The New York Times
Spas and Stars, but Ojai Tries to Stay Grounded
By Susan Stellin
FINDING the ideal small-town retreat is getting tougher
these days, at least for urban escapees whose checklist for perfection
includes some potentially contradictory traits.
It has to offer seclusion, but within a two-hour drive of a major city.
Natural beauty, but no weather extremes. Relaxation, but plenty to do when
the mood strikes. Interesting neighbors, but not so many that traffic backs
up or real estate prices get out of hand.
On all but that last count, Ojai, Calif., may be one of the few small towns
in America actually to meet those demands.
In a valley less than 90 miles northwest of central Los Angeles and 15 miles
inland from the Pacific, Ojai is a low-key hideaway known for attracting an
eclectic mix of artists, spiritual gurus, health devotees and entrepreneurs
� and, more recently, Hollywood actors and executives.
Real estate agents generally avoid discussing celebrity clients, but local
newspapers said that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver,
were house hunting in Ojai this summer, and the former "Dallas" star Larry
Hagman owns a solar-powered spread there.
But by all accounts, high-profile residents tend to keep a low profile
"Ojai is going to cater to a very nonpretentious type of buyer," said Larry
Wilde, co-owner of the Coldwell Banker Property Shoppe. "For those who want
massive wining and dining and shopping, they�re going to go to Santa Barbara
In fact, the valley�s slow pace is precisely why Eric Goode, part owner of
New York City hot spots like the Waverly Inn and the Maritime Hotel, bought
a home in Ojai nearly 20 years ago.
"I wanted a place that was the opposite of New York," he said. "It�s just a
funny, sleepy town." Mr. Goode spent a couple of years in Ojai as a child
and recently set up a sanctuary for 300 endangered turtles and tortoises
from the Bronx Zoo � a project that has increased his visits to Ojai to
about once a month.
"I�m torn between the urban world and the natural world, so I go out there
for my dose of the natural world," he said, though that doesn�t exclude
merging Ojai and his work life down the road. "I would love to buy a hotel
The town�s name comes from a Chumash Indian word meaning "moon" or "nest,"
and a shot of the valley that appeared in the 1937 Frank Capra film "Lost
Horizon" bolsters the area�s status as a modern-day Shangri-La.
With just 8,000 residents, Ojai has long had an anti-development stance,
preserving its reputation as a haven for healthy living, in contrast to the
crowds, pollution and excess of Los Angeles. It is also something of a
spiritual mecca, home to the Krotona Institute of Theosophy and a retreat
dedicated to the teachings of Jiddu Krishnamurti, once an Ojai resident.
These days, visitors and transplants are more likely to be seeking a massage
or a Mediterranean-style ranch. Those in search of more active pursuits will
find miles of trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding, as well as
golf courses, tennis courts and yoga classes. But the growing popularity of
spa vacations has put Ojai on the map.
One of the main draws is the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa (www.ojairesort.com), a
220-acre Spanish colonial-style resort that finished a $90 million
renovation last year. With three pools, four restaurants, an 18-hole golf
course, a 31,000-square-foot spa and activities ranging from guided hikes to
art lessons, it�s a popular escape for Los Angeles residents as well as for
travelers who fly in.
It�s also a favorite location for corporate retreats and special events,
making headlines Labor Day weekend when the "Private Practice" star Kate
Walsh held her wedding there.
With weekend rates starting at $400 a night and a 50-minute massage priced
at $140, the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa draws a deep-pocketed crowd for its
style of deep-tissue relief. On the more economical end of the spectrum,
weekend room rates at the Oaks at Ojai spa (www.oaksspa.com) start at $190 a
person, based on double occupancy, but include meals and classes, while a
50-minute massage costs $75. Located in the Ojai village and steps away from
downtown is Su
Nido Inn (Your Nest in
Ojai). Weekend room rates start at $215 and suite at $299 per night. The Day
Spa of Ojai partners with Su Nido Inn and a 60-minute massage is priced at
Ojai Valley�s prices have provoked some grumbling among locals about the
town�s increasingly exclusive feel and guests� tendency to stay on campus
rather than spend money in town. Based on a recent midweek visit, the
temptation to stay put is understandable: lushly landscaped grounds,
pristine pools and an army of lined-up lounge chairs lure you into a
reclined position, then the sun, scent of lavender and trickling of a nearby
fountain make even a walk to the tennis courts seem taxing.
But the town of Ojai offers its own charms, and prides itself on its
indifference toward sunglasses-wearing celebrities who do make an appearance
"I�ve never seen paparazzi up here," said Ojai�s mayor, Carol Smith. "You
can stroll around town and not be harassed."
INDEED, nonresidents are more likely to draw attention by misinterpreting
the refill policy at the Ojai Coffee Roasting Company � as a friend and I
did during our visit to the cafe. Yet a man in a beige kilt didn�t attract a
second glance from the morning crowd trading greetings and newspapers.
At the moment, a hot-button issue for Ojai residents is a proposal that
would ban chain stores from setting up shop in town, a measure many locals
support as a way to preserve Ojai�s small-town character and architectural
appeal. "We don�t have a Gap, we don�t have a McDonald�s," Mayor Smith
pointed out. "Most of the shops you�ll see here are unique or are owned
However, some local business owners worry that the proposal is too
restrictive, and could actually lead to empty storefronts downtown. As it
is, the shops along Ojai Avenue skew more toward tourists, mostly selling
art, jewelry, clothes and trinkets. (Another celluloid connection: The
Primavera Gallery sells paintings and drawings by Anthony Hopkins.)
There are also lots of real estate offices downtown, which until recently
were doing a booming business. Mr. Wilde of Coldwell Banker said the market
peaked in 2005 after nearly a decade of price increases but has since slowed
down. "There�s an awful lot on the market between a million and three
million dollars," he said. "That�s the market that�s being impacted the
For $1 million, buyers can expect to find a 1960s 2,000-to-3,000-square-foot
home on an acre or less that will probably need some renovations, Mr. Wilde
said. For a bigger house on a larger parcel, with the Mediterranean style
and updated kitchen that high-end homeowners seek, a $2 million to $3
million price tag is more typical.
The median sale price for previously owned houses in Ojai is about $600,000
so far this year, according to Data Quick Information Systems, down 8
percent from 2005. That year, 56 homes sold for more than $1 million, versus
2 in 1995, when the median sales price was just $199,000.
Mr. Wilde attributed some of the past decade�s run-up to the influx from
Hollywood, though he declined to discuss any of his celebrity clients.
Another Ojai resident who felt the pull of the valley�s slow pace is David
Allen, a consultant and author of the best seller "Getting Things Done,"
about working more productively so you have time to enjoy life.
He moved to Ojai 15 years ago, buying a 1920s ranch house he describes as "a
teardown we just haven�t bothered to tear down," and now runs his business
there, taking care of his bonsai plants in his downtime.
"Ojai has all the really cool things of a small town, but not the downsides,
like close-mindedness or provinciality," Mr. Allen said. "You�ll see a $2.3
million custom-designed home going up next to an old hippie shack � and
everybody kind of likes it that way."
Preserving that mix may be Ojai�s biggest challenge, but it�s one Mayor
Smith thinks its residents will master. "I want this town to stay a real
town � I don�t want it to become only rich retired people," she said. "And I
don�t think it will."
Spas and Stars, but Ojai Tries to Stay Grounded