Ojai Valley Inn & Spa...
a little piece of Shangri-La

Story & Photos by Ed Stone

Editor's Note: The recent Thomas fires that destroyed over 280,000 acres in the Ventura area of California fortunately spared the town of Ojai and the Ojai Resort & Spa.  CLICK HERE for a listing of activities at the Resort for 2018. We are happy to report this good news.
Jim Catlett

“It’s just a little piece of Shangri-La,” stated Jim Catlett, the affable golf starter at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa.  Jim is the epitome of this resort’s warmth and hospitality.   During his fifty-plus years of tenure, he has seen lots of changes at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa.  His father worked here as part of the golf course grounds and maintenance crew back in the forties and fifties.  In 1954, Jim signed on at the age of 15 to be one of the caddies.  He’s been here ever since.

Fountain at Ojai Inn

To get a true sense of this place, we must look at Ojai’s colorful history.  Filmmaker Frank Capra used the area to shoot the movie “Lost Horizon.”   Famed Los Angeles architect Wallace Neff was the first of his trade to show off his design talents here.  Golf course designer George C. Thomas created one of America’s premier layouts in this Valley.  And glassmaker mogul, Edward Libbey spent his time and money to create the Ojai Inn, golf course and improve the town of Ojai.  Jack Benny and Bob Hope enjoyed playing golf and escaping to this little piece of this California Shangri-La.

Number one green of the Ojai Golf Course

Edward Drummond Libbey came to the Ojai Valley to visit friends in the early 1920s and no different than the current day visitor, he fell in love with the area.  His fortune had already been made in the manufacturing of glass and glassware back in Toledo, Ohio.  Not only did he become a driving force behind building the Ojai Inn, he took a keen interest in improving the town of Ojai.  He commissioned George C. Thomas, Jr. (also architect of the Riviera, Bel Air and Los Angeles Country Club courses) to design his resort’s golf course.  Thomas was a talented horticulturist and landscape architect and not a golf course designer.  He knew how to maximize the natural contours of the 220 acres of rolling hills to make a premier golf course that would become renowned over the coming years.  The beautiful landscape provides vistas from every tee box, fairway and green offering a panorama of the Topa Topa Mountains and the Ojai Valley…all beautiful and challenging.

Celebrities of the past play golf at Ojai Valley Golf Course.  Left to right: Al Demaret, Jimmy Demaret, Jack Benny, Ben Hogan, George Fazio and Scotty Chishom. (Photo provided by Ojai Resort)

Jim tells me, “it has been eighty years since this legendary golf course opened.” He likes to brag about the days when pros Jimmy Demaret and Doug Sanders represented the golf resort on the tour during the 1950s and ‘60s.  He is proud to tell that the course has hosted seven Senior PGA tour events, the NBC Skills Challenge, the Michael Douglas & Friends Celebrity tournament and the EMC Golf Skills Challenge televised by NBC Sports.

Being a twice-a-week golfer and knowing the course a well as any local, Jim  tells about  Jay Morrish’s  remodeling of the course  in 1988 which made it considerably tougher.  The course still retains the challenges that have made Ojai golfing guests return year after year. Today the par 70, 6,292-yard course is rated 71 with a slope of 132.  
Number 2 is signature hole at Ojai
Although not  so noted,” the locals playing the Ojai Valley Course will consider the current #2 hole the signature hole for this course.  Today, the course is reversed from the original layout.

The Ojai Valley visitors will tell you this is a special place: it is unique…it has a different feel and smell.  No matter the season, there is always a fragrance provided by the citrus trees, the eucalyptus trees, star jasmine, lavender, and other native flowers, trees and shrubs.  Whether you are golfing, hiking, horseback riding or enjoying any of the amenities at  this resort, the weather is always “just about  perfect.”  

The "pink moment" at Ojai

Evening sunsets present a brief time (three to five minutes) known as “the pink moment.”  This appearance is caused from the sun’s reflection through the mist in the air coming off the Pacific Ocean on the Topa Topa Mountains.  Even the Chumash Indians loved this part of Southern California located just 35 miles south of Santa Barbara.  The Indian word Ojai to them meant Valley of the Moon.

One of Jim’s favorite stories is about the military’s occupation of the Ojai Valley Inn.  During World War II, the U.S. Army came to the Ojai Valley and took over the property stationing 1,000 troops here from 1942 to 1944. The U.S. Navy occupied the resort as an “R&R” facility for officers from 1944-45.  Before returning the property to private ownership at the end of the war, the government sold off the Quonset huts and platform tents that had occupied the course, and attempted to restore the links.

U.S. Army encampment on the Ojai Valley Golf Course during World War II.  (Photo provided by Ojai Resort)
One of the "lost holes" - Number 16 and lots of  sand traps

Unfortunately, they did not rebuild it according to George Thomas’ original design.  Two holes, including one of Thomas’ favorite par-three holes that had been built to resemble the famous #3 at Pine Valley Golf Club, were left out of the layout.  When the resort was reopened, the original holes of numbers 7 & 8 were so over grown that these holes were constructed elsewhere.  More than 50 years after these holes were lost, they were restored in 1999 and today the terrain of these two holes is so spectacular that noted golf historian Ben Crenshaw commented, “this shot is going to be once again one of the best shots in golf.”  Using archived documents, these holes were retraced and rebuilt to the best of the resorts ability.  Having reversed the front and back nines, these two holes are now numbers 16 & 17.

