The writer’s daughter enjoying an alfresco meal at Farmer and the Cook. // © 2014 Chelsee Lowe
Feature image (above): Surrounded by orchards and mountains, Ojai, Calif., is known for its serene beauty. // © 2014 Chelsee Lowe
As a parent living in Los Angeles, I’m often on the lookout for escapes that don’t involve flights, lengthy drives or teeming crowds. Southern California is blessed with any number of destinations that fit this bill, from Laguna Beach to Joshua Tree National Park. But a recent trip to Ojai, Calif., bumped the small valley town up to the top of my list.
Situated about 80 miles from the City of Angels and 15 miles from the Pacific coast, the scenic Ojai Valley was once a part of Chumash territory. Boxed in by the Sulphur and Topatopa mountains, the area is home to bountiful oak trees, organic farms and a Mediterranean climate that’s conducive to growing oranges and avocados. And when in season, seedless Ojai pixie tangerines are not to be missed.
The town is also a spiritual and artistic hub, drawing craftsmen, New Age thinkers and yogis. Outdoor enthusiasts abound as well, thanks to miles of biking and hiking trails and opportunities to catch a “pink moment” — a sunset that casts the neighboring Topatopa Bluff in a rose-like hue.
And while daily life in Ojai moves at a low-key and family-friendly pace, it’s anything but stagnant. According to Veronica Cole, director of public relations and marketing for Ojai Visitors Bureau, the town is enjoying increased and more diverse attention lately, from international travel agents, millennials and more.
“We have a number of loyal locals who visit from nearby target markets — San Francisco, LA, Santa Barbara and Orange County, for example — and we have been securing a lot of great media coverage both domestically and internationally,” Cole said. “With that, a lot of new groups are taking notice. People from Chicago and New York are reaching out to us. We’re seeing many young families, too. All of this is bringing fresh energy here, which I love.”
Following are a few fun activity, accommodation and dining ideas that Cole and I agree make for an easy, breezy Ojai visit with kids.
WHAT TO DO
Parks can be key to survival when traveling with kids, and Ojai has no shortage of green spaces that are great for an hour or two of active play.
Libbey Park, located in the town’s main village along Ojai Avenue, offers swings, suspension bridges and slides, not to mention tennis courts and the recently renovated Libbey Bowl, a performance stage for different events throughout the year, including the annual Ojai Music Festival. The park is named for early civic leader and glass mogul Edward Libbey, who gifted the land to a city civic association back in 1917. For a larger space with additional play areas, a dog park, horseshoe pits and equestrian arenas, parents can drive two miles east to Soule Park.
The Mob Shop
To get even further afield, pop into neighborhood bike store, The Mob Shop. Housed in a renovated gas station on the corner of Ojai Avenue and Ventura Street, The Mob Shop is staffed by cycling enthusiasts who patiently outfit guests for trail and road rides. They also offer worry-free guided tours. Beginners might cycle the Ojai Valley Trail, a smooth ride that leads to the coastline in Ventura, or the 9-mile East End Loop to a spot known as Thacher Hill.
For older children and more advanced cyclists, shop co-owner Tim Rhone recommends any number of mountain-bike trails that take riders to Ventura River Preserve or along Highway 33 into Los Padres National Forest.
Ojai Certified Farmers' Market
If you’re visiting Ojai on a Sunday, don’t miss the morning farmers' market on Matilija Street, just north of Ojai Avenue and behind the village shopping arcade. Here, local farmers chat with shoppers over fruit and fresh-cut flowers. I enjoyed taking in the variety of produce and blooms, many of which I had never seen before. My favorite flower find was a pink, coral-like beauty called cockscomb. In the background, folk bands pluck banjos, and natural meat purveyors call out what’s on hand that day.
WHERE TO EAT
Ojai’s temperate climate lends itself to keeping outdoors, so many cafes offer spacious patios for pleasant alfresco meals.
Boccali's Pizza and Pasta
Boccali’s Pizza and Pasta, set about 2 miles east of the main village, has been serving fans since 1986, offering umbrella-clad picnic tables for seating and strawberry shortcake when in season. The restaurant draws especially big crowds in September during Boccali’s annual tomato festival and around Halloween, when a pumpkin patch, hay rides and a corn maze for tots pulls in families from all around.
Knead Baking Company
Back in the village, Knead Baking Company impresses with its selection of homemade artisan buns, flatbreads, bagels, sweets and more. Sandwich breads are also made on-site, from super-soft brioche buns to crunchy Italian rolls, and other ingredients are often organic and locally grown. Open for breakfast and lunch, Knead Baking Company is a great stop for a casual meal or for picking up on-the-go snacks.
Farmer and the Cook
West of town in the Meiners Oaks neighborhood, Farmer and the Cook has made a name for itself over the years with its vegetarian Mexican cafe menu on weekdays — think Swiss and chard enchiladas with chili-pumpkin seed sauce — as well as its weekend menu, which includes pizza fired in a clay oven. There’s a tiny organic market inside, plus some seating. But the storefront patio is definitely the place to be, with weathered, mismatched furniture resting under twinkling lights. My daughter loved bouncing on a giant velvet armchair whilst eating her muffin and sipping fresh-squeezed orange juice.
WHERE TO STAY
There are two main options of places to stay when visiting Ojai, each with distinct charm.
Ojai Valley Inn & Spa
Ojai Valley Inn & Spa is known far and wide to be a stunning property, a 220-acre swath of land outside of the main village. There’s an 18-hole golf course, an award-winning spa, tennis courts, four pools (one of which is for families) and a cottage for art and apothecary classes. There’s also Camp Oak, an adorable kids' club venue with a giant fish tank, pint-sized lounge furniture, a sandbox and an epic play structure. Themed daily programming is available for children ages 5 to 12, at an additional cost. The Mob Shop also has a bike rental kiosk here, making it easy for resort guests to hop on two wheels and explore.
Ojai Rancho Inn
Ojai Rancho Inn, a reimagined motor hotel closer to town, is a more intimate and completely different setting, though still fun for families. Hip, cabin-like rooms and suites feature paneled walls, log beds and locally made art. Some add Jacuzzi tubs, while others include quaint kitchens. Select rooms have adjoining doors, making them a good option for families traveling with older children.
And while the inn’s retro pool is currently closed pending renovations, the new bar called Chief’s Peak remains open, serving craft beer and wine to the tunes of bartender-selected vinyls. There’s only room for about eight patrons at Chief’s Peak, but unopened beverages can be brought back to rooms or patios. And after a day of cycling and playing with the kids, mom and dad surely deserve a libation, whether inside or beneath the stars.