That magical, mystical valley town of Ojai is (still!) a perfect California escape.
OJAI, California — Even from a safe distance, following news of the Thomas Fire setting in on Ojai was terrifying. Stories of Ventura County's ravaged wild and farmed land, destroyed property, and harried evacuations flooded my feeds that first week of December. Those of us who love the small, mystical town feared its residents and the famed "Pink Moment" at sunset would never be the same. Now months after the fire, some are still wondering if Ojai is open for business.
Yes, indeed, it is.
While scarred hillsides are still visible at every turn, so are signs of recovery. The result is a Tolkien Mordor-meets-The-Shire effect, which unsurprisingly, Ojai pulls off compellingly. New growth populates hillside surfaces along trails like Horn Canyon, as resilient ecosystems are wont to do. While the scope, timing, and other particulars related to the Thomas Fire felt unnatural — we SoCal natives are used to wildfires, but never, ever in December — the broad sweep of flame and heat is part of nature's regenerative cycle.
The town itself was protected by the fierce bravery of the firefighters who fought for Ojai's survival, as well as some serious energy that, according to one friend, seemed to will the winds to stop just as the flames nearly licked downtown and the more populated areas.
Nature's message was clear: Don't f*$% with #Ojaistrong juju.
Everyone from unorthodox spiritual seekers to avid golfers agree Ojai merits a road trip. But spring is generally my favorite season, when the famed pixie tangerines are in season and other citrus trees are popping off with intoxicatingly fragrant blossoms.
If it's a classic American auto-centric experience you're after on your next journey, Caravan Outpost has been the place to go since mid-2016. (It helped us to be behind the wheel of a Ford SUV to get through a sudden downpour en route on the 101. You can also take PCH from L.A. for a longer, more scenic drive.) With ten restored cushy Airstreams and one equally endearing and cozy tiny house, Caravan Outpost's setup is ideal for anyone who loves the idea of camping or an outdoorsy experience, but has no interest in the reality (ahem). Sit around the nightly campfire built in the landscaped communal area while you roast marshmallows and get to know fellow guests, and then retreat to your own trailer, where strategically located and dense plantings separate each Airstream providing needed privacy from your new friends.
Classic Ojai joints, such as Bart's Books, Boccali's Italian restaurant and the ultra-luxe Ojai Valley Inn and Spa, continue to thrive alongside relatively recent newcomers. The old guard and the cool kids all play well together, perhaps thanks to a bond nurtured by the Ojai Valley's alleged spiritual vortex. Ojai Rancho Inn's Chief's Peak bar, DeKor home boutique, DIY emporium Cattywampus Crafts, Beacon Coffee, and Tipple & Ramble's hybrid decor/kitchen shop/patio bar concept (we're down with all those things) easily fill up a relaxed, fulfilling day.
Add to these spots a list of enticing newer openings. Revel kombucha bar takes its wellness elixir business seriously, offering proper tastings of 'booch flights. At The Nest, you will find expertly prepared, elevated farm-to-table fare by chef and co-owner Kiona Wachter (who revived her family's long-dormant local restaurant brand) served out of a walk-up window. I'm still dreaming of the fried chicken sandwich and Wachter's farro risotto with fresh English peas, lemon zest, and grilled shrimp eaten on a causal outdoor patio. Restaurateur Spoon Singh's Ojai Harvest downtown serves hearty eats that feel Earth-goddess-approved in a space designed by Channon Roe of chic lifestyle boutique In the Field.
With all these friendly, welcoming venues licensed to serve beer, wine, and locavore-oriented cocktails (don't miss the Ojai Vineyard tasting room, by the way), opportunities to toast the Pink Moment — which thankfully continues and thrives apace.