Ojai's Gardens of Eden
The city’s natural charms and spiritual ambience make it a Shangri-La for locals and visitors alike.
By Irene Lacher 04/03/2014
January had been a rough month. I’d plunged into the polar vortex on the East Coast to attend a family funeral, and when I returned, I felt the need to take a different sort of break from my daily life, to reflect and recover.
That ruled out SoCal’s luxe temples to consumerism, which certainly had their place, but not for this trip. Instead, my thoughts turned to the gentle city of Ojai, 90 miles to the northwest. Residents are so proud of Ojai’s natural beauty and its devotion to health and spirituality that they call it “Shangri-La.” (An incorrect urban legend casts the Ojai Valley as the location for Lost Horizon, the 1937 Frank Capra film about James Hilton’s fictional paradise, although film historian Kendall Miller says the movie did include an aerial shot.)
Actress Reese Witherspoon, who married agent Jim Toth at her former home there, described the city’s appeal to Elle Décor. “Time slows down,” she said. “It’s like having a little bit of Tennessee in California.”
Indeed, Ojai’s sleepy pace “may be too tranquil for a lot of people,” says lifelong resident Julia Whitman. “It can be considered boring after 5 o’clock at night.” Yet that’s part of what makes it a mecca for people who want to part ways with the proverbial rat race, for a weekend or even a lifetime. “The people here are about nature and the outdoors,” she says. “They love art, particularly artistic things that are inspired by nature. We pride ourselves on a beautiful environment.” Ojai’s most famous resident was, of course, an artist — Beatrice Wood, who has an arts center dedicated to her life and work.
Not surprisingly, the Emerald Iguana Inn, one of two boutique hotels in Ojai owned by Whitman and her architect-husband, Marc, is — and this is a word I use sparingly — unique, inspired by the sensuous curves of Antoni Gaudí, the Barcelona-based architect who brought Art Nouveau to unparalleled heights in Europe. Marc Whitman “loves feminine organic design,” Julia says. “He doesn’t like sharp corners. He likes curves, round corners and arches. It makes it feel organic, like it was inspired by nature.”
Which made it the ideal headquarters for my pastoral sojourn. (Also, the fact that, unlike its family-friendly sister hotel, the Blue Iguana Inn, the Emerald is for adults only.) Set back from, but in walking distance to, Ojai’s art galleries, shops and restaurants, the Emerald Iguana began with a historic rock house built in 1906. The dozen rooms and cottages are built around a pool and decorated with teak furniture and other treasures Julia discovered or commissioned in Bali. My room, dubbed the Cricket, was an incredibly spacious two-story, one-bedroom cottage with vaulted ceilings, a private patio and a kitchen.
I arrived in Ojai close to the famous “pink hour,” when the valley is bathed in velvety fading light. Meditation Mount has some of the best views overlooking the valley, so off I went to catch the opening of an art installation in the International Garden of Peace, close to the entrance. It was the perfect place for local artist Brian Berman to mount an exhibition, because it was there that the Pacific Northwest sculptor and his wife, Lisa, decided to buy a second home in Ojai in 2011. “We sat there overlooking that beautiful view scented with oranges, and we said, ‘This is it,’” he recalls.
The show, which runs through mid-April, consists of 25 sculptures in various materials and sizes, most shaped like the letter “B” referencing the artist’s name, “planted” throughout the garden. Berman explained the work as “utilizing the feeling of being. Everything is just being, whether it’s an agave or an ant crawling on sand. And we human beings get so involved in our thinking-and-doing process that we don’t come from a place of just being ourselves.”
Berman described how the garden setting was intertwined with the work. “There are some things that disconnect us from nature. Life, at least for the spiritual approach, is to overcome that,” he explained. “But all of the spiritual texts that I’ve encountered say we are already that which we are seeking. We’re looking for something that we already are. So that’s the message I get from the garden. This is the living Bible. I don’t have to read a book in order to get the message. That’s the beauty for me, and I’m not per se a tree-hugger.”
Meditation Mount is not Ojai’s only garden sanctuary. There’s also the 170-acre Meher Mount, a spiritual center dedicated to the late Indian guru Meher Baba, who remained silent for the last 45 years of his life. And the spectacular Taft Gardens, (805) 649-2333, founded by Julia Whitman’s father, the environmentalist and former Ventura real estate developer John Taft. Taft spent decades cultivating the 265-acre garden, dedicated to rare South African and Australian plants, which he donated to the Conservation Endowment Fund in the ’80s. He has a home in the nearby mountains and, most days he’s in Ojai, he still surveys the property, his Jack Russell terrier, Betty, at his heel.
The gardens lie at the end of a long paved street off Baldwin Road. I parked and checked in at an empty visitor’s hut, where I signed the guest book. Then I wandered among groves of plants like nothing I’d seen, a strange landscape out of a Dr. Seuss book. There were fire-red aloes and human-size grass trees from Australia with narrow trunks that seemed to undulate like the arms of a belly dancer. And there I found what I was searching for: an ironwork bench in a lovely shaded clearing, where I could spend some quiet time alone with my thoughts.