A happy family trip with a tween? It's possible. Acclaimed television creator Cindy Chupack heads north of Los Angeles and finds family harmony in magical Ojai.
OJAI, California — Since our first trip together when she saw Seattle from a stroller, my daughter Olivia has been my favorite travel buddy.
We did an Alaskan cruise with her grandparents when she was three (an age she spent almost exclusively in a shimmery blue Elsa dress). My favorite memory of that cruise is how one night in our tiny cabin, when I was using the even tinier bathroom, Olivia opened the door to talk to me. I said, “Honey, I need space.” So she closed the door a little and said, “Is this enough space?” And then a little more. “Is this enough space?” “Is this enough space?” I can still see her sweet face and little hands on the door as she tried to give me exactly the amount of space I needed.
And now she’s 12. This is her last year of a being a tween, and I’m keenly aware that my days as one of her favorite travel buddies are numbered. Soon she’ll be the one needing space on our trips, and I’ll be the one hoping there’s still a little opening. So now more than ever, I’m on the lookout for mother-daughter vacation spots that we can enjoy together, and that’s exactly what we found during a delightful four days at Ojai Valley Inn.
Our two-hour drive from Los Angeles started off a little rocky. Olivia and her best friend were having their first real fight and not speaking because of a boy who was Olivia’s first real boyfriend (and they, too, were not speaking). All signs pointed to this being a long and expensive four days of crying and texting (not to mention what Olivia would be doing).
We brought our five-month-old toy goldendoodle, Milly, since the Ojai Valley Inn is notoriously dog friendly. And as soon as the three of us had a scoop of Ojai Ice Cream on Ojai’s main drag (they gave Milly her first “puppuccino,” dog-speak for whipped cream) and were settled into our upgraded room that was ready two hours before check-in (!), Olivia and her best friend were best friends again, and it was clear Ojai would not disappoint.
What’s a Mother/Daughter to Do?
Spa Ojai at the Ojai Valley Inn is legendary — and even more beautiful since its recent renovation. I’ve had amazing treatments here in the past, but you must be at least 16 years old to use the facilities or enjoy the many free mind and body classes on offer. So I arranged a private aerial yoga class that was one of the highlights of our trip.
The instructor, Monica, asked out the outset what our perfect aerial yoga class would be: Mostly stretching? Some challenging poses? Some VERY challenging poses and inversions? Olivia and I agreed stretches with some challenging poses would be best — striking a balance between her limber, 12-year-old body and my haven’t-done-a-yoga-class-since-before-the-pandemic body. Using a silk we were assured could hold 1,000 pounds, we spent an hour stretching, standing in the silk, hanging upside down, spinning, and finally cocooning. You haven’t savasana’d until you’ve savasana’d cradled in a silk in the outdoor fitness veranda at Spa Ojai.
Another favorite spot was the Artist Cottage and Apothecary, where guests of all ages can stop by anytime during the day to do a myriad of activities that bring out your inner artisan. Olivia and I made soap and aromatherapy rollerball blends, then took advantage of the free afternoon make-your-own-potpourri bar, which includes a glass of wine if you’re of age.
The cottage and its surrounding courtyard are so inviting, we found it hard not to want to do everything. You can make candles, bath salts, sugar scrubs, ink dye coasters, wind chimes, and a succulent terrarium. If you feel like painting, there’s mandala stones or pottery, acrylic painting, or a “pink moment paint-by-numbers kit.” (Ojai has a beautiful soft pink sky over the mountains most nights right at sunset: the pink moment.) A free family craft hour every day at 10 a.m. features toddler-friendly projects like birdhouse or piggy bank painting.
We tried the Beekeeping & Honey Tasting experience, and although I found it fascinating to see the inner workings of a honeybee hive while protected by our white beekeeping jumpsuits, ventilated veil hoods, and sheepskin gloves, Olivia said this was not the way someone who is afraid of bees might get over their fear of bees. (She had a bad yellowjacket experience hiking once and still has an aversion to anything with a stinger.) When I asked how often people are stung doing this experience to alleviate Olivia’s worries, the resort apiarist Julie said in the two years she’s been doing this job only twice (and each time because of an accidental, sudden movement that scared or crushed a bee).
Olivia thought that was two times too many, but she was still happy she went, because after our visit with the bees, we took off our spacesuits and were shuttled back to the Craft Cottage where Julie led us through a beautiful honey tasting arranged for us. The table was set under the resort’s iconic wishing tree with lavender lemonade, beautiful cheese plates for pairing, and six honey varieties plus one dessert honey (Crystalled Sunflower Honey and Organic Lemon), all from Heavenly Honey in Ojai (which also offers tastings). Olivia and I were surprised, when tasting the honeys, that not only could you see the difference in color, you could taste the difference based on which flower the bees got their pollen from. We both loved Sage honey and Wild Blackberry, I loved Buckwheat, and Olivia was “obsessed” with the sweeter Orange Blossom. We loved them so much, we stopped at Heavenly Honey to stock up before leaving town.
