Take a historic resort with a classic George C. Thomas course, add a $100 million renovation, and what do you get?A reborn Hollywood star.
Courtesy of Ojai Valley Inn and Spa © 2008 Ojai Valley
| Credit: Courtesy of Ojai Valley Inn and Spa © 2008

It's hard to believe that from Los Angeles, if there's no traffic and you're not overly fond of the posted speed limit, you can be at the tranquil Ojai Valley Inn & Spa in just seventy-five minutes. Well, if there are no hitches. Meredith, my occasional writing partner, was on a deadline for a screenplay, so when she discovered about thirty minutes into the trip that she had forgotten her laptop, we had no choice but to turn around.

"Meredith! How could you do this to me?" I whined as I made a U-turn. "That'd be like me forgetting my golf clubs!"

Thirty-five miles south of Santa Barbara and twelve miles up rural Highway 33, Ojai is a quaint, artsy-craftsy hamlet whose downtown stretches only a handful of blocks. Beautiful homes hidden away in the surrounding hills sequester a lot of the Holly­wood crowd seeking a restful getaway from the hectic pace of the film business. But just before you get to Ojai's main drag, a turnoff takes you up to the majestic Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, arguably one of the finest resorts—if not the finest, when golf, spa and food are all factored in— in Southern California. In fact, I don't know of a better resort nor a place I would rather rusticate at, especially if I only have a few days. And let me repeat: From L.A., it's only seventy-five minutes away. You're there before you know it.

We pulled into valet and were greeted by a swarm of eager young men. Luggage was hustled to our room and golf bags lugged down to the pro shop. After a brief check-in, we fortified ourselves for an afternoon of golf on the outdoor patio at the Oak Grill, perched over the first hole of the back nine, where we sipped a glass of frigorific chardonnay and dined on grilled ahi and locally sourced vegetables. I had been to Ojai before to play golf but never to stay at the inn, which was out of my price range in days past. Times and my fortunes have both changed, and now here I was for three days and two nights of golf, spa treatments and the promise of wonderful food.

As we lunched, the first thing Meredith and I noticed was that there were hardly any golfers on the course. Admittedly, it was the middle of the week, and it was an unusually warm afternoon—but not that warm. It was a shock to see these verdant ribbons of fairways stretched out below us virtually empty. Plus, it was the height of the summer tourist season.

After lunch we repaired to our lovely room in the Hacienda building. When we threw open the curtains, we discovered that our balcony commanded a sweeping view of the front nine, with Sulphur Mountain framing it in the distance. A waxing half moon was already transiting up into the creamy blue sky. At night that sky would grow a deep violet and be scintillant with stars. But first, we had a tee time to make.

Ojai Valley was the brainchild of Edward Libbey, a plutocrat who made his fortune in glass manufacturing and later used his money for philanthropic purposes. In 1923, having grown enchanted with the valley and the game of golf, he commissioned George C. Thomas—who would also design L.A. Country Club, Bel-Air, Riviera and a handful of other magnificent courses in his short, brilliant career—to create the layout for a private facility called Ojai Valley Country Club. To this day, unless you're privileged to be (or be friends with) a member at one of those courses, Ojai might be one of your few chances to play a Thomas design. And playing one is like taking a trip back in time to an era of small, dramatically elevated greens, raised bunkers—and fewer of them—and shorter, tighter holes.

All was well until the forties, when history intervened. The military took over the facility and used it as a training camp, and at some point Libbey sold out. But it re-emerged in fine style after the Second World War, rechristened as the Ojai Valley Inn, a semiprivate resort with accommodations added to the Wallace Neff–designed clubhouse. The nines had been reversed and several holes had been lost, but otherwise the course was still very much the handiwork of Thomas in his prime.

For half a century the Ojai Valley Inn served grandly, expanding to eventually have some two hundred rooms. Jay Morrish was hired to spruce up the course in 1986 and again in 1999, when he reinstated the two holes (sixteen and seventeen) that were lost during the war. Then, several years ago, nearly $100 million was poured by a new ownership into a massive renovation of the sprawling 220-acre property. One hundred rooms were demolished to make way for bigger ones, another hundred were redecorated, and even more were added. In the end, 308 accommodations were realized and a 33,000-square-foot spa was introduced. The property was once more redubbed, this time as the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa.

