I've lived in LA for more than a decade, but somehow I've never made it to Ojai. I've heard glowing reviews of the quaint valley town that's known as much for its art-crammed main drag as it is for its reputation as a spa haven. So how is it I've missed out on visiting for so long?
Within my first two hours in Ojai, I was making mental notes of what to relay to my girlfriends in order to convince them to take a weekend retreat with me. I knew that I wasn't going to see it all in 24 hours, and I wanted to return with friends who could appreciate the town's laidback and somewhat hippie charm, something I was pleasantly surprised to find so close to the LA border. Knowing that such a haven is less than two hours' drive from home, I'm pretty sure Ojai will become a regular go-to weekend jaunt, especially since so much of it can be enjoyed on foot.
The Oaks at Ojai became my jumping off point as I explored downtown Ojai, whose main drag consists of an arcade stuffed with galleries, boutiques, and noshing parlors, such as Movino Wine Bar, which had a flyer in the window boasting an appearance by Daniel Ash, former guitarist for Love and Rockets, Bauhaus, and Tones on Tail. Most every store had posters imploring visitors and residents to "Save Libbey Bowl," the amphitheater located in Libbey Park that serves as the epicenter of the renowned Ojai Music Festival. The park itself is worth passing an afternoon, with its oak-shaded paths, creek full of chirping frogs, and a historic old jail. Grab a sandwich from the Ojai Cafe Emporium and stake out a spot for a picnic, then work it off either on the bike paths, walking trails, or tennis courts.
"We've got three theaters!" one resident proudly boasted to me. "And you just try to count the art galleries." For a town of just over 8,000, that's quite a reason to be proud. The Ojai Playhouse sits squarely in the middle of town, playing the latest film releases and, on the weekend I visited, a live broadcast of the Oscars.
If you're in town on the weekend, be sure to scope out the area directly behind the arcade, where the Sunday farmers' market (9am-1pm) is held. Local vendors congregate to sell everything from dog biscuits to olive oil to fresh-baked pies. You could make a meal out of the free samples alone.
Be sure to leave time to visit Bart's Books, the used bookstore whose name often crops up on travel and literary "best of" lists, as much for its impressive collection (more than one million tomes) as for its quirky atmosphere. What started back in 1964 as a way for Richard Bartinsdale to trim down his personal collection has become an Ojai institution, a whimsical mom-and-pop shop that has overflowed the bounds of the house that once contained it to become the world's largest outdoor bookstore. This shop alone could keep me making the trip up CA-33 through the winding hills.
For more info: Ojai | 805-640-1390 | http://www.ojaivalleymuseum.org/