Ojai Valley: Finding Shangri-LA

Topa Topa Mountains, Ojai

Just 73 miles northwest of Los Angeles lies a beautiful, mystical valley cradled below the Topa Topa Mountains – home to the Chumash Indians, who called it Ojai, meaning “nest” and “moon”. It is a spiritual place with ancient healing powers that pervade the atmosphere with a dazzling array of sights, sounds and smells guaranteed to calm the most restless of souls.

Nestled into this valley is the landmark Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, which enjoyed a $90million makeover last year courtesy of the new owners, as well as the staff themselves who also pitched in to help with the renovations. The resort is a labor of love and one of California’s best-kept secrets by the local cognoscenti who have not only been visiting for years, but for generations. Even Clark Gable and Bing Crosby honeymooned here back in the day.

Built by Edward Libbey (a wealthy glass manufacturer from Ohio) in 1923 as a private golf course, the property expanded soon after when Libbey hired the architect Wallace Neff to build the clubhouse. Neff, who was very much the flavor of his day (and still is; Brad Pitt, Madonna and Diane Keaton all own Neff houses), built homes for Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, typically in the style of the Andalusian haciendas and Old Spanish missions, which became synonymous with Hollywood glamour in the 1920’s. Today’s renovations have not forgotten the property’s historical roots and remain distinctly Old Californian.

Although many regard the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa as a golf resort, it offers a lot more than just golf. Stepping onto the 220-acre property is like stepping into another world and feels like a thriving Mediterranean village. Despite its 308 guest rooms, the resort never feels crowded and that is probably because there is so much to do. For the active types, there is a stunning 18-hole golf course, tennis, biking, hiking, horse riding, swimming (in one of three pools), a fully equipped gym and a range of complimentary Mind/Body classes, including yoga, T’ai Chi and meditation.

For the more sybaritic, there is the award-winning Ojai Spa, which not only offers a wide selection of massages, scrubs, and facials, but also includes hours of relaxation in the beautifully appointed facilities, which features two heated swimming pools, three hot tubs, a steam room, a sauna, several fireplaces, numerous comfy chairs to lounge upon, stacks of the latest magazines to flip through, as well as piles of fluffy white towels to wrap yourself up in. The charming Spa Café serves delicious smoothies, fresh juices and other tasty morsels should you need to snack.

The pièce de résistance is the Artist’s Cottage and Apothecary, where creative types get to let their inner child go really wild and revert to the joys of kindergarten by participating in a variety of arts and craft classes ranging from pottery to painting, drawing, wreath-making, weaving, paper making and our favorite, the Mandala meditation. A Mandala is an ancient form of meditation that uses symbolism and imagery to interpret your personal quest and spirit by drawing whatever comes to mind in a circle. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung used the mandala as a “representation of the unconscious self”. Renate Collins, a fine artist, Jungian therapist, and ex-pharmacist from Bavaria teaches the class and uses her powerful spiritual gifts to interpret your drawing. It’s a great way to spend a rainy afternoon and can be for some, a profoundly moving experience.

Renate also teaches the Aromatherapy class in the working “lab” where guests can learn about the properties of various essential oils and create their own personal blend to use in home made soaps, creams, and perfumes. It’s worth mentioning here that Alex, the chief “nose” at the Spa who hails from France, makes a really wicked lavender hydrosol spray in an old-fashioned, hand-hammered copper still imported from Europe, called an alambic, which he uses to distill lavender and other herbs from the garden. The result is a highly addictive, heady and thoroughly intoxicating fragrance that definitely transports you to Shangri-la with just one whiff.

The entire staff at the Inn, who are discreetly omnipresent and omniscient, are beautifully trained and go about their business in electric golf-buggy’s; the local mode of transportation when not on one’s feet or peddling a bicycle. After so much activity, it’s easy to work up a healthy appetite. There are three restaurants to dine at on the property: the Spa Café, which offers lighter fare; Jimmy’s Pub, which offers pub-style dining; the Oak Grill, which serves market-fresh American food, and the Inn’s signature restaurant, Maravilla, which offers a more sophisticated international cuisine, and a superb wine list, including many local vintners, such as the Ojai Vineyard, who make a stunning Californian Viognier, affectionately called “local liquid gold”, and Morgan Clendenen’s 2005 Cold Heaven Viognier from the Santa Ynez Valley.

Don’t even think about calling it a night without stopping off at the Neff Lounge for one last nightcap courtesy of Brian Monsour, the resident cosmologist, who makes Martini’s that could bring the entire Rat Pack back from the grave. The Lavender Martini and the Namaste Martini are truly inspired, and may very well send you off to Never Never Land. But for those who really want to call it a night, take Brian’s Martini flight and say goodnight, and good luck!

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