Ojai Casts An Enchanting Spell

09/27/2010 - 20:00

 Ojai, Calif. — You’d never know it driving down the 101 along the California coast, but about 85 miles from LAX Airport and 40 minutes south of Santa Barbara, there’s an exit leading to an enchanting paradise — the Ojai valley.

Merge onto Highway 33 and you’re soon in the same breathtaking valley discovered by the director Frank Capra for “Lost Horizon,” his 1937 film starring Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt. It’s the same valley where so many Jewish youngsters enjoy enviable summers at Camp Ramah, located a short drive from Ojai’s town center.

Over the years, newcomers of every sort have been attracted to Ojai — easterners of the 19th century who came for the valley’s hot springs, the Indian philosopher Krishnamurti, and other “seekers” like the Theosophists who came in the 1920s. The locals’ monthly full-moon meditations, overlooking the valley at Meditation Mount, make me think of the Jewish tradition of Rosh Chodesh.

Into this setting comes the valley’s famous “Pink Moment,” when the sunset kisses the Topa Topa mountain range, itself a strange quirk of nature because of its east-west orientation.

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It’s all enough to transport you to spiritual realms, so when we checked into the Emerald Iguana, an adults-only boutique hotel of suites and cottages with whimsical touches reminiscent of the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, we found a virtual “Garden of Eden” filled with orange Cana Lilies and Birds of Paradise that seemed ideally suited to the Ojai mystique.

Beyond iconic curved arches, the most pronounced Gaudiesque touch at the Emerald Iguana is architect Marc Whitman’s playful water fountain, a broken-tile iguana, which transported me back to Gaudi’s broken-tile salamander I first saw in Barcelona’s Parc Guell.

Before a patio dinner at the town’s Osteria Monte Grappa, we went exploring, walking past some of Ojai’s well-preserved 1920s bungalow-style homes to Bart’s Books on the quiet corner of Matilija and Canada streets. It is the most unconventional used bookstore I’ve ever seen.

Before Bart’s, there was a 1940s one-bedroom, honeymoon cottage on the site, but when Richard Bartinsdale — Bart — bought the place, his collection of books got so out of hand that he decided to sell them on street-side shelves.

Today, books are sold in the inside courtyard and are still available for sale on the street, on the honor system after hours, with a can to put your money in.

The original honeymoon cottage is covered from floor to ceiling with books, even in the kitchen, where we discovered “Mama Cooks California Style: New Twists on Jewish Classics,” with dishes like deli-style white fish spread and exotic-sounding Spinach latkes with caviar.

The next day, after a continental breakfast around the Emerald Iguana’s intimate pool, we walked to the “Arcade” to meet David Mason, “Mr. Ojai.”

For 46 years, Mason has owned Village Florist, located in the Mission Revival-style shopping “Arcade,” whose design was conceived by the Ohio glass magnate and philanthropist Edward Drummond Libbey.

(Incidentally, you won’t find any chain stores or fast-food companies within city limits).

Mason recalled the movie stars he once knew here — and whose signed photographs cover the walls of his shop.

“When I was a kid,” Mason said, “Anthony Quinn lived here…Loretta Young and that group. They were just people in town. We got excited to see them on the screen, (but) we didn’t get excited to see them on the street.”

At the “Arcade,” we also stopped by The Kindred Spirit and discovered lovely mezuzot and tzedaka boxes by the popular Israeli designer, Ayala Bar. Meanwhile, down the street was Bonnie Lu’s, an honest-to-goodness 1930s diner if ever there was one.

One afternoon, we drove out of town past abundant orange groves to sample extra virgin olive oil at Ojai Olive Oil, owned by Ron and Alice Asquith on property originally planted with olive trees in 1880.

Ron, who once worked for Occidental Petroleum, has a Ph.D. in psychology, “which,” he joked, “you can see is directly related to the production of extra virgin olive oil.”

In the evening, with the Ojai air delightfully balmy, we strolled to Libbey Park, where people were sitting in folding chairs, listening to music from the bandstand.

Soon parents and their children were marching and holding colorful balloons in the air, a rare Norman Rockwell moment in a valley town so cut off from the rest of the world and its troubles.

Then, as if to mark the end of another perfect day in paradise, came the strains of “You’re a Grand Old Flag” with the crowd singing “Ojai, oh, Ojai…we love you, Ojai, oh yes we do.”


A cottage set in a lush garden at the Emerald Iguana boutique hotel, above. Right, after hours, books are sold on the street on


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