The Ojai valley is located in California 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles and 15 miles east of Santa Barbara. The 10-mile long valley runs east to west and is three miles wide, bordered on the north by the Topatopa Mountains and on the south by Sulphur Mountain.
Everything is a bit unique in here, and at the base of the valley’s anomalies is a geology that runs counter the norm. If you are like me, you probably never considered that valleys in general run in a north-south direction. Here is one of the few exceptions and the reason for what’s known as the “pink moment”. It occurs just as the sun sets, casting a rosy glow over the west-facing Topatopa mountains.
“Topa” is a word in the local Chumash Indian dialect meaning “Gopher”. So Topa Topa means gopher gopher. Unfortunately, the explanation ends there. The last Chumash native speaker passed away in 1965, and since the language was passed along orally, it has not survived. So the connection between the mountains and the local ground dwelling rodents will remain a mystery. But we do know that the Valley was named by the Chumash with the name “Awhay”, meaning moon, which eventually morphed into the modern name Ojai.
The valley’s Mediterranean climate and bountiful agriculture have long made it a local tourist destination drawing visitors from all over Southern California. Small hotels, hiking and biking trails and an abundance of fresh, mostly organically grown food have always been a strong draw for neighbors to the south seeking relief from some of the less pleasant aspects of that thriving metropolis.
A common story you will hear when talking to locals is that of the visitor moving permanently to the valley. The low-key “vibe” has attracted an eccentric mix of characters over the years. Hippies, celebrities, and spiritual seekers all made the valley their home and the resulting mix of inhabitants makes for an interesting and dynamic character.
So here are just a few of the many curious things to do in Ojai, and some of the fascinating people we encountered during our brief visit.
1 de Kor & Co.
This 2,000 square foot lifestyle retail destination, housed in a former art gallery, is just off Ojai Avenue. We are greeted by one of the owners, Isabelle Dahlin, who, with her partner Rachel Marlowe, opened de Kor & Co. in 2014.
Isabell hails from Sweden and worked as an interior designer for many years in LA. Her Scandinavian aesthetic really shows in de Kor & Co.’s selection of wares. She easily mixes mid-century furniture, vintage chandeliers, eclectic artwork, and objects that will improve any environment.
A bit of a rule breaker, Isabell has a unique way of putting things together. But the results are magical! That’s what makes browsing at de Kor & Co. so inspiring and such fun.
We found great souvenirs at de Kor & Co. Their custom-made tangerine scented candles smell of the valley’s Pixie tangerines in flower: wonderful, and a great way to remember the sights and scents of your trip when you get home.
Don’t forget to treat yourself to a lovely cup of tea from de Kor & Co.’s tea bar before heading to the next stop.
2 Farmer & Cook
This vegetarian-only Cafe is a longtime popular hangout of for locals and visitors alike. The best thing about Farmer & Cook is that all the produce comes from their own farm so you know it must be just picked. With a menu full of fresh smoothies, juices, breakfast, and Mexican fare, deciding on a dish is not easy. If it’s the weekend, come early. It gets really busy and getting a table on the patio in the sun somehow makes everything taste better.
3 Ojai Vineyard Tasting Room
Housed in the former firehouse, the Tasting Room of Ojai Vineyard is a great place to sample local and Californian wines. The vineyard has been going strong for over 30 years now and prides itself on its European-style winemaking. So for connoisseurs and novices alike, there is plenty here for hours of enjoyment.
The friendly staff is all about education, so this is a great place to fill in any gaps in your Viticulture knowledge. The outdoor area is a lovely place to while away the afternoon.
4 Porch Gallery
The stately white building at 310 East Matilija Street was built in 1874 by John Montgomery for his wife Jacobita. It used to be the homestead of 1,300 acres of orchards, land which now constitutes the City. Though greatly diminished in property, the Montgomery House is again a center of activity, but now as the home of Porch Gallery, where art is the focus of attention.