Thus, Meredith and I had high expectations as we teed it up on the immaculate course, still a short—it's a tick under 6,300 yards—but devilish track. The first hole is classic Thomas. It's a ninety-degree dogleg right that requires either a layup or a bold blind tee shot over a fairway bunker to set up a short iron to the green. About two hundred yards out, the fairway, following the contours of the roller-coastering property, dips steeply downhill, at which point you're vouchsafed a scenic view of the first green: a small target with a single bunker guarding the left side. You can't help but stare transfixed at this green for a moment, admiring its beauty, before you hit your approach shot. There's something simply old school about this majestic little hole that almost brings tears to your eyes. Working without the benefit of bulldozers, Thomas imaginatively relied on the natural flow of the terrain. Today's humongous greens, with their emphasis on multiple pin placements, seem prosaic compared to the greens that were built in the first half of the twentieth century. Whether they were designed in that postage-stamp fashion for maintenance reasons or not, they definitely bring a well-rounded short game into the forefront, whereas the greens on most modern courses seem to place an emphasis more on monster lag putting ability.

The second and third holes are two of my favorites. Number two is another short par four with a canted fairway and a small green that is protected in front by a deep, cavernous barranca. Number three, at 115 yards, is no more than a full gap wedge to another minuscule green. Other than the grand resort building, which sits on a knoll and divides the two nines, there's no real estate bounding—and marring—the course. It is pure nature: Gnarled, twisted old oaks cast wraithlike shadows over the grounds in the late afternoon. Meredith, who just recently took up the game, particularly appreciated the challenge but also the playability and the natural beauty of the course. But better players will find that what Ojai gives up in length it more than makes up for with its deceptive and often treacherous short holes.

The pristinely manicured greens at Ojai are all bent/poa annua with a lot of subtle breaks and, when double-cut, provide one of its main defenses, as do the many mature overhanging trees. The course is tough enough to have hosted seven Champions Tour events, a toughness well evident on the seventh, a superb dogleg-right par four with another small raised green that sits imperially above the fairway, as many of the greens do on this front side. The nine concludes with a reachable par five set against the backdrop of the Spanish colonial–style inn.

The back nine is a stark contrast to the front, and it is where Morrish's handiwork is probably the most evident. Unlike the front side, with its drivable par-four fourth and its two pitching-wedge par threes, the back features three par threes, all in excess of two hundred yards. The greens are larger and sport a little more modern tiering. There are more bunkers, and it's almost four hundred yards longer. Sixteen, the first of the two "new" holes, is a difficult par three flanked by trouble on all sides, as is the following par four, but they both feel to me just a little out of character with the course as a whole. More bunkering studs the fairways and greens, and you feel for a moment like you're on a different track. Still, there's no arguing that these two holes open up the golf course to splendid vistas of the surrounding mountains and that the course as a whole has been made more punishing. There's also no arguing about the beautiful finishing hole (once the sixteenth): a brutish 442-yard dogleg par four that can easily ruin your score and send you hightailing it to a cool, dark room at Jimmy's Pub for a cold ale in which to drown your sorrows.

Exhilarated from the golf, Meredith and I dined outdoors that first evening at the Oak Grill. It was a warm, almost sultry night, but with the ocean only twelve miles away, a cooling breeze funneled up the valley off the relatively cold Pacific, and the temperature was delightfully Mediterranean-like. Looking down on the golf course, I still didn't see anyone out. This would turn into one of our refrains over the course of our too-short stay: Where is everyone?Is it a weekend crowd?Is the summer heat too much?We were befuddled. Maybe in the way that Bandon Dunes is best experienced in the winter when the crowds are gone, Ojai might be Southern California's best-kept summer secret.

Reposing on the balcony, we watched the Topa Topa bluffs to the east turn pink, as they are wont to do, and the night sky deepen to midnight blue, as myriad stars started to coruscate, revealing a wondrous galaxy. You don't see many stars in Los Angeles because of the pollution and the bright ambient light of the city, but here we were, so close to that sprawling metropolis, basking in the splendiferous night view, sipping a glass of wine and reflecting on the life of writers in Hollywood. We were one with the elements.

