Ojai (Oh, hi!)

Ojai, you get me.

I’m a bit hesitant to write about this place. Mainly because I don’t want a thing about it to change and it seems, if you put something into words and photos, you not only simplify it, but you set a precedent from which it may waiver. At any rate, my passion for sharing the things I love with others has outweighed my desire to preserve Ojai in its current, perfect state.

A few weekends ago I was in desperate need of a reset. I set google maps to Porch Gallery and zipped up Highway 33 North arriving in the packed-bag-proclaimed relaxation capital of Southern California. For the athletes out there, there’s a bike path that parallels the 33 for 15 miles with gorgeous mountain views that will take you from Ventura to Ojai!

Best View – Matilija Dam

Constructed in 1946 to meet the rising need for drinking water in Ventura County, the Matillija Dam has been the topic of a lot of controversy in Ventura County recently (think ecosystems existing naturally vs. increasing need for human drinking water). A graffiti protestor painted a pair now-famous scissors down the middle of the structure signifying the local community’s overwhelming desire to demolish the dam. Stoecker Ecological and Felt Soul Media even produced a movie about the landmark which is now available on Netflix. Get your floaties ready soon, though, because rumor… and the Matillija Dam Ecosystem Restoration Project website… have it that this thing is coming down soon.

Best Bite(s) – TIE – Woodfire Pizza from Farmer and the Cook and Strawberry Shortcake at Boccali’s

If you’re hankering for some good, old fashioned vegetarian cuisine, swing by The Farmer and the Cook on a Sunday evening for smoky woodfire pizza and live music on the patio. Even the typically carnivorous can embrace this quaint organic market with its cozy mis-matched seating, adorable place settings, and casual atmosphere.

After you’ve got your fill of live pizza and crunchy tunes (see what I did there?) please head over to Boccali’s for their famous strawberry shortcake (**available only seasonly – found this out the hard way**). I am self-proclaimed chocolate addict, yet, Boccali’s shortcake is the dessert I want after my last meal. No kidding. This tower of fresh, sweet, homegrown strawberries, light whipped cream atop a decadent cake base will leave you scraping the plate (maybe with your fingers).

Best Sip – Old Creek Ranch Winery’s 2011 Barbera

I take all of my Ventura County visitors here and carried a weighty amount of bottles back home with me as Christmas gifts this year! The winding drive to this picturesque ranch in the valley makes for the perfect first stop on your way into Ojai. You’ll be welcomed with smiles from the current owner-manager couple, the Whitman’s, who are as knowledgeable as they are friendly. If you’re lucky, the winemaker, Michael Meagher, will also greet you with a tasting of his equally enjoyable Vino V wine collection. On your way out, be sure to visit with the wine dogs, but be careful while you rub their bellies because they will absolutely come in for a kiss on your wine-soaked lips (it’s not their first rodeo).

Best Activity – Visit Bart’s Books outdoor bookstore

Bart’s Books is easily the chillest bookstore in California and potentially the last on-your-honor-store anywhere. Shelves of recycled books line the exterior and, if you want to purchase one when they’re closed, a sign on the front door simply asks you to drop your cash through the mail slot. If you stop by during operating (daylight) hours, you can’t miss their well-fed guard cat snoozing by the register. Bart’s staff will hook you up with personal recommendations, free wifi, and the perfect daytime reading nook to cure you from your boring, box-bookstore blues.

Best Place to Stay – Ojai Rancho Inn

These surprisingly chic, 1950’s style digs in the heart of Ojai boast an outdoor pool, unique event space, and the new Chief’s Peak Bar (complete with a totally hot bartender).  Over the summer, I attended “Rock Steady”, a concert at the inn composed of all local artists representing genres from indie folk to reggae. Ventura’s own Scratch food truck provided locally sourced sandwiches and a generous, shirtless hippie passed out watermelon slices for dessert. As I relaxed on the grass sipping a can of wine (no kidding), taking in Bob Marley covers, I totally envisioned a barefoot wedding ceremony under the sprawling oak (?) tree. Ojai Rancho Inn was the ideal setting for a summer jam session and could easily host a small, romantic wedding.

Inside the rooms, rocking chairs, hand crafted headboards, and fun wood paneling will have you feeling like you’re back at grandpa’s… if your grandpa is a craftsman-turned-interior-designer with a flair for cottage contemporary.

The cherry on top at the inn is the bikes they rent to travelers with “I ❤ Ojai Rancho Inn” license plates. Forgive my abbreviation, but .. adorbs. Check out a detailed tour of the inn and an interview with the owners here: Chris + Kenny’s Ojai Rancho Inn.

Honorable Mentions: latte at Osteria Monte Grappa,  Ojai Healing Movement, hike the Cozy Dell Trail, contribute to Porch Gallery’s “Before I Die…” board

Don’t forget: a float (for The Dam) and a designated driver after your tastings at the winery!


