Ojai Valley Inn
Five-star resort wants to teach you more about life

While the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa bills itself as a "spa village," a better description might be Getaway University, with its campus full of activities and honest-to-goodness classes in the finer points of life.

The Ojai Valley Inn is a little off the beaten path, 13 miles off Highway 101 with the exit just north of Ventura. This detour takes you to the Ojai Valley, a serene setting amongst a picturesque range of modest mountains. About 10 miles long and three miles wide, the valley has just enough room for a small town — a kind of artists' enclave — and the sprawling 800 acres occupied by the Ojai Valley Inn, its village and its golf course.

The inn dates back to 1922 when a wealthy Ohio glass manufacturer and philanthropist commissioned famed architect Wallace Neff to build a country club in a Spanish Colonial style. The 18-hole golf course was designed by George C. Thomas, also a famous designer. Even those who don't golf can still appreciate today the broad fairways and scenic vistas that are visible from almost every part of the property.

Over the years, the 308-room inn has become much more than a country club and was, in fact, recently awarded AAA's five-star designation, making it one of only 15 properties in California to reach such lofty status. The award — which comes on the heels of a $90 million renovation -- is predicated on service and amenities that are the best mere mortals can receive, and the Ojai Valley Inn does not disappoint.

When we arrived for our brief stay, a valet and a couple of bellmen were instantly at our service and check-in was quick and painless. We were driven to our suite on a golf cart, snaking along the curvy path, up and down hills until we reached our building, located adjacent to the spa and alongside a picture-postcard golf fairway. A little questioning of our bellman and we learned that about 45 percent of visitors come to Ojai for the golf, about 45 percent for the spa and the other 10 percent just to enjoy the surroundings.

As you can imagine, our suite was quite stylish and tastefully decorated. It wasn't as large as a traditional suite that may offer entirely separate living and sleeping areas, but the room was quite spacious and there was good separation between the four-poster bed with its comforter bench and the L-shaped couch, the centerpiece of the living area. There were plenty of extra touches from plushy couch pillows to a variety of lamps, to landscape paintings adorning the walls. The feel was much more like a residence than a hotel room, and right out the sliding glass door was a patio and breakfast table with views of the golf course and nearby mountains.

The bath area deserves special mention: it had a long, deep soaking tub, a separate shower area, separate enclosed toilet room and a double granite vanity. Hanging in the closet were the requisite luxury bath robes.

Once we had an opportunity to explore the grounds, it really started to sink in that this hotel is so much more than just a golf or spa resort. Activities are planned for every waking hour — if you thought cruise ships kept you busy, a stay at Ojai rises to a whole new level.

Chief among those activities are the classes and experiences that can make your stay as much an educational experience as one of total relaxation. Ojai's "university" offers "short courses in living better" that are designed to encourage guests to try new things and learn new concepts. Five short courses are presented, including such subjects as The Artist's Path, Tasting Wine like a Pro, Golf: the Name of the Game, Horseback Riding: Life's a Cinch; and Aromatherapy: Essential Oils from A to Z.

With the recent renovation, Ojai Valley Inn even has its own 1200-square-foot artist's cottage. In this gleaming new facility, the resort offers more than 30 classes, ranging from weaving, graphite and drawing to journaling, printmaking and wreath-making. We hadn't really come to the inn to take classes but, what the heck, we decided a class in watercolors would be a good way for us to see firsthand how the classes are conducted.

Our instructor had an excellent resume and amazing ability tocreate watercolor art, as evidenced by the many examples of her work proudly displayed throughout the cottage. And she was good at teaching just a smidgeon of that to us guests. All four people in our class were beginners, although one showed considerably more promise than the others. After 90 minutes of playing with various techniques and colors, we both had worksheets that rather closely resembled papers I remember bringing home from kindergarten. But keep in mind this was just an introductory 90-minute course -- no one promised to make real artists out of us.

It seemed to us these classes would be the perfect complementary activity for the person whose spouse is hooked on golf or the spa. Let them do what they enjoy while you go take some classes to learn more about life -- and about yourself.

The 31,000-square-foot spa building is one of the main attractions at Ojai Valley Inn, and we were impressed with the facilities and attention to detail. For example, about $400,000 was spent just to add individual small-screen TV's and separate channel selectors to the already state-of-the-art exercise equipment. Locker rooms and dressing areas were spotless, treatment rooms as hygienic as anything you would find in a medical facility. Again, a large part of the Ojai's spa experience is education, with classes in water aerobics, T'ai Chi and other activities.

Education at Ojai Valley Inn is not confined to adults. Another useful service provided by the resort — for extra charge — is Camp Ojai, a classroom and recreation complex at the far edge of the property that is dedicated to children between the ages of 5 and 12. Our six-year-old spent two half-day sessions at the camp in which she enjoyed individualized instruction in art, games and enough fun things that she was quite anxious to return for her second half-day of activities. Horseback riding topped her list of cool activities, but that was just one of several.

Dining, of course, was a big part of our stay at Ojai. We didn't get a chance to try the inn's signature restaurant, Maravilla, but the more casual Oak Grill offered everything we needed from the hearty breakfast buffet in the morning to lunch outdoors on the patio, to a deliciousdinner with impeccable service. Jimmy's is a sports-bar type restaurant, perfect after a day on the golf course, and the Caf' at the Spa serves lighter Mediterranean fare for lunch.

The food is exceptional at Ojai and just one small item illustrates real attention to detail: the granola. We found it to be the best we'd ever had, much more flavorful and complete than store-bought or any we'd been served in a restaurant. To one extent or other, every one of the other dishes we enjoyed at Ojai was just as special.

No doubt about it: Ojai's "Getaway University" is an ideal choice for those who want to explore new interests and learn how to truly relax. It's almost like going back to your college days — you know, when you had three hours in class and the rest of the day to play with friends.

AT A GLANCE

WHERE: Ojai is about 35 miles south of Santa Barbara and 73 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

WHAT: An idyllic valley that has inspired artists for many decades, and a full-service spa and golf resort that is rated as one of the top 15 resorts in California.

WHEN: Anytime. Ojai enjoys great year-round weather.

WHY: The resort offers activities and classes for everyone. Those who enjoy golf or going to the spa will especially like the Ojai Valley Inn.

HOW: For more information on Ojai Valley Inn and Spa, phone 888-772-6524 or visit www.ojairesort.com.

Photos:  Peaceful setting greets Ojai Valley Inn visitors; nearly half the visitors to the inn take advantage of the golf greens; Instructor and student in watercolor class; Spa Ojai is state-of-the-art facility; signs help you find your way around the campus-like resort.

Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other California vacation ideas, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Huntington Beach, San Diego, La Jolla and Dana Point.

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