From luxurious spas retreats to hippies with hula-hoops, Ojai packs immense personality into its 4.4 square miles. The Backroads Santa Barbara and Ojai Valley Bike Tour takes you off the beaten path to this tiny Southern Californian town, where big names like Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon have been known to reside.
Famous for its natural health and healing culture, Spanish architecture and spectacular surroundings, Ojai offers a unique blend of modern spirituality and rustic authenticity. Here, the morning dew accentuates the scents of nature. Oak trees and orange groves compete for attention throughout the valley. And scorching summer days fade into simmering sunsets, with the last of the sun's rays transforming the nearby Topatopa Mountains into a majestic purple masterpiece. Amid all this natural beauty are celebrated art galleries, wineries and shops in the town's main arcade. While there is so much to see in this perfectly quaint town, here are a few hidden gems that you certainly don't want to miss: Bart's Books: Go ahead, grab a book. All Bart's asks is that you pay by the honor system. Bart's Books is the largest outdoor bookstore in America, and its quaint, bizarre, inside-out framework is almost beyond description. Bookshelves line both the exterior and interior walls, boasting used books for 50 cents and brand new ones at retail price. The architecture is best described as a home sans hallways, rooms and a roof, with a garden growing on the inside. See why I say it's worth a visit? (302 West Matilija Street)
The Farmer & the Cook: Co-owned and operated by a farmer and, well, a cook, The Farmer & the Cook serves affordable and delicious Mexican food with a California flair. The daily menu offers dishes ranging from Swiss chard enchiladas to fresh corn tamales and acai bowls to taquitos. On weekends the menu is spiced up with savory breakfasts featuring huevos y...anything you can imagine, and in the afternoon they fire up the pizza oven for their selection of creatively topped pies. Not only is everything organic and locally sourced, but the colorful décor and down-to-earth ambiance make it a pleasant stop to fuel up before continuing your Ojai adventure. (339 West El Roblar Drive) Artist Cottage & Apothecary: Located right in the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa (where you'll stay on our trip!), Artist Cottage & Apothecary is a sanctuary of self-expression that offers a spectrum of hands-on art classes to immerse yourself in. Unlock your creativity with a watercolor class that draws inspiration from the surrounding natural beauty or a workshop on making seasonal wreaths using herbs and botanicals grown in the hotel's own garden. Aspiring artists looking for an even more Zen experience can learn to draw a personal mandala (Sanskrit for "circle") as a form of meditative introspection. (905 Country Club Road)
Ojai Meadows Preserve: Ojai is a great place to connect with nature. But you don't have to stay at a yoga center or head into nearby Los Padres National Forest to get in touch with Mother Earth. Just grab a coffee and head to Ojai Meadows Preserve for a mellow 30-minute walk through natural wetlands. It's hard to believe that just a decade ago this thriving ecosystem was filled with construction debris and invasive eucalyptus trees. Today the meadow has been restored to its natural beauty and is teeming with native plants and wildlife, like live oaks and long-tailed weasels. The preserve is located in town by Nordhoff High School; park in the turnout along Maricopa Highway. (1605 Maricopa Highway) Ojai Ice Cream & Fudge: Transporting you back your childhood and hot summer days, when ice cream would drip down the cone faster than you could eat it up, Ojai Ice Cream & Fudge will awaken your inner child. It's one of the few parlors that still makes its ice cream on-site, with flavors ranging from classic chocolate chip to local favorite Ojai orange. Located on the main road, this not-so-hidden gem offers simple pleasures to fuel the soul (and a cyclist's appetite!). (210 East Ojai Avenue)
After 13 years as a camper and then counselor at a summer camp a few miles from the town center, I've had ample time to explore all that Ojai has to offer. I found bike paths and coffee shops, bookstores and farmer's markets, and many other secret treasures, a few of which I've shared here. To this day I visit Ojai whenever I yearn to be reminded of life's simplest pleasures, and once you get to know Ojai, I think you'll want to do the same.