Avalon, Catalina Island

Catalina has a distinct way of feeling both exclusive and welcoming. You can simultaneously picture yourself as a celebrity pulling up to a Hollywood film lot and a much missed family member visiting from out of town. Of course, household names like Natalie Wood, Christopher Walken, and Marilyn Monroe were* known for frequenting Avalon, but the air of fame and notoriety is tempered by neighborly business owners, excited international tourists, and approachable locals ready to share their island with the world. You’ll enjoy the destination even more if you start your trip with a visit to the Catalina Island Museum to buff up on the island’s rich history then enjoy this adorable get away that’s just a few hours off the coast of LA!

*Don’t get me wrong, celebs still love make their Catalina rounds: Katy Perry sings karaoke on Catalina Island

Here are my recommendations from this trip:

Best activity: snorkeling at the Descanso Beach Club

Avalon’s Descanso Beach Club is a must-see in sun and moon light. By day, you can rent kayaks and other adventure equipment, have a waterside lunch, get a massage, or simply soak in rays on their gorgeous beach. By night, Descanso transforms into a dance club ideal for hosting or, in our case, crashing, a wedding or event. For private events, I make no promise that you won’t get politely kicked out; however, I do highly urge you to give it a go.

During the afternoon, for a little over $20, we each rented snorkeling masks and fins then took to the cool water. We spotted all sorts of colorful fish and sea creatures that I could not tell you the names of. However, I did find out that a local marine biology teacher found an 18-foot Oarfish while snorkeling here, so please try not to get eaten.

Best Bite: Filet Mignon with Bearnaise sauce at Steve’s Steakhouse

It’s immediately obvious that Steve’s brings in a crowd of regulars who live for stiff drinks and tasty eats. The staff will be happy to give recommendations on personal favorites and crowd pleasers, but I have to encourage you to try their Filet with Bearnaise served medium rare. Just the right cut and cooked to barely mooing perfection. Suck down a Buffalo Milk cocktail when you’re done just because it’s the official drink of Catalina.

Best Sip: Happy Hour at The Sandtrap Restaurant and Bar

Margaritas! Happy Hour! Taco Bar! I instinctively flocked here like the salmon of Capistrano (name the movie) as we wrapped up a hike that accidentally went off-trail. Tequila was bountifully served. As were tacos. They have a fresh salsa and taco bar that will put a meat cleaver to your post-activity lunch cravings. Drop in on your way back from hiking to the Botanical Gardens and Catalina Island Conservancy.

Best View: see the whole island from the Zip Line Eco Tour

Ace (seen dangling me over 100+ foot drop for a photo op) and his calmer compadre guide you through the zip lines from the island’s greatest peak down to ocean level at Descanso Beach. The staff are as professional and safe as they are fun. If you’re a history nerd or just curious like me, you’ll find placards with educational info about the island at each stop and the guides freely share anecdotes about run-ins with the tiny island foxes (these little foxes are ALL the cute). Zip-lining is an exhilarating way to get a full spectrum of Catalina views and spend time picking the brains of at least two locals.

Best Place to Stay: Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel

Thank you, Groupon! We arrived by boat around 11PM and cabbed it to the hotel well after they closed, yet, they gladly answered our after hours call (probably to the owner’s cell phone) and rolled out of bed to check us in. These people don’t do anything without a smile, it’s beautiful. The rooms are humble and quaint; no tv, no extras, no fuss. And you can’t beat the prime view of the harbor complete with bobbing yachts with a mountain backdrop.

Don’t forget: cash (to heavily tip the cab drivers turned tour guides), ferry tickets on the Catalina Express

Palm Desert

A work conference brought one of my oldest and dearest friends, Jeana, and her husband out West so Kip and I joined them in the desert for one of my favorite vacations to date! We sipped handmade cocktails by the resort pool, trekked through awe inspiring canyons, visited the 26 foot tall Marilyn Monroe statue, noshed on too much food, and enjoyed the warmth of Palm Springs. Palm Desert is a multi-faceted destination perfect for a long weekend getaway from the cold.

Here are my recommendations from this trip:

Best activity: sightseeing at the Painted Canyon in Mecca Hills

This is what most would consider an easy hike; you’re mainly walking on sand at level elevation for (up to) 6 miles round-trip. Getting there, on the other hand, is an adventure in itself. Bring your Subaru, y’all, ’cause the final miles driving in are BUMPY. We made the best of it, but it’s certainly not intended for 2WD.

About a mile into the hike, you’ll come upon steep, daunting rocks that would make an inexperienced climber do a 180. Do not fear, however, for some kind souls tediously secured ladders to the rocks so we can all fully enjoy this eighth wonder of the world. My cup runeth over. I felt like I was in the middle of a buzzfeed list of “21 places that will make you smile.” By far the, for lack of a better adjective, coolest place I’ve ever seen.