Our final outing was horseback riding for an hour with Susan Gruber, owner of Ojai Valley Trail Riding Company. Susan is an award-winning horsewoman and carded horse show judge, and her property, Oso Ranch, is directly adjacent to the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy, which gives her access to acres and acres of trails along the Ventura River valley through beautiful horse country. She really takes care of her horses, who seem, in turn, very happy to be there and happy to take you sightseeing. She also offers Summer Horse Camp that kids can attend any number of days during the week. Many parents staying at Ojai Valley Inn send their kids to horse camp in the mornings so they can enjoy the free time or spa. (Everyone in the family gets to have a special day!) The Friday morning we were there, a lot of local kids were visiting, like they do every Friday, to decorate the miniature horses’ manes with beads and ribbons, feed the chickens and goats, and do chores around the farm. Susan told Olivia she was welcome to drop by anytime to lend a hand around her magical property, and Olivia said she would love that, so we’re filing that away for next time.
And of course, before we left town, we had to stop in at Bart’s Books, the world’s largest outdoor bookstore, an Ojai fixture since 1964.
Culinary Adventures with a Tween (And Puppy)
The Inn’s s’mores kit brings out the kid in everyone, especially when there are Adirondack chairs and firepits dotting the main lawn, so you definitely want to make s’mores at least once, maybe s’more.
One night we ordered room service and watched an in-room movie with Milly in bed next to us. Milly had never slept in a bed. She’s always been very happy in her crate and/or exercise pen, and we had a great set-up for her with her crate and food in the marble bathroom, but the beds at Ojai Valley Inn are too comfortable to resist. Milly made her way up to the bench at the foot of the bed, then into the Frette sheets. Like the two of us, she never slept better.
We tried the two on-property restaurants that allow furry friends: Jimmy’s Pub for casual fare and The Oak for finer dining which — no kidding — has a printed pet menu that has everything from four-ounce tenderloin steak with steamed rice to juicy bacon strips, “all served in pet friendly bowls.”
Milly perused the menu but ended up eating leaves when she wasn’t lapping up attention from other guests. She’s a very mini mini/toy golden doodle. While most doodle owners share stories of how large their “mini” or “toy” doodle turned out to be, we’ve been surprised how small ours is (her litter mates are all closer to 15-20 pounds at five months, while Milly is still under 5). Which of course makes her irresistible to adults and kids alike.
One night Olivia had a slight sore throat, and the tea and honey we ordered from room service came with complimentary chocolate lavender cookies that tasted like brownies and made her sore throat all but disappear. Libby’s Market stocks the necessities you might have forgotten (like cough drops) and delicious morning pastries (including lavender scones – are you seeing the lavender pattern)? One hot afternoon at the pool, staff came around with lavender lemonade ice cubes (delicious!), and you could also get Black Market sorbet bars and Nancy Silverton’s Nancy’s Fancy artisan gelato and sorbetto including flavors like Coconut Stracciatella, Roasted Banana, Salted Peanut Butter, and Meyer Lemon Torrone.
Our last meal in Ojai at Bonnie Lu’s was the perfect end to our mother/daughter trip, because when I asked one of the friendly waitresses where the name came from, she said Bonnie Lu was her mother. It turns out I was talking to the owner, Jenny Dohrn-Newell, who was happy to pose for a picture by the black and white photo of her mom that has been hanging on the wall since Jenny opened the place 28 years ago.
This adorable diner-like restaurant a few doors down from Ojai Ice Cream and Heavenly Honey had the Lone Ranger playing in black and white on the TV behind the counter, and a sign that read, “I love you like I love biscuits and gravy.” This was a place after my own heart because biscuits are one of my favorite food groups. I’m not a fan of gravy, but I love them with butter and honey, and I really wanted Olivia to try one that way since the “bite” she took of my biscuit became another bite, then another. Of course the honey at Bonnie Lu’s turned out to be Heavenly Honey’s Orange Blossom, Olivia’s favorite. As my daughter and I silently savored this perfect biscuit and perfect Ojai moment, I could feel a fellow proud mother, Bonnie Lu, smiling down on us from across the diner.
Plan Your Trip
There’s no bad time to visit. Ojai Valley Inn celebrates every season with spring, summer, and autumn activities, and what they call the serenity season (Thanksgiving to New Years’ Day), and hosts year-round food and wine events in their gorgeous event space, The Farmhouse. The Ojai Valley Inn is pricey. There’s no getting around the fact it’s a splurge. But for memories that will last a lifetime with kids who get older way too fast, this mom thought it was more than worth it.