In Search of the Cotswolds of California: Ojai

View of the Ojai Valley from the Ojai Retreat

Within two years of moving to London, my husband and I had started taking regular weekend trips to the Cotswolds in search of some respite from city life. True to form, now that we’ve been in Los Angeles for almost two years, the search for the Cotswolds of California has begun. The criteria are the same: our weekend escape must be within a two-hour drive of the city and offer scenic outdoor activities for the day and peace and quiet for the night, good food and drink, a dose of culture, and, preferably, an assortment of eclectic locals.

Last month we headed northeast to Ojai in our quest. The drive was mostly along the PCH before heading inland near Ventura, and the approach was not as promising as I had hoped. State Road 33 was occasionally marked by dingy-looking retail in a setting of hills baked to straw from months of summer sun. As we rose in the hills, so did the temperature, reaching a crackling 90 degrees before we arrived at the hotel.

We had declined to reserve at the area’s most well-known accommodation, the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, due to the hefty price tag. (Later we visited the grounds in the vain search for a drink—despite an abundance of waiters setting up for dinner on a veranda, we failed to ever get the attention of one—and, while immaculate, it reminded me a little too much of a gated retirement community in Florida.) Instead we stayed three miles out of the center of town at the hilltop Ojai retreat, just on the edge of Meiners Oaks. The hotel is well-appointed but not luxurious. Most the rooms are individual cottages, including private patios with views of the surrounding Ojai Valley. From up here, things started to look more like the Edenistic version of California I was expecting: bluejays, bougainvillea and oleander hemmed in by groves of orange and pomegranate in the distance. It is flora and fauna as emblematic of California as rapeseed, mayblossom, and cow parsley are of the English countryside.

BookEnds Bookstore in Meiners Oaks, Ojai

After checking in, we drove into town and took refuge from the heat along the shaded pathway of the Spanish-style arcade that runs the length of the city’s central block. I stopped for a soda at the type of old-fashioned candy store that’s obligatory in quaint tourist towns. Since Ojai is a quaint California tourist town, there was also no shortage of masseurs and new-agey shops. Our requirement for a dose of culture was fulfilled just around the corner from candy store, where, at the Ojai Arts Center, preparations were underway for a performance of A Streetcar Name Desire.

For dinner, we walked the twenty minutes from our hotel into Meiners Oaks, where two couples have elevated the retail landscape with a well-appointed bookstore and an acclaimed café. The former is a retirement project for Marcia Doty and Celeste Matesev, housed in a converted chapel where the books are displayed in pews. Steve Sprinkel and Olivia Chase are, respectively, Farmer and the Cook at their eponymous vegetarian salad bar and market, adding the café at weekends. They do glorious things with food, including legitimizing jalapeno poppers for those of us who think of ourselves as foodies by stuffing their version with goats cheese. The crowd around us at dinner, full of gentle-looking pony-tailed men wearing rope sandals and late middle-aged women wearing pixie cuts, seemed to be enjoying their food as much as we did. We ended the evening sitting on the patio of our hotel room, soaking up the silence and the stars.

Outskirts of Meiners Oaks

By the time we had finished a long, dusty walk around the perimeter of Meiners Oaks on Saturday morning, the sun was already blazing. This time we escaped the heat back in the center of town at the Ojai Playhouse, a restored movie theater, conveniently located next door to the Jester, a pub owned by an Ojai resident originally from Birmingham, England. He is not the only Brit to have settled here. Sheffield native John Wilcock, co-founder of The Village Voice and long-time travel writer, also calls Ojai home. To make good on our cultural intentions, we spent the early part of the evening at a poetry reading at BookEnds. Dinner was at Deer Lodge, a cleaned-up honky tonk specializing in burgers and chili, followed by dessert at the Ranch House, a hidden garden at the bottom of our hotel’s road.

We spent Sunday morning eating a lazy breakfast on the hotel’s communal patio while scanning the real estate ads of a local magazine. This, to me, is the ultimate sign of a successful weekend away. It’s not the same as the house porn of watching HGTV, composed of alternating yet equal parts envy and marvelment that money can’t buy taste. Instead, we were trying on a new life like a new dress, much as we had six years ago in the Cotswolds. Only this time we were imagining what it would be like to live amongst the eucalyptus- and tortilla-scented air of this peaceful slice of California.


The Details + More pictures of Ojai on Pinterest

Ojai Retreat
160 Besant Rd.
Ojai, CA 93023
(805) 646-2536

Farmer and the Cook
339 W. El Roblar
Meiners Oaks
Ojai, California 93023
(805) 640-9608

Bookends Bookstore and other Curiosities
110 S. Pueblo Ave.
Meiners Oaks
Ojai, California 93023
(805) 640-9441

Deer Lodge
2261 Maricopa Hwy
Ojai, CA 93023
(805) 646 4256

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