Since 2013 Heather Stobo and Lisa Casoni have made this beautiful city their home and have slowly built Porch Gallery into the local hub for contemporary art conversation. Works from a steady stream of artists from near and far regularly exhibit in the house.
Heather and Lisa are deeply embedded in the community and make sure that art is prominently featured in the daily life here. Their keen eye and enthusiasm make the gallery an essential stop on your visit.
The “porch” part of Porch Gallery makes sure that conversation and community are never forgotten in the life of the gallery. And to see this community aspect of Porch Gallery’s mission full-swing, try to plan your visit for Sunday. This is when you will find a weekly gathering, often with live music, of people talking about the vagaries of life and art. It’s a great place to meet locals and make new friends, especially after your morning visit the local Farmers’ Market just next door.
5 Beatrice Wood Centre of the Arts
Atop a magnificent hill at the east end of the Ojai valley sits the former home of artist, Beatrice Woods, now the Beatrice Wood Centre of the Arts.
Woods was born in 1893 to a wealthy family in San Francisco. To pursue her artistic interests, she moved to Paris where she studied art, dance and acting. Returning from Paris, Woods moved to New York where she became friends with artist Marcel Duchamp and became part of the Dada movement. Her contributions to the movement eventually earned her the title, Mother of Dada.
Hearing the spiritual leader Jidda Krishnamurti speak in the valley in 1947, she decided to leave New York and move here. Quickly becoming a major player in the local art scene, she lived here until her death at the ripe old age of 105.
From art to outdoors activities to historical monuments and much more, things to do in Ojai abound!
Her house is relatively unaltered from when she lived there. She maintained a fully functional ceramics studio in the house and this space is packed with her work. The old rotary phone on the wall still bears the marks of clay-covered hands grasping to catch a call. Though unused, we are told that the phone still rings occasionally. Maybe Beatrice is checking up on things.
Though many who read this may think they have never heard of Beatrice Woods, I can say with confidence you are wrong. The Woods who studied theater in Paris and then moved to New York was the inspiration for the free-spirited daughter that broke with convention to become an artist, Rose DeWitt Bukater, in James Cameron’s 1997 epic, Titanic.
Beatrice Wood Centre of the Arts now honors her memory with a museum, occasional talks, and hands-on workshops. Through its public outreach, the centre is slowly bringing notice to this famous artist and longtime resident.
In later life when asked how she stayed young Beatrice replied: “I owe it all to chocolate and young men”. I am sure living in this amazing valley helped as well.
6 Bart’s Book
A bookstore like no other, Bart’s Books began in 1964 when Richard Bartinsdale’s collection of books became so large that he decided to construct a series of bookcases along the sidewalk. The books were for sale but he was not expecting much traffic, so instead of a cash register Richard just put out a coffee tin where people could leave money for the books they wanted.
Many years later and Bart’s quirky honesty-based bookstore has become a local legend. Today Bart’s is still independently owned and true to its origins, outdoors.
7 The Mob Shop
If you are a biking aficionado, this place is your nirvana. Amazing mountain ranges are crisscrossed with trails, and well-maintained roads wind up into the hills in every direction. To get started with all this outdoor excitement you need only visit The Mob Shop, Ojai’s friendly bike shop.
We stopped in to meet Tim Rhone, one of Mob’s two partners. If a slow cruise around town if your speed how about renting one of Mob’s trendy Linus bikes.
If rugged mountain biking is more to your liking, Mob has organized biking tours for all skill levels. Tours usually consist of 2 to 6 people and all the equipment you need; bike, helmet, water bottle, and gloves are all included in the price. A supply of some local citrus fruits, for which the area is famous, is even included. Custom tours can also be arranged but you need to set them up at least a week in advance. Tim and the rest of the crew at Mob are super helpful and very knowledgeable about bikes and the best spots to ride during your stay.
We suggest you reach out in advance of your visit and see what Mob can arrange for your outdoor activities.
