by Guest Guru Nancy Geller
If romance is your goal, Ojai is your destination. And it all starts with a sunset. It’s a fleeting occurrence, but sunset in Ojai is just about as stunning as it gets. Twelve miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, the city of Ojai lies in a small valley, north of Ventura and east of Santa Barbara. Since Ojai is aligned with an east-west mountain range, it’s one of few spots on earth that have a “Pink Moment” just as the sun is setting. The vanishing sun creates a ribbon of pink for several minutes on the bluffs at the east end of the Ojai Valley. It is a romantic, rare and resplendent moment that can only happen in Ojai.
DAY 1: THE MAZE OF BOOKS
Park your car, stash the keys and rent a bike from the best rental spot in the area, Bicycles of Ojai. Ojai is ideal for tooling around on two wheels – the main drag stretches a mere dozen blocks. The shops, art galleries, restaurants, and the fabulous Ojai Valley Trail are best seen from atop a bicycle. First on your list, Bart’s Books (established 1964). Yes, there’s yoga, a famous music festival, great local food and acres of citrus groves and avocado trees, but what keeps me coming back to Ojai is that bookstore. Tucked around and under a 420-year-old Oak tree, the outdoor used bookstore is positively spilling over with books. Framed by the Topa Topa Mountains, walking into Bart’s Books is a little like walking through one of those meditation labyrinths – everywhere you turn, there’s another nook to discover and another pile of books to examine.
Stash your new stack of libros in your bike basket and ride the five blocks to the family-run Knead Baking Company for a lemon-ricotta tart or a salty peanut and dark chocolate cookie. Using local ingredients such as seasonal fruit and orange-tangerine honey, the caloric splurge definitely warrants seconds at Knead.
DAY 2: MASSAGE AND MEATBALLS
Book a room in the village at The Lavender Inn, a charming renovated 1874 schoolhouse, or if you’re in the mood to lose yourself in luxury, I recommend The Ojai Valley Inn and Spa. The spectacular landscape and original architecture, beautiful pools, a first-rate golf course and an abundance of open space make this the perfect spot for a romantic getaway. And, did I mention the spa? Look for the Moroccan fountain, 50-foot bell tower and gorgeous outdoor fireplace and get ready for some serious relaxation. The 31,000 square-foot spa is definitely a splurge, but I gladly pay the asking price for the Shangri-La Body Treatment. Spend the rest of the day sacked out at the spa pool and try not to snore too loudly.
It’s time for dinner, so stop at the ATM to grab some cash (‘cause they don’t take credit cards) and drive down to the other side of Ojai Avenue and have dinner at Boccali’s. Quite possibly one of my favorite restaurants, Boccali’s is, in a word, delicious. Super friendly mom ‘n’ pop service combined with near-perfect spaghetti and meatballs, garlic bread, pizza, and lasagna make this a top destination for locals and tourists alike. The uber-fresh strawberry shortcake has a cult following, and I’m proud to be a member.
DAY 3: A FOODIE’S DAY IN PARADISE
Remember, Ojai sits in a valley filled with citrus groves. The gentle wind from the Pacific sends an aromatic breeze of lemons, oranges, grapefruits, and tangerines throughout the town. To experience the magic of the locally-grown ingredients in person, drive through the upper valley on State 150, a narrow farm road that runs through the orchards. Your reward? The lingering smell of stone fruit blossoms that will truly make you appreciate what comes next in your day.
Head over to the Ojai Culinary School, located inside The Lavender Inn. Take your pick of classes taught by local artisanal chefs. Courses range from olive oil tastings to instruction on brining and roasting your holiday turkey. If you’re in town on a Sunday, don’t miss the Ojai Farmer’s Market – an out-of-this-world food adventure that offers outrageous chicken tamales, bracing shots of wheatgrass and that Ojai classic, Pixie tangerines. Also worth a visit is the Casa Barranca Tasting Room, located in downtown Ojai’s historic arcade. This certified organic winery offers wine flights guaranteed to wet your whistle. And if you’re still hungry, splurge on dinner at Suzanne’s Cuisine, a local gem operated by a mother and daughter who seriously know how to cook. The crab and corn cake with a light lemon cream sauce and the Bouillabaisse are not to be missed. Finish off your night with the Pink Moment Martini at Jimmy’s Pub. For us food lovers, it doesn’t get much better than this.
DAY 4: COMMUNE WITH NATURE
Pack a local, organic and sustainable picnic from the deli at Rainbow Bridge Market and head for the hills. Order a grilled free-range chicken burger and delectable chocolate peanut butter smoothie to fortify you for your 8-mile hike on the Pratt Trail Loop, leading to the Nordhoff Ridge above Ojai. To get to the trailhead, drive to just west of the north end of N. Signal Street. Each footstep brings spectacular views of the Ojai Valley, coastal mountains, and the Channel Islands. Bring water and an extra layer or two to protect yourself from the wind on the Ridge.
If the Pratt Loop seems a bit too ambitious, check out the super-secret Natural Hot Springs in Matilija Canyon. The hot springs bubble with mineral sulfur water, and (once the smell of rotten eggs has faded) you’re in for a treat that will soothe your body, mind and spirit. Although you might spot the occasional elderly nudist if you’re headed to the springs at night, going after sunset is well worth it. You and your honey on a night swim in the mountains? One of the most romantic moments on this planet, by far.
To get there, follow Maricopa Hwy (CA-33) north for about 3.8 miles from Ojai until you see cars parked in the right shoulder. Once parked, the trail is a moderate 3 mile round trip, including creek walking, swimming and a single track trail with some elevation gain. As always, tread lightly, stay on the trail and haul out what you bring in with you.
To cap off your excursions and exertions and seal the romantic deal, head back to The Ojai Valley Inn, claim a spot around one of the outdoor fire pits and order a round of Gourmet S’mores. Melted chocolate and moonlight – what a treat.
DAY 5: HAPPY TRAILS
Make your last day in town one to remember. Wake up early, hit the Ojai Café Emporium for a delicious order of Huevos Rancheros and breathe in the fresh air on their spacious patio. Then it’s time to hit the trails for a two-hour ride atop one of the beautiful horses at Ojai Valley Trail Riding Company located on a down-home ranch full of peacocks, pigs, rabbits, and, of course, horses. The sensitive, well-trained horses and basic instruction make for a great morning outing. The guides are experts at providing a rewarding, personalized experience, and the amazing scenery caps off the week with another awesome Ojai experience.
Before you drive off into the sunset, stop for dinner at the romantic and delicious Osteria Monte Grappa. Relax on the beautiful patio, enjoy the warm bread and olive oil and…just listen. Yes, the food is divine, but what I love most about this restaurant is that it is, well, quiet. After the deafening din of many “hot” restaurants in the city, Osteria Monte Grappa is a haven of serenity and calm. Ah, yes, the food. Dynamite insalata crespanese (radicchio and beet salad), costine d’agnello alla menta (rack of lamb chops with mint pesto and polenta) and tiramisu to top off your night.
And now it’s time to hit the road back home to reality. Operation Romance in Ojai? Mission accomplished.
If you have your own tips and recommendations about Ojai and the surrounding beach communities that you’d like to share, feel free to add your own comments to our blog below. We’d love to hear from you.
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