Every town chooses something to be proud of, and in Ojai, it's the sunsets. Pride is an understatement; sunsets are such a ceremony that locals have a name--"The Pink Moment"--to describe when the tips of the Topa Topa mountains take on the shade of cotton candy. There's even a preferred perch from which to watch: Meditation Mount, a new age center devoted to the power of meditation, on the eastern side of town.
Ojai (oh-high), which means "moon" in the language of the Native American Chumash tribe, is in a valley that would be carpeted in subdivisions if it were anywhere else in southern California. But the 7,800 residents take its preservation very seriously, and save for a Carrows restaurant, you'll be hard-pressed to find a chain business.
Even the fast food is local. Past Meditation Mount, out toward the town of Santa Paula, is The Summit, an old-fashioned roadside stand. Thin hamburgers come doused in a Thousand-Islandy sauce, and cherry milkshakes are made with fresh, juicy fruit.
The biggest shop on Ojai Avenue, the main drag, is a family-owned department store called Rains. It has been around for 130 years--eons by southern California standards--and for the last 90, it's been in the hands of three generations of the Rains family. At the checkout, a salesperson points to Alan Rains himself, who is fluffing a display of oven mitts.
Ojai has long attracted artists, with the most famous being deceased potter Beatrice Wood, and hotels and restaurants make a point showing local artists' work. The dozen rooms at the mission-style Blue Iguana Inn are like mini-galleries, with works for sale on the walls. Azu, a tapas bar and gelateria, decorates its back room with photos you can purchase; Movino Wine Bar & Gallery sells artwork and a nice selection of area Viogniers by the glass.
This is a spa town, and The Oaks at Ojai offers treatments and fitness classes to day visitors, in addition to hosting overnight guests. (Rooms start at $175 a night per person.) When asked to focus on a single area and go deeper, a massage therapist is likely to breathe in, nod knowingly, and say something like, "That's cool--it simply requires some flexibility on our part, which is always a good thing."
Perhaps because the surrounding Los Padres National Forest serves as a constant reminder, locals clearly believe that nature is to be respected. At Bart's Books, a new and used bookstore, thousands of rare books are shielded only by corrugated plastic. The branches of an enormous grapefruit tree peek through the makeshift roof, their fruit just out of reach. By the register, browsers are invited to help themselves to complimentary coffee, and then use free Wi-Fi at one of the picnic tables.
On any given day, people pass the hours at Ojai Coffee Roasting Co., chatting about Reiki and poring over books like The Experience of Nothingness. A few nights a week, they're enveloped by the warm aroma of the roaster as it begins work on a fresh batch of beans. But it's not all new age nirvana. At one table, several locals excitedly compare notes on how much their real estate values have risen in the last few years.