Photography by Nancy Neil and Myles Pritchard.
Looking out across the smoky firepit in the palm-filled courtyard of Caravan Outpost, an Airstream trailer park on the edge of Ojai, co-founder Brad Steward can’t quite believe his luck. “It feels like the universe delivered us to this magical place,” he says.
The magical place in question is this collection of 11 uniquely designed Airstream trailers with hammocks and sit-up bikes, dotted around a tin-shed lobby that doubles as an impeccably curated general store, with own-brand ponchos, throws and corduroy trucker caps.
But it’s also Ojai itself, a pretty little valley town of barely 8,000 residents, 90 minutes north of Los Angeles and a hop inland from the chi-chi coastal town of Santa Barbara—which has seen an influx of creativity over the past five years.
“We came here for the same things that drew the Chumash Indians,” says Steward, a one-time pro snowboarder and industry pioneer who launched the Bonfire snowboard brand in 1989. “The valley is like the American Mediterranean—there’s nowhere else in America where you can get so much amazing produce, from wine to olives and citrus fruit, all grown within five minutes.”
We came here for the same things that drew the Chumash Indians.
While the Chumash were the first inhabitants of Ojai, naming it after the moon that could be seen all night along the valley, they’ve been followed here by a succession of seekers—from Jiddu Krishnamurti, the Indian mystic credited with bringing yoga to America, who moved here in 1922, to John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who spent a blissed-out summer in Ojai in 1972.
Famous for the pink glow that appears on the Topatopa Mountains in the evening, Ojai stood in for Shangri-La in Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon in 1937. Those of a more mystical persuasion believe the valley is a spiritual vortex, blessed with benevolent spirits—a notion not dispelled when the town largely survived the wildfires that raged around it last December.
Steward opened Caravan Outpost in the summer of 2016, with his partner Shawn, and Chet and Mellanie Hilgers. The Stewards had been living in Portland, Oregon, but wanted to move to Ojai when, by chance, they overhead the Hilgers—a local couple—talking about how they’d secured the rights to an old RV park on the edge of town. “It was our blessed Ojai moment,” says Steward. “Somehow, we all had this shared vision of a luxurious outpost for nomads.”
Steward and his co-founders aren’t alone in opening new businesses here. Walking along the main street, with its quaint shopping arcades and Mediterranean-style villas, you’ll pass Revel, an airy kombucha bar, and farm-to-table restaurant Harvest, both of which opened last summer. Drive out of town towards the Topa Mountain Winery and you’ll see the Rancho Inn, a 1950s motel given a hipster-chic makeover in 2012: think cacti, cruiser bikes and a cosy bar playing vinyl records by the pool.
“It wasn’t like a memo went round,” says Bianca Roe, the former model and actor who opened boho-chic boutique In The Field with her husband, the actor-turned-designer Channon Roe, in 2014. “But, by chance, a whole new set of intelligent, mindful people came around the same time we did. It was like the vortex was calling.”
By chance, a whole new set of intelligent, mindful people came around the same time we did. It was like the vortex was calling.
In many ways, the Roes—who left Los Angeles in 2011 to live in their “dreamscape”—are an archetypal couple in a town whose new residents include the actor Channing Tatum and the organic food campaigner and heiress Anna Getty. As an actor, Californian Channon appeared in everything from The X-Files to Boogie Nights, before re-inventing himself as a furniture restorer and interior designer. Melbourne-born Bianca once strutted catwalks for the likes of Armani and Burberry, and is best known for roles in sci-fi series Farscape and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
They created In The Field in 2014, selling an eclectic but lush range of goods: think designer capes, vintage jumpsuits, African jewellery, old wooden surfboards and kids’ teepees. “We’re both storytellers,” says Bianca. “And the shop is the story of our life and travels.”
Of course, Ojai’s residents aren’t all life envy-inducing arrivistes. Old favourite haunts include Farmer and the Cook, an organic vegetable market and restaurant attached to a local farm, which opened in 2001; and the wonderfully evocative Bart’s Books, America’s largest outdoor book store, which opened in 1964 as a series of sidewalk book cases, and has since grown to include more than 150,000 books, from 35-cent novels to a US$6,000 first edition of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.
And some of the biggest attractions in town are of the more eternal variety: like Meditation Mount, a meditation centre and Zen garden on a hill overlooking the town, or the natural hot springs in a lush valley towards the coast, which are still being made fit for purpose again after the wildfires.
But strict local laws have helped the new businesses fit into a town that feels elegantly lived-in. In late 2013, Santa Monice emigres Michael and Rachel Graves created Summer Camp, a homeware/outdoor goods store and framers in an old gas station on the Ventura side of town. “You can’t build new buildings in Ojai, and there are super-strict regulations designed to keep the character of every existing building,” says Michael. “It means you have to be lucky, like we were in finding an abandoned pump station. But it also helps maintain the beauty of the place. There’s nowhere else like this.”
The new Ojai institutions
Summer Camp, a homeware/outdoor goods store and framer in an old gas station on the edge of town, has an aesthetic that somehow evokes Wes Anderson and dreamy road trips. Owners Michael and Rachel Graves opened the shop in 2013, having escaped Santa Monica “for a quieter, more connected life”. Aside from the framing, the goods run the gamut from cacti, rustic local ceramics and Ojai Vibes candles to floral vintage dresses and retro wooden waterskis. “The focus is on local, handmade stuff,” says Michael. “We love the outdoors, and that idea of the summer camp informs it all.”
A collaboration between craft beer entrepreneur Spoon Singh and interior designer Channon Roe (also the man behind the nearby In The Field boutique), Harvest opened last summer in an elegantly spartan space, with blonde wood ceilings and an outdoor patio. The kitchen is helmed by is 22-year-old prodigy Alvaro Uribe, whose experience includes a stint at the legendary Chez Panisse in Berkeley. He serves up Ventura oysters, local shiitake mushroom toast and steak from the local Watkins Cattle Company. “It’s all about showcasing the best of Ojai,” says Uribe. “It’s really fun to be using produce made by friends of mine.”
Ojai Rancho Inn
Until 2012, the Ojai Rancho Inn was just another tired roadside inn—but then Chris Sewell and Kenny Osehan got hold of it. Sewell and Osehan are the couple behind the Shelter Social Club, which specialises in giving hip makeovers to Californian motels like the Alamo Motel in Los Alamos and the Hamlet Inn in the Danish-themed town of Solvang. Today’s Ojai Rancho Inn is an Instagram-tastic amalgam of wood-walled kitsch and modern hipsterdom, with cool ceramic light fixtures and Indian-accented rugs, throws and pouffes. There are cruiser bikes to hire, and regular events round the pool by the cosy Chief’s Peak bar, which has become a favourite haunt for locals.