T he following morning, after an in-room breakfast of huevos rancheros, we played a second round. Grounds crews were out early, mowing the greens and raking the bunkers. Where are the players?Not another one out there. On a Wednesday. The openness of the course led to an unhurried, three-hour round, after which we lunched again at the Oak Grill, then suited up and strolled over to the pool. Finally, we discovered where some of the action was. Ojai is deliberately kid-friendly, and there was a horde of them frolicking in the pool, splashing and diving and playing Marco Polo, having such a great time that I didn't mind. The water was lovely. Everywhere you wandered around the grounds, there were splendid views of the surrounding mountains. No wonder the Chumash Indians once called this place home—their word "ojai" translated as "valley of the moon." The movie stars who frequented the inn in the forties and fifties had a simpler moniker: Shangri-la.

After a round of golf and a relaxing swim, we were ready for some pampering—it was time for the spa. "Hmm," I thought, when we got there and were handed robes to change into. "This is where everybody is." The reception area was crowded with spagoers, but the massage therapists were prompt, and Meredith and I were ushered into the couples room right on time. Honestly, I don't remember the massage. I don't know if it was the warm-weather golf, the irenic swim or that second glass of chardonnay at the Oak Grill, but I fell into a snoring (I was informed) slumber during the massage and had to be awakened when it was over. I do know that if I could have felt any more relaxed, I would have sunk to a new level of total-body torpor.

Recharged, it was off to dinner. Ojai's Maravilla Restaurant is not just another resort restaurant with steak and fish and the usual entrées—all executed well but often not on a par with big-city cuisine. No, this is a world-class dining experience. Meredith ordered lobster "three ways" (tail, claw and bisque) and I selected a special dry-aged steak that was perfectly grilled. And a very informed sommelier helped us navigate the extensive wine list.

"Even though I ordered steak," I said to the man, "this balmy weather has me thinking white."

"Big white?" he asked.

"I think so. Chardonnay?"

"Let me suggest the Brewer-Clifton Seasmoke Chardonnay," he responded.

"They make a chard?" I asked. Brewer-Clifton is a small producer known for its handcrafted pinots operating out of the nearby Santa Ynez Valley.

The sommelier pulled his eyeglasses down the bridge of his nose. "You wrote Sideways," he chided, "and you didn't know they make a chard?"

I laughed. Meredith, who loves it when my wine snobbery is punctured, pointed an imaginary pistol at me and fired it.

Yes, even though I'm knowledgeable about wine, it's always helpful to have someone who knows the list, especially when it's phone-book thick. I'd much rather ask an expert and let him or her steer me to a bottle based on what we're ordering and what our mood is. Our sommelier was vinously astute, and for those of you who think chardonnay—the right chardonnay—doesn't go with steak, you're mistaken. The richness of the wine he recommended was the perfect accompaniment to my beefy entrée, and it paired even better with the lobster.

Walking back to our room, we fell into the languor of the surroundings. As we relaxed on the balcony and reveled in a nightcap, I suddenly realized something: We hadn't once left the grounds. I'm not saying that a little day trip to the town of Ojai for some shopping might not be enjoyable, but why?Everything is here. We had barely sampled all that the huge spa had to offer, with its full gym and eclectic variety of treatments. We hadn't played nearly enough golf on George Thomas's marvelous minor masterpiece. The rooms are beautiful, and most have views you can luxuriate in as the hours fly fleetingly past. The place can lull you into a state of deep satiation.

When I woke on Thursday I couldn't believe it was time to go. I don't know when Meredith finished her script or when I found time to copy-edit it, but we managed that, as well.

Glancing around our room before disembarking for L.A., I said to her: "I could live in this room." Outstanding golf, refreshing lap-length pool, full spa with all the amenities, congenial staff, great food and facilities, the feeling of being immured in this valley that's engirded by softly rolling hills, so close to L.A. but really in another world, a world where time seems momentarily arrested.

"How about another nine holes before check-out?" I suggested to Meredith. When she acquiesced, I added, "And if you forget your laptop this time, I don't mind. I'll be happy to come back and get it."

Ojai Valley Inn & Spa

905 Country Club Road, Ojai, California. Architects: George C. Thomas Jr., 1923; Jay Morrish, 1986, 1999. Yardage: 6,292. Par: 70. Slope: 132. Green Fees: $160 guests, $170 nonguests. Rooms: from $400. Suites: from $700. Contact: 888-697-8780, ojairesort.com.