Put a smile on your face. Visit this American town
Ojai, just outside Los Angeles, is California's own 'Shangri-La'. Soon British holidaymakers will be seeking out its rejuvenating powers, writes Sarah Barrell
Sunday 03 May 2009
The American dream is alive and well and living outside Los Angeles. An hour and a half from the city that crushes a million dreams, and grants a few of them, there is a little town called Ojai that delivers all the good things in life without demanding more than a smile.
It's pretty easy to smile here. Everyone does it. I find myself doing it from the minute the sun rises to warm the bowl of mountains cradling this Spanish Revival town, setting the humming birds into a multi-coloured spin, through orange blossom-scented afternoons into clear nights serenaded by cicadas and sonorous frogs.
Diminutive Ojai (population 10,000) was cast as the mythical "Shangri-La" in Frank Capra's 1937 movie, Lost Horizon. Even though Californians are prone to promoting their state as the Promised Land on film, Capra might have had a point.
People don't quite come here seeking eternal youth, but with a disproportionate number of artist's workshops, galleries, meditation centres, yogic retreats, and alternative therapy practices, Ojai does offer spiritual rejuvenation in spades. It's like New York's Woodstock minus the tourists and sexagenarian acid casualties.
Just screaming distance from LA, Ojai feels a world away, bordered by the Los Padres National Forest and surrounded by lakes and mountains, which offer misty views of the Pacific. It's easy to fall in love with this place, and you don't need rose-tinted spectacles.
The Ojai Valley runs east-west so at sunset the backdrop Topa Topa mountains glow pink – really pink – casting a rosy glow over the town's modest Spanish colonial-style houses. From my villa at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, a bell is sounded nightly to signal this "pink moment" – a meditative resonance that echoes through the gnarly branches of century-old oak trees and acres of jasmine and lavender-perfumed grounds.
In the early 1900s Edward D Libbey, a glass-industry magnate from Ohio, came to Ojai and fell in love. After the flat, featureless farmland of the Midwest, Ojai must have seemed like paradise; either that or he was always destined to be an Ojain of some kind. He built himself a hacienda-style country home, which quickly gained guest rooms and today occupies a hallowed place in American vacation lore as the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa.
Hollywood has been coming here for R&R since the 1950s and the resort is constantly in US travel glossies' top 10s. It recently underwent a $90m (£61m) overhaul (carefully maintaining Libbey's aesthetic) and has this year been picked up by select UK-based American travel specialists.
I never feel like I've arrived in California until I'm smothered in curative mud or submerged in sulphurous spring water. I fix this with the spa's signature Kuyam. Set in a beautifully tiled steam room, part hacienda part hammam, four types of mineral infused clay are applied to different parts of the body while following a meditation exercise.
Meanwhile, my partner is indulging equally with his first golf experience. Taking place on the verdant acres of the George C Thomas golf course (the granddaddy of golf-course architecture), which envelopes the estate, this is some first-time experience.
To complete the exemplary Californian experience I take a "personal mandala" class at the Apothecary – the "artists cottage" annexe of the spa. Here, under the guidance of a local artist called Renata, I draw a Buddhist-style wheel of life. My art efforts don't usually extend beyond stick men, but the result is surprising, and Renata's interpretation more so.
Convinced she's a white witch, I return for another class where we make perfume from healing essential oils. At the end I discover I've inadvertently tried to bottle the scent of Ojai: orange blossom, jasmine and fresh grassy air. I return to the villa, trance-like, to find my husband and daughter passed out on a sun lounger having consumed their body weight in gourmet fish cakes and fries.
It's all made so easy: why leave the hotel? Ever? Many American tourists don't, but we do. Eschewing the cycle path that travels 14 miles to the white-sand beaches of Santa Barbara, we take a winding road up to 7,000 feet to search for "Heaven", actor Larry Hagman's house. He is one of Ojai's oldest incumbents and named his mountain-top ranch so because it was the closest "JR" thought he'd get to St Peter.
But, like most celebrity homes here (Reese Witherspoon, inset left with Hagman, is among Ojai's newest residents), it's hard to spot. The big ranches have discreet entrances and are set well back off the road. Instead, we trek out along one of the National Forest's numerous hiking trails, picking oranges from the trees as Californian condors soar overhead, the shadow of their 10-foot wingspans causing my daughter to shout "aeroplane".
Craving more, in town we eat orange ice-cream made at one of the "mom and pop" stores (no franchises here) that line the colonnaded "shopping arcade", which, like much of the town, was also designed by Edward Libbey. We browse Bart's Books, with its tree-shaded courtyard and honour box for purchases made out of hours (bookshelves adorn the outer walls). In Ojai, we are told, people leave their doors unlocked. The international artists and performers who visit for events such as the annual Ojai Music Festival are hosted in local homes.
Over in Libbey Park (designed by guess who) our daughter pals up with a local kid, while her mother, barefoot on the grass, turns a hula hoop with a trance-like smile. Our daughter is mesmerised. Down the road at the farmers' market we're all mesmerised by a four-piece bluegrass band who get a line of kids doing a spontaneous synchronised two-step. It should be hokey but it's not. Ojai is all about simple pleasures, albeit artistically refined.
How to get there
British Airways Holidays (0844 4930787; ba.com) offers return flights to Los Angeles from £403 return. Ojai Valley Inn & Spa (001 805 646 1111; ojairesort.com) offers double rooms from $400 (£271) per night. Alamo (0870 400 4596; alamo.co.uk) offers a week's car rental from £19 per day.
California Tourism (020-7257 6180; visitcalifornia.co.uk).
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