June 21, 2024

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Looking for a Getaway Near Los Angeles? Try Ojai.

6 min read

“But what about the pink moment?”

Despite a poolside mezcal margarita, I could hear the panic in my voice as I reminded my sisters-in-law of a uniquely Ojai phenomenon. We only had 36 hours in this small, verdant city nestled in the mountains of California’s Ventura County, and we were going to miss our only chance to bask in the pink moment — the fleeting few seconds when the setting sun illuminates the Ojai Valley in an otherworldly shade of dusty rose. I had booked us a room at the Ojai Valley Inn, in part so that we could park ourselves beneath the resort’s 200-year-old oak tree and get an unobstructed view of Chief Peak, a part of the Topatopa Mountains, which are known, in the right conditions, to glow a transcendent shade of coral.

There was only one hitch: 36 hours is not nearly enough time to experience all that Ojai — pronounced, charmingly, “Oh, hi” — has to offer. To make the most of our trip, about 80 miles from our homes in Los Angeles, we were going to have to combine some activities, compromise, and accept that the most rewarding destinations always leave you wanting more.

I ought to know that Ojai is exactly this type of place: Since moving to Los Angeles in 2015, I’ve been there seven times, and every time, I discover something new. My inaugural Ojai visit, in 2017, will forever be remembered for the 50-minute “illumination session” I did with Nicola Fiona Behrman, the Ojai Valley Inn’s then “resident energy alchemist” who endeavored to infuse my “body and soul with nourishing light” by drawing circles around me with a smoldering bunch of sage.

When I told Ms. Behrman I was anxious about a novel that I had started writing, but kept putting off, she spritzed me with a homemade “inspiration mist” and told me to use it whenever I hit a wall. Was I skeptical? Of course. Did the bottle gather dust on my desk? It did. But that novel, The Goddess Effect, in which Ojai makes a prominent appearance, will finally be published in October. (While Ms. Behrman’s illumination session is no longer offered, Katie Manzella, a Reiki master, and Nancy Furst, a spiritual counselor, offer similar treatments, starting at $260.)

If this all sounds too woo-woo, know that Ojai has embraced alternative modes of healing and living since its inception. Settled by the native Chumash approximately 5,000 years ago, the city’s name derives from the Chumash word for “moon.” The valley’s atypical orientation, east-west rather than north-south, purportedly make it an electromagnetic vortex of good energy. The philosopher and meditation evangelist Jiddu Krishnamurti lived in Ojai from 1922 to 1986. His foundation regularly hosts workshops and welcomes visitors; around town, opportunities to practice yoga and meditate abound. Downtown, the Crystal Corner sells slabs of amethyst ($600) and pocket-size nuggets of pink tourmaline ($12). Sanctum sells decks of “wisdom” cards based on the Bhagavad Gita, the holy Hindu scripture ($16.95).

That said, Ojai also offers a variety of other types of “healing,” including eating, drinking and therapies of the spa and retail persuasions, which was why I found myself stressing out, from the moment we got in the car, about how we were going to have enough time to do it all. On the agenda: lunch, a wine tasting, a visit to Bart’s Books, the world’s largest outdoor bookstore, a dip in the pool, a four-course dinner, a hike, two facials, one massage and, of course, the pink moment.

“But we can also do none of these things and just relax,” I said to Ritu Lal (sister-in-law No. 1) and Nicole Lal (sister-in-law No. 2), who didn’t bother to dignify my falsified chill with an immediate response.

“We can do whatever,” Ritu said, as we turned off the Ojai Freeway and onto a country road lined with orange groves. “Ojai is basically heaven.”

Hunger predicated that we eat before checking into the hotel. We arrived at Ojai Rotie, a French-Lebanese patio restaurant downtown, 15 minutes before it opened, Type A personalities blazing. There was already a line, owing to Ojai Rotie’s utterly craveable array of salads (get the purslane tabbouleh, $10) Lebanese-inspired dips (the muhammara and roasted eggplant are particularly deserving of the chef’s kiss emoji, $16 each or three for $28), za’atar-dusted flatbread ($7, it comes with the spread of dips), and rotisserie chicken ($16 and up). “Dessert here or shall we walk?” asked Nicole. We elected to keep the car in its free parking spot and meander down the street to Ojai Ice Cream.

Until: “Oooh wait, can we stop in here?”

I don’t know who said it first, because over the course of the next two hours, we all did. Ojai is a vacation shopper’s paradise. On one side of Ojai Avenue: Fig Curated Living, a treasure trove of home goods, like earthen mugs emblazoned with iconic lyrics (“I will survive,” $24), Ali Golden, an on-trend women’s clothing store, and Tala Design, another homewares store where Nicole convinced me to buy a smoked glass candle holder I didn’t know I needed ($80). The real damage was done at Danski Ojai, where dresses fanned out from tightly packed racks. “The owner hand selects everything from designers around the world,” said Rosemary, the sales associate behind the register. “That dress,” the Kandinsky-esque number I had been eyeing, “is from Japan. It’s made of recycled plastic bottles.”

She had me at Japan. “I can’t believe I didn’t know about any of these places,” I told Ritu and Nicole, as we walked back to the car, laden with purchases, ice cream forgone. In previous visits, I’d been fixated on other attractions, like drinking wine at Tipple & Ramble, a wine bar and market off Ojai Avenue, getting a prime table at Nocciola, an Italian restaurant in a Craftsman-style house, and trawling the Sunday Farmer’s Market, where, when in season, local pixie tangerines and avocados reign.

On this trip, we discovered a divine dish of clams and spaghettone at Olivella, the Ojai Valley Inn’s plush Italian restaurant (tasting menus start at $95 for three courses), wine tasting rooms with a B.Y.O. food policy, which is what happened when we merged lunch (takeout salads, $17, from the Nest) with a wine flight at the Ojai Vineyard, a light-filled hangout across the street. We discovered that the approximate mile and a half walk between the Ojai Valley Inn and downtown can be as much of a workout as hiking the Shelf Road trail, especially if you’re toting bags full of used books. We found places to try next time: Pinyon, a wood-fired pizzeria and natural wine shop that opened last fall, and Rory’s Place, a farm-to-table restaurant that opened in January.

Before heading back to Los Angeles, we had dinner at another new restaurant: the Dutchess, which specializes in Burmese and Indian food. Opened in January, it sprawls out over three airy rooms and a large back patio. “This place looks like an embassy in Bali,” said Ritu, running a hand over a cane-backed chair. After shoveling forkfuls of crispy rice salad ($18) and lamb biryani encased in puff pastry ($31) we climbed into Nicole’s car for the ride back to Los Angeles We’d planned to set off before it got dark; the day got the better of us.

“Look,” Nicole said, catching my eye in the rearview mirror. “The pink moment’s behind you.” I turned around; swaths of salmon streaked the darkening sky. The glow carried for miles.

Sheila Yasmin Marikar

2022-06-29 14:32:59

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