Number 16 plays as a par three with the white tees commanding 179 yards, the blue tees stretching 203 yards and the forward tees 146 yards.  The tee box is elevated, offering a stunning view of the large green being protected by  six  sand traps.  The Topa Topa Mountains provide a backdrop to some of the most beautiful scenery in this part of California.  Truly one of those holes you will want to absorb in your memory bank for a long, long time.

Number 17 tee to green

Playing the par 4, 385 yard (white tees), number 17 hole is a true challenge.  The tee shot is over a large ravine demanding at least a 200-yard drive to place you in a position to go for the green in two.  The challenge of this hole is the tee shot.  Late in the afternoon, your approach to the green provides one of the best views of the “pink moment” on the course.

The Ojai course is repeatedly rated a silver medal resort by GOLF Magazine and the editors also named Ojai’s hole #2 among the “500 World’s Greatest Golf Holes.” The course is named one of the top 25 courses by Golf Illustrated magazine and in the best 50 golf resorts by Golf Digest magazine.  Condé Nast Traveler readers consistently rate the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa among the nation’s top golf resorts and The Golfer magazine has ranked it in the Top 100 Golf Resorts in the World.

The Ojai Valley Inn & Spa has recently completed a $70 renovation and enhancement of accommodations, a new pro shop, an improved layout of the golf course, expanded golf instruction and new programs at the Ojai Spa.  “The enhancements won’t eliminate the things players have always cherished most about this classic course,” said Mark Greenslit, the resort’s Director of Golf. “These long-awaited changes only add to the experience by improving the pace of play, the finish, and the service levels in the shop.”

The new accommodations at Ojai Valley Inn
Beautiful bathrooms
Exterior of Ojai Inn rooms

The front and back nines of the historic course, designed by George C. Thomas in 1923, have been switched. The new layout brings the course more into alignment with Thomas’ intent. The first nine holes put easier demands on the player compared to what awaits him further into his round, while the back nine holes build in difficulty to a dramatic finish. 571 yards, hole #15 is the course’s most challenging par 5, and leads the player to the “Lost Holes,” #16 and #17, with the course’s most spectacular views and daunting barrancas or ravines. Number 18, with its sharp angle, uphill green and bunkers, is the toughest hole of all to par. True to Thomas’ goal, the course requires the player to “use every club in his bag.”

The new rooms overlook golf course

On a recent visit, I had the opportunity to enjoy one of the comfortable and luxurious new rooms of the Ojai Valley Inn.  Not only are they extra spacious, but also the cozy layout and colors of these 308 additional rooms make you feel extra special.  Each room has a gorgeous view of the golf course and the Topa Topa Mountains…truly a place for special occasions and celebrations.

Maravilla, the Inn's signature restaurant with an innovative menu created by Executive Chef, Andy Arndt and his talented team welcomes diners to three intimate dining areas with fireplaces and cozy banquette seating accented with colorful Moroccan pillows.  It would be difficult to recommend another restaurant with better atmosphere, service or cuisine.  The selection of wines is primarily from California.  The appetizers range from an organic baby lettuces and micro greens, young fennel, pixie tangerine and red hawk cheese crouton to seared Sonoma foie gras oven roasted figs, braised quince and brioche crouton.  Entrees are most original and each is most tempting.  They range from the seared Cortez scallop to the roasted white veal chop to the roasted Nebraska corn fed filet mignon.  There are some seven different entrees and they change on a frequent basis.  The Maravilla Captain, William Cory oversees the service and attention to all guests at this magnificent dining experience.

The Spa Ojai has one of the best well-rounded facilities in the world

Rounding out this quintessential resort are the other amenities offered.  This resort takes health and fitness in a very serious manner.  At Spa Ojai, a full program of Mind/Body classes for adults includes yoga, aerobics, water workouts in the pool, and t'ai chi, as well as nature hikes, power hikes, garden tours and walking meditation in their garden labyrinth.  At the spa’s Art Studio, classes in herbal wreath making complement a year-round schedule of painting and drawing classes taught by Spa Ojai’s artists-in-residence.

Guests at the Inn & Spa can discover the Ojai Valley along the horseback riding trails of the Inn's Ranch & Stables, and on the hiking and biking trails of the Los Padres National Forest. Hikers can also enjoy guided excursions through the Los Padres National Forest into areas that have, for millennia, been seen only by the indigenous hawks, raccoons, squirrels, coyotes and bobcats.

In addition to golf, the Inn boasts a complete tennis center, four hard courts and a full service pro-shop.  Other activities include guided lake fishing and kayaking, plus -- just minutes away -- a variety of beach activities, sailing, deep-sea fishing and surfing lessons.

Part of the resort’s tradition includes the 220-acre Ojai Valley Inn originally created as a world-class golf destination, but has developed over the past eight decades into an ultimate resort with endless activities for all ages. In fact, Condé Nast Traveler readers consistently rank the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa in their annual Gold List among the top resorts in California.

When asked about the celebrities who have played the course or visited, Jim is very cautious to give out names as he realizes this is a special place and special people come here to enjoy the 305 room Ojai Valley Inn & Spa…especially the golf.  He did say that a couple of his favorites in days past were Bill Boyd…you would know him as Hop-A-Long Cassidy and “Zorba the Greek” star Anthony Quinn.

As Jim Catlett said, “It’s just a little piece of Shangri-La.”

For reservations and information contact:
Ojai Valley Inn & Spa
905 Country Club Road
Ojai, CA  93023
Phone: 805-646-1111
Toll Free Reservations: 800-422-6524
Toll Free Group Sales: 800-672-2822
E-mail: info@ojairesort.com
Website: www.ojairesort.com