When I see those commercials advertising the joys of living in California, syncing music to images of our mountain vista hikes, salt air-filled days on the beach, or road trips on winding vineyard highways, I tend not to think of the standard Los Angeles or San Francisco city shots that dominant outsider’s views of the state. To me, the real California reveals itself on the trip north of Los Angeles along the winding 101 towards Santa Barbara. This is where the mountains start to meet the sea and within an hour and a half you’ve arrived at the quick turnoff marked with an arrow to the east in the direction of Ojai. This is the area that I imagine when those California ads start playing. Ojai is a small city dotted with vineyards, orange groves, olive trees, and more pampered options like spas and tennis courts. The town is circled by long running paths and morning bikers can be seen tooling through the ranch estates along the northern ridge of the area. This is the type of getaway that makes me feel as if I’m in a completely new area and not just a neighboring spot to Los Angeles, it is also the best little day trip for a last minute mother/daughter weekend.
The two of us took the early morning trek up the coast and arrived in Ojai early enough to enjoy breakfast under the branches of the old oak tree in the courtyard of Knead Baking Company. This local stop is a small bakery that serves the best organic egg sandwiches on their homemade english muffins, complete with fresh spinach and slow roasted tomatoes. My mom and I spent the morning sipping coffee, savoring our sandwiches, and planning out the day. Their bakery case is an abundant offering of savory and sweet homemade bites so I picked up a few lavender shortbread cookies for the ride home later. A short walk down the street led to The Mob Shop which is a winding vine covered bike garage that rents out mountain and hybrid versions and is run by the friendliest team of bike enthusiasts. We ventured towards the east part of the city which runs through acres of orange orchards and stony paths that lead up to the vineyard hills. Weaving through the streets revealed abundant fields of oranges with ladders propped for picking, tall cyprus trees lining Spanish estates, and gravel roads lined with silver leaved olive trees. We happened upon a small driveway that led to an olive oil tasting room where we snacked on bread and tasted the owner’s various flavors like marjoram spiked oil and honey balsamic. With our bike bag packed with bottles we ventured back through the streets to visit Bart’s Books, an outdoor bookstore that is one part eclectic yard sale and one part treasure trove of literature. Shelves upon shelves house used books that make up the walkways throughout this outdoor store. Each variety is marked with handwritten wooden signs calling out “history”, “fiction”, “astronomy”, and so on, each grouped in their own little sections of the courtyard. Some of the bookcases even meet together to form hidden benches that let readers test a few pages among walls of books. The store even follows an honor system policy and when the doors are closed visitors are asked to drop their money into a slot before taking a book with them. Just reading that reminded me that this little part of California is in a world of its own. Before heading home we popped into Summer Camp, a converted gas station that sells nature inspired artisan goods, along with vintage camping gear like cots, thermoses, and bandanas. The store is perfectly styled with a long wood table in the center of the concrete floor stacked high with candles, cath-alls, plants, matches, and tiny trinkets that only an independent shop would know to carry. The perimeter is surrounded with home pieces like Pendelton blankets, a crochet hammock, and a beautifully polished canoe hanging high above the windows.
We left our idyllic setting as the sun was beginning to drop, our hair was wind-blown and arms slightly tanned from the bike rides. The mountains gave way to the highway coast that eventually turned into the rolling hills of the valley, and finally back to the freeway that cuts through the city of Los Angeles. Ojai was worlds away, but within a few hours we were home. It was the perfect way to turn a weekend into a vacation and a place that I’ll remember to visit anytime those visit California ads start popping up again and I need to remember just how pretty the state can be.