I don’t usually review staycations from therestlessroad, as I typically veer towards the exotic – and Ojai is only a modicum of fascinating. However, it’s been far too long since I’ve written – not since Elana and I took that car trip from Denver to Mount Rushmore in September 2014. It’s 2015, and I thought writing about my weekend adventure in the rolling hills North West of Los Angeles would be a good way to ring in the New Year. As always, I hope your New Year (and mine too) is filled with adventure and exotic, restless roads unfolding ever before your weary yet impetuous feet.
My New Year’s Eve was spontaneously awesome. After stopping at a family friends house for a lovely dinner, I met my friends to spend the night on a catamaran in the Channel Islands Harbor. Greetings from the yacht!
As I’m originally from Los Angeles (Westlake Village, to be exact), I visit quite frequently – as much as four times per year. Thanksgiving and Christmas are a must (unless I can convince my parents to spend Thanksgiving wherever I happen to be, which has actually happened a few times in the past – Boston, Raleigh, Charleston); and then I typically also visit once in the late summer for my mother’s birthday, and once around Father’s Day. I like to tell me friends that Los Angeles is a great place to be from. Moreover, it’s a great place to still have family, and a retreat from the icy grips of winter in whatever frigid city this Californian finds herself in. My current city is Denver, which I happen to love. Full disclaimer – I’ve only been here since August. But I’m already feeling at home with the hipsters, hippies, mountain men, cowboys, sports fanatics, and nature lovers that call themselves Denverites. Thanks to my full-time job at Travelport (located in Centennial, CO), I’ve made some fast friends with other travel fanatics that also happen to work in the travel industry. Denver is centrally located, making it easy to get anywhere in the country (less easy hopping the pond to Europe). It’s less than a two hour flight to LAX, which means I may even be in sunny SoCal more than usual in 2015. Incidentally, the flight between DEN and LAX has some AMAZING views. Check out this one over what I think is Utah – and those three alien lights? Weird right?
This year’s Christmas was cozy, filled with delicious food, delicious family, and 80 degree Los Angeles days. The only thing that made it better was our New Year’s getaway to Ojai, CA to recuperate from the holiday craze and relax with spa and golf (golf seemed like a good idea at the time, but it never did materialize). Ojai is located at the foot of the Topa Topa mountain range, just a slight detour (20 minutes) from the 101 freeway en route to Santa Barbara (heading West/North). From my hometown (Westlake Village/Thousand Oaks), there’s also a convenient and beautiful back way to avoid the beach traffic that weaves through Moorpark, Fillmore, and Santa Paula. We headed up to Ojai via the 101 and came back the back way (it only seemed fitting). Ojai is known for a slower pace of life, and is home to what my parents call wealthy hippies. Those Central Coast, NoCal, and SoCal entrepreneurs and business tycoons that decided enough was enough and retired in to the hills. There’s also a healthy quantity of nature lovers, spiritual masters, yogis, fitness enthusiasts, wine lovers, artisans, artists, poets, musicians, chefs, and would-be-any-of-the-previous. In other words, it’s a pretty creative place.
Nestled so close to Santa Barbara and still within a stone’s throw as the crow flies from Los Angeles proper, Ojai is a popular getaway for many in the Southland and Central coast who need to recharge, contemplate, create, love, or play. Even I had spent a Summer in Ojai between my Sophomore and Junior year in High School, when I was a super-nerd into astrophysics. I attended a very special summer program, called the Summer Science Program (SSP), which at the time was hosted by the Thacher School just outside the main town of Ojai. It was a pivotal moment in my life and led me down the path to major in physics and attend Duke University. Incidentally, SSP is still thriving today, although no longer in California – the Board has just announced that it will be relocated to the University of Colorado Boulder (UCB) going forward, a skip and a jump from me in Denver. Sometimes fate just brings your life full circle. I recently volunteered at the Annual SSP Fundraising Dinner, on the UCB campus – at the planetarium to be precise.
It feels nice to be back home with my nerd posse and fellow stargazers. I also marvel to see how many accomplished and interesting alumni graduated from my very same SSP. SSP, then and now, is a deeply humbling experience.
Therefore there are sentimental reasons why I have a soft spot for Ojai too. Most people that visit Ojai feel the same way, but for wildly different personal reasons.
We arrived to the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa on Jan 2, 2014, around 230PM. Although check-in was at 4PM, we were hoping a room would be available for us since my mother and I had spa appointments at 4 o’clock also. A valet promptly parked the car and explained the elaborate process for checking in and then relocating the car to the correct corner of the property, depending on the location of the room. Unfortunately, the room wasn’t ready, so we decided to move the car to near the golf course for the time being and take a stroll on the grounds to kill some time. The receptionist said she would call us once the room was ready.
The grounds were expansive and well-manicured – the buildings could have used a slight update. We actually found out that, starting Jan 5, the inn would be closed for renovations – so apparently they had the same idea as us. We walked for about 45 minutes on the golf course, dodging golf balls and golf carts. We saw a family of deer that nearly got nailed by an errant golf ball. Clearly it was a bad idea to trust the golfers here.
