful open space.
Just next to it was a large field, about 12 acres, of lush vegetables, flowers and fruit. This was owned and operated by Steve Sprinkel and Olivia Chase. They are the Farmer And The Cook and they run a restaurant/store/community hub in Meiners Oaks by the same name.
We lunched at The Farmer And The Cook, al fresco, in California weather that can only be described as perfect. The Farmer And The Cook run a community co-op farm, a club of sorts. Members join and have access to the daily harvest from the farm. Also, the field is open to anyone who wants to “work it” early in the morning in exchange for breakfast back at the store.
Sprinkel is a hybrid of the best sort. He is both agricultural journalist and commercial farmer (since 1975), however his best harvest seems to come in the form of fostering back-to-basics community connections.
“I’ll buy some of Mrs. Craven’s small apples, because they are too small and mis-shapen for the restaurants. I can use them in our muffins at the store.” On the table sat a box of Mrs. Craven’s diminutive apples, perfect for little hands and right next to them was a box of gloriously non-uniform tomatoes, big as grapefruits, heavy and citrus colored.
Eat, Drink and Talk Some More
Eat bread, drink wine, have dessert, enjoy life –- That is Suzanne’s Cuisine’s mantra. It is on their card and we were about to do exactly that, again! We sat outdoors facing a garden that was lit both by God and by design in such a way that the roses glowed. We settled in, dusk, drinks and conversation both heavy and light.
A stand out was an arugula salad appetizer. Made with crispy pancetta and prosciutto, manchego cheese, avocado and blue cheese figs, this was a yummy combo of salty, sweet, bitter. Since my neighbor’s Italian mother fried squash blossoms for me one summer, I’ve never passed up a chance to have them.
Suzanne’s were stuffed with goat cheese. We eyed the last bite, gone before I knew who ate it, knowing it might have been me! Chef Roll surprised us with two signature desserts.
The first, a Pineapple Gratine, made with fresh pineapple baked in a mascarpone custard, crusty with a brown sugar glaze, topped with strawberries AND THEN homemade coconut ice-cream to top that off. Second, was a Warm Chocolate Tart swimming in a white coffee sauce. It was warm. It brought on sighs. We ate desert. We enjoyed life.
The Oaks at Ojai is a family owned and operated spa in the traditional sense. The atmosphere is low-key, private and quiet. The meals are calorie conscious, designed to fill and refresh, but also to manage weight.
It’s not a scene, as the brochure says, “The Oaks isn’t a fashion show…” They offer spa services as well as exercise, cooking and life-style enhancement classes. Once a 1920’s hotel, The Oaks has happily maintained its California mission style authenticity. There are few surprises at the Oaks, and that is why the clientele returns year after year.
Ojai Valley Inn & Spa is arguably a premium attraction in Ojai. It is a sprawling five-diamond resort destination, complete with a top ranked golf course, tennis courts, a spa “village,” four pools, restaurants, meeting and wedding facilities.
Perhaps a meander through a three-acre herb garden, a bike ride into town or an evening hike is all you require—the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa has that too, delivered by a first class staff, in a stunning Spanish countryside environment.
Rains — the fifth generation of the Rains family still owns and runs this general store. Smack in the middle of Ojai’s arched way Arcade they offer anything from kitchen towels to horse head sculptures.
Human Arts – a gallery-type store that is the best of a tasteful craft fair, furniture, jewelry, glass.
Kingston’s Candy Co. is a real sister act. Holly Thrasher was bubbling over with enthusiasm for her new candy venture as was her sister, Sara Jaimes about her own store, newly opened in Santa Barbara.
“Candy Makes Life Sweet” is the tag line for the stores and sweet it is, sticky with nostalgic candies like ABBA-ZABAs and giant jawbreakers. Selling old-fashioned sodas and ice cream, the store’s aim is to “bring you back to the days of penny candies and soda fountains and to make you smile.”
And Why Not…
Saddle up! Ojai Valley Trail Riding Company offers a variety of private trial rides giving visitors a chance to explore river, stream and forest just out-of-town.
Smell Lavender, taste olive oil. New Oak Ranch brings the Mediterranean to Ojai. Sitting on 24 acres with over 5000 lavender plants, 1400 olive trees, 24 walnut trees and several pixie tangerine trees, New Oak beacons, sit, stay, eat, pick.
Cathie Arquilla is a stylist, mom and travel writer living in Pelham Manor, NY.
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