Spir­ited Away

Ven­ture be­yond Hol­ly­wood to dis­cover SoCal’s bo­hemian heart in Ojai — the coun­ter­cul­ture haven for artists, food­ies and a new breed of en­tre­pre­neur.

Virgin Australia Voyeur - - NOVEMBER - Words CLEO GLYDE Pho­tog­ra­phy TAN­VEER BADAL

South­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s bo­hemian heart beats in Ojai, a haven for artists, food­ies and en­trepreneurs.

iT IS EASY for trav­ellers lured by Hol­ly­wood’s glit­tery glory, ex­pen­sive man­sions and A-list hotspots to for­get that South­ern Cal­i­for­nia is re­ally a desert play­ground. Yet af­ter a mere hour’s drive, the sub­ur­ban sprawl that is the mega­lopo­lis of Los An­ge­les falls away and the deserts and moun­tains that en­cir­cle the city on al­most all sides are ready for their close-up. A West Coast stopover can be a great op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore SoCal’s stun­ning in­land ter­rain. You’ll find one of the re­gion’s most in­ter­est­ing, pic­turesque and vi­brant es­capes 135 kilo­me­tres north­west of LA — in the shape of proudly bo­hemian town Ojai, in Ven­tura County’s Ojai Val­ley, where even the lo­cal biker bar serves farm-totable and ‘ shop lo­cal’ is prac­ti­cally a re­li­gion. It’s the tribal al­ter­na­tive to kitschy, ex­pen­sive Palm Springs. Through­out the last cen­tury creatives, food­ies, counter-cul­ture mavens and, in­creas­ingly, en­trepreneurs have set­tled here, at­tracted by idyl­lic scenes of vine­yards and glossy green or­ange groves, flanked on either side by the Topatopa Moun­tains. The sun­set over the moun­tain tops is so lo­cally revered it pos­sesses its own nick­name — the Pink Mo­ment.

Ojai’s deep aura of spir­i­tual magic and good vibes at­tracted 1970s hip­pie and mu­sic roy­alty John Len­non and Yoko Ono when they wanted to un­moor from fame and for­tune, and con­tin­ues to in­spire al­ter­na­tive lifestylers. “Ojai has this re­ally dope, spir­i­tual vibe,” says John Lawrence Den­nis, the owner of hip col­lectibles store Val­ley Of The Moon — also the po­etic mean­ing be­hind ‘Ojai’ it­self, named by the Chu­mash Na­tive Amer­i­cans who were the first hu­man in­hab­i­tants of the val­ley. “This is a seeker des­ti­na­tion for peo­ple fol­low­ing their own philo­soph­i­cal path, a kind of vor­tex with a sig­nif­i­cant his­tory. Ojai was part of the first wave of East­ern Phi­los­o­phy in the United States and guides gave lec­tures here un­der an old oak.”

Den­nis’s sun-kissed ‘peace out’ aes­thetic and his store both em­body the rene­gade ap­peal of Ojai: rare 1960s fes­ti­val posters hang on the walls, along­side vin­tage fringed leather jack­ets and hats — cus­tomised and hand-painted by Den­nis him­self. The store’s am­bi­ence con­jures up the wind-in-your-hair free­dom cel­e­brated in the clas­sic 1969 movie Easy Rider, de­pict­ing life

on the open road and youth­ful re­bel­lion against sub­ur­ban con­form­ity, some of it ex­pe­ri­enced in a haze. “Peo­ple don’t just visit Ojai, they get a call­ing,” Den­nis says with a laugh. Due to the town’s thriv­ing re­tail and lo­ca­vore food bowl cul­ture, hap­pily the mantra for to­day’s trav­ellers is not only ‘Tune in and drop out’ but also ‘Shop ’til you drop and dine out’.

On a scenic drive along State Route 150, lined with pep­per trees, ru­ral fruit stalls and Mex­i­can stat­ues of the Vir­gin Mary, the air be­comes fra­grant with or­ange blos­som and Ojai’s dis­tinc­tive Span­ish mis­sion bell­tower and her­itage colon­nade come into view. Ojai Av­enue is the town’s beat­ing heart, and can be eas­ily ex­plored on foot (the Ojai Trol­ley also ser­vices the wider town­ship ev­ery day, ex­cept on cer­tain hol­i­days). The peace­ful vibe and con­cen­tra­tion of spas, gal­leries, cafes and bou­tiques is ideal for any­one stay­ing for a week­end.

The na­ture play­ground of horserid­ing, hik­ing and moun­tain bike trails in the nearby Los Padres Na­tional For­est is an invit­ing prospect, but town­ship trav­ellers don’t have to go that far to work up an ap­petite. The eas­ily reached Shelf Road Trail, pop­u­lated by dog own­ers and the odd lo­cal painter, is a 45-minute me­an­der over­look­ing the town that cuts along the cliffs with sweep­ing views of the val­ley and links to more am­bi­tious loops, such as the end­lessly scenic Fox Canyon Trail which opened in 2013.

Ojai’s year-round Mediter­ranean cli­mate, matched with the lo­cals’ fer­vently sus­tain­able philoso­phies, fos­ters a pro­fu­sion of fresh, or­ganic pro­duce, mak­ing the culi­nary scene a highly In­sta­grammable, clean-eater’s par­adise — per­fect for hun­gry hik­ers. Farm-fresh nour­ish­ment reigns at Food Har­mon­ics, em­bod­ied by their leg­endary ve­gan pizza. “Our crust is one of the most nu­tri­tion­ally dense foods you can find,” co-owner Gabriella Ch­es­neau says. “It has chia seeds, zuc­chini, car­rots…” Cus­tomers en­joy its de­li­cious, nutty tex­ture, along with co­conut co­rian­der dosa pock­ets, smashed avo­cado toast and hon­eyed chai tea in the back pa­tio gar­den. “We are al­ways ask­ing our­selves, ‘How can we make this meal bet­ter for you?’” Ch­es­neau says. That ques­tion echoes the un­der­ly­ing quest that makes Ojai so restora­tive to visit — how do we make life bet­ter?