At 315PM my mother and I set off for the spa, and issued mineral emersion, sauna and steam, prior to our (too short) 50 minute massages. I opted for the deep tissue, as usual, which did not disappoint. By the time we were finished, my father had dropped of the room key for us. We were Room 695 in the Fontana building, conveniently located near the spa. After a brief visit to the room (which was also nice, but could have used some updating, especially in the bathroom), we met my father at Jimmy’s Pub, just a short walk away. He was watching the UCLA game and, as usual had already made some friends at the bar. He was also well on his way to his 3rd tequila shot of Clase Azul, which was recommended to him by the Mexican couple he met at the bar. He greatly enjoyed it.
By the time my mother and I caught up slightly, it was time for dinner. We had reservations at 7PM in The Oak Grill, the semi-casual dining room on the property, located upstairs from Jimmy’s. The appetizers were fantastic – bacon wrapped blue-cheese-stuffed dates, roasted padron peppers (1 in 5 were spicy) and an acorn squash salad. Also not to miss was the chocolate chip bread they brought to the table. For my entrée, I was excited (and convinced by the waiter) to order the seared albacore with risotto, but was disappointed with my choice – the risotto was delicious but the fish was bland and surprisingly heavy. However, my hazelnut dark chocolate mousse cake for dessert made up for it. The dessert hit was probably my dad’s cast iron skillet cookie sundae, much like a B.J.’s Pizookie – too bad he was a little too drunk to appreciate it properly! J
We retired after dinner, around 9PM. My parents went to sleep and I stayed up to do some computer work.
The next morning, we woke up at 9AM or so and I immediately hit the gym – yoga situps and the elliptical was a great start to the day. Then I met my parents at the spa café, Café Verde, for a light breakfast and to plan out the hike we were going to take in the afternoon. Over a coffee and an egg, ham, and cheese croissant, we decided on Cozy Dell Trail, about 10 miles from the hotel in the Topa Topa mountain range in Ventura County. It was a 3 mile out and back trail of moderate intensity.
We parked at the trail head, crossed the street, and easily found the path. We started out and found that it was a fairly long climb (over an hour) up to the summit.
Not particularly steep, but just a lot of climbing – and there was ice and mud on the ground so it was slippery going. Here’s a view from the top:
The path retreats a bit downward and then climbs again and plateaus off into the dell (aka valley). The end bit was a loop but we decided to turn bad just at the loop.
Coming back we paused for a few more pictures.
At the bottom, while waiting for my parents to emerge, I walked around and took some pictures of the nearby surroundings, industry, and foliage.
I easily got my 10,000 steps in after this (probably clocked around 18,000 between the hike and the elliptical) and immediately got hungry. Back at the hotel, around 4PM, my father joined me for a fruit smoothie, some rosemary and olive oil infused popcorn, and a quinoa salad again at the spa café. Dinner wasn’t until 7PM and there was no way I was going to make it until then.
Back at the room, we all showered and got ready for our outing into the Ojai town for dinner. We arrived around 615PM to Azu. We enjoyed a few drinks at the bar, including the pear martini with real muddled pear and Grey Goose pear vodka and the local-inspired pixiecello flavored martini (it’s a small tangelo grown in Ojai, that’s processed in to a sweet liquor at Azu).
At our table, we were excited for, but a little confused by, the “tapas” menu. Some items were tapas-sized and some were not, and we needed the waiter to explain it all. We ended up ordering roasted brussel sprouts and polenta, chile relleno, and arugula & dried salad to share. For the entrées, my father and mother shared the seafood paella and I ordered the mole pulled pork. The pork was the highlight of the meal. Dessert was also scrumptious – I tried the gluten-free apple crumble with a side scoop of passion fruit gelato. Note: gluten-free doesn’t mean healthy.
We returned to the hotel around 10PM and were asleep shortly after.
The final morning we woke up around 10AM. My mother and I took a long walk around the property, checking out nooks and crannies that we previously had missed, and making it in to the labyrinthine center core where there were additional shops and restaurants. By the time we made it to reception to check out, it was around 1045AM. We walked back to the room to grab my dead, and then we all headed in to town again to enjoy the farmers market and a noon brunch.
Here are some shots from the farmers market – my favorite part was the free samples:
We came away with baskets of berries (even though they were somewhat out of season, they were still delicious).
The lavender was particularly fragrant.
Right around the corner from where we ate the night before was our brunch spot, Café Emporium. While we waited for our table, my father and I went to the bakery section and shared a famous pumpkin-raisin muffin. It was delicious.
We were lucky enough to have made reservations on the patio, which was a great move for this 70 degree day. The waitress was nice, but brunch service was slow and leisurely, with items being brought out one at a time and occasionally forgotten. But, we didn’t mind since it was a lazy Sunday. I ordered a “Migos” tortilla egg cheese scramble with added chicken sausage, hash browns and 1 blueberry pancake. The Migos was OK – kind of bland actually, but I really enjoyed the pancake. I think going the baked goods route is the best bet at this place.
After lunch, we hit the road around 130PM, taking the meandering back way back to Westlake Village through Santa Paula, Fillmore, and Moorpark. On the way, we passed lemon groves and lemoncello processing facilities, wineries, rail museums, rolling hills, biker hangouts and more. We reached Westlake around 3PM.
It was a perfect Sunday and a perfect trip.