Ojai is a hidden valley just north of Los Angeles which combines snow-capped mountains with palm trees and orange groves. It’s no wonder so many celebrities choose to hideaway in this small town – which we think is a tie as our favorite small town along with Springdale, UT (see Grand Canyon itinerary).
For most travelers, the trip will include a flight into LAX where you can choose to take the faster 101 or the more leisurely PCH along the beach. If you choose the PCH as we did, you will have the option to stop at the Santa Monica Pier or the Getty Villa (a small museum with beautiful fountains and artwork) followed by lunch in Malibu – where your conversation will be mostly about why your parents didn’t send you to Pepperdine for college. Admittedly, we had no idea where Pepperdine was until we drove by but is a beautiful campus and location. There are a few restaurants in Malibu from which to choose so we picked the Paradise Cove Beach Cafe where you can see volleyball courts and beaches from your table. And the day we were there, camera crews were shooting a commercial on the pier while we ate calamari and enjoyed a drink looking out over the beach. The restaurant seems like a busy place for local residents along with a wall of surfboards and red flowers lining the cliffs – all surrounded by RV’s which rent for the Summer apparently to traveling surfers and beach goers.
After you leave the PCH, the road will take you through farm land until you make your way inland and up into the mountains to the Ojai valley. There are a few options for lodging in Ojai but the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa is by far the most popular. But even being popular, it is not crowded and does not have a busy feel to it.
If you arrive early at the inn, there is still time to drive a few blocks over and take a quick walk/hike along Shelf Road which passes by the orange groves where branches hang out over the trails (which our kids picked and ate as we hiked) to a terrific view overlooking the entire valley which looks very much like the view you might see in Napa Valley but with orange trees instead of grape vines. We had dinner back at the resort at Jimmy’s; a small bar/restaurant with burgers at the resort under the white light strands at night.
The next morning we started at the Ojai Cafe Emporium for breakfast. It was so good we actually went for breakfast both days and still make their California omelets today at home from eggs, cheese, avocado slices, sour cream, olives and Cholula sauce (they used something similar but we couldn’t find it back home). The Cafe has a nice patio which looks out over the mountains and town which is a great way to enjoy your coffee. Afterwards, we rented bikes from the Mob Shop in town who were extremely friendly and helpful. Ojai has a bike path which runs through the town along flower lined paths and apparently goes for several miles back to the ocean. However, we stayed in town and visited the Bell tower, the shops, the arcade and then made our way back to the resort. And had countless conversations about the Ojai Valley School which is a small, private boarding school with horses and farmland right outside of the class rooms (we wondered if these kids were the same ones who inevitably ended up going to Pepperdine).
At the resort, there is an artist’s cottage and you can arrange for a family art project before you arrive. The instructor will provide materials, photos, cloth, plants and rocks which your family can spend a few hours together gluing into a large collage to send back home. Ours is still hanging in our house today and the kids always ask if we can do a project like this again on another trip. For dinner, you definitely want to try Boccali’s Pizza and Pasta just outside of town for New York style pizza and wine. The spring is a bit slower for visitors, so we were able to get a table quickly but we were told the restaurant is very busy in the Summer during the high season. However, the patio area can accommodate a large crowd so there might be only a slight wait.
The next day we drove (after coffee at the Cafe again) to the Piedra Blanca trail head which is a 45-minute drive through some beautiful forest and cliff walls, passing by the very small town of Wheeler Springs – worth a peak out of the window to see the post office. Piedra Blanca is a relatively easy hike over a few small creeks and up into the white stone mountains. We had purchased food after we landed in L.A. so we had sandwiches and snacks on a peak overlooking the trail. After hiking, we drove back to town and made our way to Meditation Mount to watch the sunset and to try to see the “pink moment” which locals say flashes when the sun sets. Please note, Meditation Mount is a yoga/meditation area so our kids had to be very, very quiet. It is beautiful but the risk of our kids talking took away from some of the allure so I would only recommend this with older kids – but it did make for some great photos of the gardens, mountains and sunset. Dinner was at Maravilla at the resort which was their fine dining option and has now closed and been replaced with Olivella’s. It was expensive but worth it to enjoy a nice meal on our vacation so Olivella’s may be an option to consider if you want to relax at the hotel.
Waking early, we had made reservations prior to arriving with Island Packer Cruises in Ventura for a day-trip to Anacapa Island. The cruises will take you to either Anacapa or Santa Cruz island. Santa Cruz is bigger and there is more to explore but Anacapa had an amazing view (noted in the photos), sea lions on the beaches below and an historic light house so we chose Anacapa but I can’t imagine going wrong with either. Along the boat ride, we saw dolphins chasing the boat and a whale’s tail in the distance – until we arrived at the stairs which climb up from the ocean to the top of the island. The island is very small and is nicknamed “bird island” which immediately made sense. There are hundreds if not thousands of seagulls living on the island and it only takes about an hour to make the entire loop around. Again, we packed our lunches to enjoy while watching the sea lions and ocean around in every direction. And we are amazed how many of our friends in California tell us they have not made it out to the Channel Islands for a visit.
After returning to the resort, we knew we had an early morning so we arranged for room service for dinner. The resort also offers a “make your own sundae” bar in the room where they deliver ice cream pints and a wide assortment of toppings which the kids loved and we highly recommend. The next morning (and this was a big logistical mistake) we had to make our way from Ojai to Long Beach to head over to Catalina Island. The reason this was a mistake is we had to drive the 405 on a Monday morning which took a very long time (three hours) so we woke especially early in the morning to make a 10:00 boarding time. If you plan this trip, please be sure not to plan this drive on a Monday morning – or plan to make a later boat reservation. The only good part about this drive is you can listen to Tom Petty’s “Free Falling” as it was made for this drive. You’ll be passing exits for Reseda, Ventura Boulevard and Mulholland so you’ll find yourself singing it anyway while you try to understand how people can drive the 405 everyday to and from work. The next stop was a day and night on Catalina Island.
And for more details on surrounding areas see our full itineraries for Ojai, Catalina and Southern California or destination notes for Catalina Island, Disneyland, San Diego, Joshua Tree/Palm Springs, Newport Beach and Los Angeles.