The entryway of The Ojai Ranch House restaurant is Eden-like. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

The oasis that is Ojai

Relaxation, recreation, great dining at Ventura retreat

Located east of Santa Barbara in Ventura County, Ojai — meaning “the nest” in Chumash, a Native American language — is known for a variety of recreational activities, spiritual and yoga retreats and art galleries. It’s also happily devoid of shopping malls and large-scale development.

Folklore has it that Ojai Valley was a sacred land sought out for its energy and healing powers. The Topa Topa Mountains provide the backdrop for “the pink moment” at sunset. Together with the valley’s beauty, the environment’s peacefulness provides an ever-present positive calming force.

This tranquil haven, an easy one-hour drive from Santa Barbara and two hours from Los Angeles, easily explains why Hollywood glitterati have been coming to Ojai since the 1930s.

The bed

Spread over 220 acres of majestic rolling hills with bucolic Topa Topa Mountain views, the Ojai Valley Inn, known as OVI, has graced the area with various owners for almost 100 years, including a serving a stint as a military training center during World War II.

OVI has 303 rooms, most with fireplace and terraces. Nearly 500 square feet, my room was large with a walk-in closet bigger than my first East Coast apartment. Bathrooms have dual vanity sinks and separate soaking tubs. My balcony overlooked the verdant greens of the George C. Thomas, Jr.-designed golf course. Excellent bedding coupled with the area’s deep silence made sleep easy. The in-room Illy coffeemaker made waking up a snap.

The property boasts four pools, one adult only, two at the spa and one family pool. During summer months there are outdoor movies. Complimentary Linus bikes are available. The dedicated bike path is a pleasant one-mile ride to town. OVI’s center feels like a small village with Libbey’s Boutique, Cafe, Jimmy’s Pub and Wallace Neff Heritage Bar, named after the architectural giant, all facing expansive greens. Also on-site are the Artist Cottage and Apothecary where a variety of classes are offered. https://www.ojaivalleyinn.com

The meals

One of the most memorable recent evenings I can recall took place at The Ojai Ranch House with its long and storied history and inspired food.

Seventy-five years ago, Alan and Helen Hooker opened the restaurant. They were friends and followers of Indian spiritual philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. Aldous Huxley was also a good friend who ate here regularly.

Another close friend, world-renown artist, ceramicist and playwright Beatrice Wood, whose portrait photos with those of Huxley and Krishnamurti grace the bar and restaurant, collaborated with the Hookers on several endeavors, including drawing the illustrations for Alan’s cookbooks. Paul Newman extolled its virtues, saying, “The Ojai Ranch House is the best restaurant in the world…[and] Pardon me as I need to go there now.”

Completely unassuming from the exterior, it’s an utterly magical place into which diners enter. On the right is a fountain made of broken ceramic shards from Beatrice’s studio. Towering bamboo stand at attention while fuchsia, violet and white roses, wisteria, eucalyptus, orange and lemon trees all compete for nature’s grandeur. With calming ethereal beauty, it’s a living, breathing, Eden-like atmosphere. Then there is the food.

Originally hailing from Ventura, Denver-trained executive chef Logan DeBone has maintained two of Hooker’s original dishes: the crab cakes and the famous Cognac-laced pate. Creamy and delectable, it alone is worth the drive to Ojai from anywhere on planet earth.

Diners can select three- or five-course tasting menus ($50 or $60), with a $30 local wine flight add-on. In keeping with Hookers’ legacy, vegans will doubtlessly rejoice, as there’s an exquisite five-course vegan tasting menu at $60.

I detest peas, but my arm was twisted into trying the chilled mint, avocado and peas soup du jour. Thank goodness I did. Velvety smooth and refreshingly marvelous, other than its color, it contained virtually no indicia of peas.

Grilled, locally sourced rockfish — from the nearly Channel Islands — served with fruit salsa and grilled asparagus, tasted like a divine coastal summer evening. The flourless chocolate cake with spicy bark brought home once again that never in this lifetime would I ever be a size zero. Stop by the bar on your way out and pick up a copy of Alan Hooker’s “Herb Cookery” and enjoy not only the recipes and history, but also Beatrice’s whimsical drawings. http://theranchhouse.com

Entering through OVI’s Wallace Neff Bar is Olivella, OVI’s signature restaurant. Its California casual design is complemented by its hilltop position, providing glorious valley views that mirrors its cuisine: California farm weds northern Italy.

Homemade pastas such as lobster cappellacci and traditional rigatoni Bolognese coupled with delicious homemade breads will make any long distance runner’s carbo-loading aspirations complete. The perfectly cooked New York steak was tender and flavorful.

The finds

In the middle of the charming town of Ojai is Libbey Park, an open-air expanse that breathes life right into the town center. Walking along East Ojai Avenue, Spanish Colonial Revival-style arches provide shade to stroll shops and galleries.

If you have a foot fetish, Ojai Village Pharmacy has a cool selection of colorful socks with hilarious sentiments such as “My favorite salad is wine” and “Plants get me.”

For those traveling with Fido or Fluffy ­— and happily OVI is pet friendly — on the third Friday of each month, Brittany Davis Gallery hosts artist Kathryn Pitt who does pet portraits for $60. https://www.brittanydavisgallery.com

The work of 36 local artists is displayed at OVA Arts. Beautiful and unusual beaded artwork by Sherri Ohnemus and Sherri Sanchez were on offer along side gorgeous knitted items by owner Tanya Burke. https://ojaivalleyartists.com

OVI’s Spa Village is a true oasis sandwiched in between two pools. With a complete fitness center, separate exercise studio with several daily scheduled classes and dedicated, 16-bike spinning room, it’s easy to stay all day. The TRX class I took followed by a sports massage were both excellent. For light fare, OVI’s Spa Cafe has smoothies and protein plates.

If in need of a body of water and traveling with kids, Lake Casitas is about 15-minutes away and has a good-sized water park. Also nearby, Channel Islands National Park and Ventura Beaches. If additional retail therapy is required, head to Santa Barbara.

The lesson learned

The unconventional Beatrice Wood lived to be 105. When asked the secrets to her longevity, “chocolates and young men” were her stated reasons. While that may not be a universal truth, certainly a few days spent in Ojai will be restorative, peaceful and delicious. Whether you come for a weekend holiday or midweek escape, you’ll soon discover yet one more slice of California heaven.

Julie L. Kessler is a travel writer, attorney and legal columnist based in Los Angeles and the author of the award-winning book “Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com.

Some vendors listed hosted the writer. Content was not reviewed by them prior to publication and is solely the opinion of the writer.

 

OVI’s Olivella terrace overlooking the Ojai Valley is a great place to catch a glimpse of the “pink moment.” (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Fresh rockfish caught off the nearby Channel Islands is menu highlight at the Ranch House. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Cognac-laced pate is one of Alan Hooker’s original Ranch House recipes. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Ojai Ranch House executive chef Logan DeBone is a Ventura native. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Visitors will find a peaceful setting in OVI’s Artist Cottage and Apothecary. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Nearby Lake Casitas has several recreational activities including a waterpark. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Ojai’s landmark post office is on East Ojai Avenue. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

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