8 Tipple & Ramble
Sune Goldsteen’s Tipple & Ramble is a picnic and culinary supply shop by day and a happening wine bar at night. It’s a fun spot to check out. The garden is wonderful and hanging out there at the end of the day with some charcuterie and a crisp glass of wine is a pure delight.
Definitely worth adding to your to-do list. And you might also find some lovely gifts to bring home.
9 Ojai Olive Oil
At the east end of the valley is the Asquith family farm. In 1996, Ronald Asquith and his wife, Alice de Dadelsen, bought 50 acres that were originally settled by a Dutch family connected to the nearby Spanish mission.
When early Spanish missionaries discovered the valley they quickly figured out that the climate was similar to their homeland where olive trees have thrived for many years. Olive trees don’t require much water and are relatively easy to maintain so they are a perfect crop to provide nourishment and oil for a mission eking out a tenuous existence in a foreign land. And some of those early trees are still bearing fruit today.
Originally the olive grove consisted entirely of a Spanish variety called Lecin de Sevilla. But since acquiring the groves, the Asquiths have diversified their crop by adding French and Italian varieties, making possible a set of diverse products, from edibles to skin care.
Day-to-day management of the farm has been taken up by Ron and Alice’s son Philip, who is overseeing the farm’s development with considerable success. In fact, Philip just returned from New York where their Olive Oil won gold for their wonderful ‘Provencale’ oil.
The tasting room is set in the heart of the olive groves with tables scattered around beneath the old trees. Visiting is a special experience. You would think you were in Italy, just without the jet lag.
Make sure you purchase some Ojai Olive Oil to take home. Take it from me, the lovely blue bottles look great on the kitchen counter. And I am so glad to discover that there is a burgeoning premium organic olive oil industry growing in the US.
10 Summer Camp
Who doesn’t have fond memories of summer camp? Campfires, marshmallows, canoeing, handicrafts … the memories make you feel like a kid again. Wouldn’t it be great if we could still go?
Husband and wife team Rachel and Mike Graves agree. They even went as far as to create a whole concept store around the idea. After acquiring an abandoned gas station along the main thoroughfare, Rachel and Mike divided the space and each curated half according to their interest. Rachel’s half is a carefully curated collection of tools, objects, paraphernalia, and ephemera generally on the theme of American outdoor activities. Mike’s passion is for framing and his half is fitted out with sample displays and the framing shop.
This arbitrary space allocation, while quite distinct in practice, is naturally a bit leaky. It is clear when visiting that Rachel and Mike play in each other’s business and what makes the combined shop so interesting is where the overlaps occur.
Next to their selection of vintage finds, Summer Camp wholeheartedly supports the Made-in-America craft movement with a great selection of wares from micro-producers. Summer Camp’s stock is ever-evolving, so you never know what you will find. Check out Rachel’s successful Instagram feed to get an idea of what you might like. Call ahead and maybe they will put something aside for you.
A few good things to know before your visit: This is not a late-night party town. It’s a quiet place to enjoy nature recharge your batteries. Weather wise, it’s always nice, but it does get quite warm in July and August.
It’s easy to get to. Whether by land or air, there are a variety of transportation options. Both Los Angeles and Santa Barbera airports have easy bus/taxi connections available. Santa Barbera is of course, much closer.
Need to book a place to stay? Here are some local accommodations that we liked:
1. Su Nido Inn: A mission style hotel arranged around a breezy courtyard just off Ojai Avenue. Nice staff, spacious rooms.
2. Lavender Inn: A favorite with Wedding parties. This former schoolhouse dates back to 1874. It is a lovely place to relax and rest. We liked the afternoon Tapas, and breakfast in the main dining room downstairs is a real treat.
3. Rancho Inn: Popular with the young hip crowd, this is one of the three properties of the Shelter Social Club that is fast gaining a loyal fan base. The pool is great, and make sure you swing by the nearby Chiefs Peak bar.
Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger
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