Best Bite: Wild Mushroom Truffle soup at Zin American Bistro

I can always get behind a place that wins the Wine Spectactor Award of Excellence 8 years in a row. Zin American Bistro is no exception. Contrary to its name, it has an undeniable European atmosphere. We comfortably sat elbow-to-elbow with our neighbors and used the open-air construction for tourist watching along the downtown strip. Tapas are the name of the game here: “adult” mac’n’cheese, beet salad, blue cheese stuffed olives, cheese plates, and, my favorite, the wild mushroom truffle soup. The aromas and textures of each dish are artfully crafted to leave you wanting more. Note: Don’t find out the hard way (like the boys did) that the brie cheese rind is as potent on the tongue as on the nose.

Best Sip: special recipe Mai Tai by the Pool Bar at the Renaissance Esmeralda (ask for Vince)

Strong and just sweet enough to spoil your taste-buds. Whether you’re lounging poolside or soaking in an over-sized hot tub, this tropical cocktail is straight out of a 21-and-up mirage.

Best View: up Marilyn’s skirt, ‘Forever Marilyn’ statue, downtown Palm Springs

“It’s surprisingly detailed.” – Anonymous

Best Place to Stay: Renaissance Esmeralda Resort & Spa Indian Wells

Fire pits, waterfalls, and welcoming smiles galore. We reserved these fancy digs courtesy of accumulating Marriott points while traveling with my job. When you’re accustomed to sleeping in a tent or trailer while traveling, a bed of foam and feather is heavenly. The knowledgable staff and attention to positive guest experience were impressive.

Don’t forget: bathing suits, breathable active wear, 4WD vehicle

Morro Bay

In January, I traveled to Morro Bay in San Luis Obispo County with my boyfriend, Kip, his roommate, Josh, and Josh’s girlfriend, Maegan. We camped, hiked, went for bike rides, enjoyed a sunset picnic, stuffed our faces, and, my favorite, shared stories and ideas by the campfire. The boys surfed a crowded swell at the beach while I snapped photos and we swooned over the biggest wild otter Maegan and I have ever seen. For a lover of playing outside and taking in nature, Morro Bay will not disappoint!

Here are my recommendations from this trip:

Best activity: Hiking Bishop’s Peak Trail
We parked on Highland Drive, tangled with some frequently disrespected barbed wire, and headed up the 1,559 foot summit with a gallon of spring water and a full Camelback. It’s a demanding hike without the heat, but it was abnormally hot and dry when we took to the mountain so I was thankful for our refreshments. The trail seems to be an off-season training spot for ambitious and hungover Cal Poly student athletes; we saw a lot of wrestling t-shirts and heard a lot of banter about “last night’s” ventures from the fit teenagers passing us up the hill. 3.5 roundtrip miles and 950 feet of elevation change later, you’ll be glad you made the climb.

Best Bite: the Buffalo Chicken Bleu at Lincoln Market & Deli
Spicy, tangy, warm and narrowly edging out the ever fierce competition of campfire s’mores, the Buffalo Chicken Bleu is a hot wing hoagie created specifically for Sunday college town consumption.
The Lincoln Market and Deli prides itself on fresh sandwiches, a well-stocked supply of micro-brews and, true to SLO, a beefy selection of organic and local wines from the Central Coast. After hiking Bishop’s Peak, we drove ourselves to this updated sandwich shop and chowed down on on monster portions of hot roast beef and tasty, homemade spreads slathered over locally made french rolls and crispy baguettes. We filled our hike-hungry gullets alongside undergrads borrowing free Wifi and young families enjoying the modern atmosphere. This deli was Kip’s favorite while living in SLO and I can totally see why.

Best Sip: The Libertine Pub boasts 40+ beers on tap
We passed on this place because they didn’t have the fresh oysters I was craving, but I’ve been regretting it since I checked their Facebook page. I will definitely hit the taps here next time I’m in town.

Best View: Sunset at the estuary across from Morro Bay State Park
We packed a wine and cheese picnic to nosh on while watching birds dance in little pools of receding water as the sun sunk behind the mountains. It was bright with hot reds and electric oranges to start then settled in to soft pink and blue pastels. Do not miss this!

Best Place to Stay: Morro Bay State Park (campground)
If you have access to a 1964 Aristocrat Land Commander trailer, I would say that’s your best bet for experiencing the most enjoyable trip possible. If not, all bets are off, but you might still have fun in a tent, camper, or some other sort of this-century weekend housing quarters. Luckily, Kip’s parents let us borrow their camper and it really made for a comfortable stay. We found the people that work and stay at this campground to be especially friendly, helpful, and respectful. We were able to comfortably sleep in past 9AM, a unique camping experience for only the supremely lucky.

Don’t forget: hiking shoes, sunglasses and sunscreen, cash (for firewood, etc.), a cooler with lots of ice, bikes, hand soap, friends that will stuff their faces with as much or more camp food than you