If you still love to tuck into a piled high, juicy burger, no prob­lem — so do Ch­es­neau’s lo­cal clien­tele, which is ‘in­clu­sive’ rather than ex­clu­sively ve­gan or vege­tar­ian, although the food-as-medicine maxim so preva­lent in the town still stands. “I use the high­est-qual­ity meat on the planet: fam­ily owned, prairie-raised bi­son from the state of South Dakota. It’s out­ra­geously amaz­ing.” The kill is sa­cred — this is Ojai af­ter all — and a world

away from mass-pro­duced fast food. “The pro­duc­ers smudge the land in Na­tive Amer­i­can tra­di­tion be­fore they take the an­i­mal and hunt silently, so there is no adren­a­line in the meat.”

This level of care and qual­ity makes Ojai a quintessen­tially SoCal show­case for drop-a-dress-size cui­sine and guilt-free ev­ery­thing, be it the re­spon­si­bly sourced beans at Bea­con Cof­fee or even the cit­rus from Ojai’s own or­chards squeezed into Azu Restau­rant & Ojai Val­ley Brew­ery’s craft cock­tails. Farmer and the Cook puts a healthy, or­ganic spin on Mex­i­can cafe clas­sics: ta­cos burst with sauteed mush­rooms and goat’s cheese, and lo­cals wolf down thick Huarache tor­tillas topped with salsa roja. Cashew-cilantro ‘cream’ stands in for dairy.

The flip side to the happy hip­pie coin? Ojai knows how to party. The Vine wine bar kick­starts happy hour with live mu­sic gath­er­ings in a homey at­mos­phere that hosts blues/roots ma­gi­cians Rooster Ra, Acous­tic Bul­let and oth­ers, plus singer­song­writer gath­er­ings such as ‘ Girls With Gui­tars’ night. As Ojai’s bright sun­shine soft­ens into balmy night, the pow­er­ful thrum of an up­right bass or tub-thump­ing sin­ga­long of­ten spills out into the street, min­gling with crowd whoops.

Ten min­utes from here, along the Mari­copa High­way, is ev­ery road trip­per’s dream: a true lo­cal hang­out. Ojai Deer Lodge is a folksy 1932 log cabin with a se­duc­tive bar am­bi­ence. Clas­sic Harley-David­sons line up like sen­tinels out­side, be­long­ing to (friendly) bik­ers drawn by the great bar­be­cue, beer and at­mos­phere. Within the cool­ing shel­ter of its river rock walls — a dis­tinctly Cal­i­for­nian ar­chi­tec­tural style — you’ll hear the ‘pock’ of bil­liard ta­bles and an ever-chang­ing lineup of live mu­sic, from punk to blues and rock per­for­mances that keep ev­ery­one’s toes tap­ping. This is a place to linger over craft beers on tap and a re­cently el­e­vated gas­tropub-style menu, with ribs, fried chicken, buf­falo burg­ers, leg­endary mac and cheese and mule deer cock­tails to get the party started — made with Cut­ler’s Vodka from Santa Bar­bara’s Cut­ler’s Ar­ti­san Spir­its, with lime juice and bit­ters.

A day of re­tail ther­apy in Ojai’s bi­jou bou­tiques is as much a part of the town’s cul­ture as a boozy night out or an ap­ple pie bak­ing con­test on 4 July. Lo­cals have re­sisted chain-store bland­ness and tourist-town com­mer­cial­ism, so the quirks and in­di­vid­u­al­ity of each store can flour­ish. Cus­tomers play with the friendly cat, Pygmy, at Bart’s Books, an ex­cep­tion­ally well-stocked, mostly out­door book­shop. In the Field, a self­de­scribed ‘life­style bou­tique’, opened in No­vem­ber 2014 and cu­rates ‘haute boho’ finds from around the world, from silk dresses and vin­tage over­alls to Moroc­can wed­ding blan­kets and dream­catch­ers — then throws back­yard hay bale par­ties for lo­cals with equal panache. And at No­mad Gallery, Leslie Clark sells art, arte­facts, jew­ellery and fash­ion by ar­ti­sans in re­mote, ex­otic places, but may also show you her grand­fa­ther’s gun and share an­ces­tral cat­tle ranch­ing tales.

In Ojai it is not just the idyl­lic beauty of the val­ley and moun­tains that is ev­ery­where you look, but the mag­netic spirit of a geo­graph­i­cal and cul­tural fron­tier. You may just be pass­ing through, but your up­lifted spir­its will be the true sou­venir.

GET­TING THERE TO BOOK YOUR FLIGHT TO LOS AN­GE­LES, VISIT WWW.VIR­GINAUS­TRALIA.COM OR CALL 13 67 89 (IN AUS­TRALIA).

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP LEFT Ve­gan pizza at Food Har­mon­ics; Topa Moun­tain Win­ery; eye-catch­ing decor at Ojai Deer Lodge; Bart’s Books; en­joy a dance at Topa Moun­tain Win­ery; free rental bikes are avail­able for Car­a­van Out­post guests; Mule Deer from Ojai Deer Lodge; Car­a­van Out­post airstreams; the epic view from Topa Moun­tain Win­ery. OPENER The Ar­cade Plaza in Ojai is pop­u­lar with shop­pers.

THIS PAGE Ex­te­rior of Bart’s Books. OP­PO­SITE PAGE, FROM TOP Ta­cos at Azu Restau­rant & Ojai Val­ley Brew­ery; the Ojai Trol­ley.

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