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Ojai Valley Inn & Spa: Shangri-La, not la-di-da

Times Staff Writer

With lusciously decorated rooms that start at $400 a night, a championship golf course, an every-treatment-possible spa and an adults-only gourmet restaurant, the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa doesn't, at first, seem like the kind of place you'd take your brood for a family vacation.

But it is. In fact, it's a kiddie Shangri-La. Vacationers know that when the kids are happy, parents are happy, and it's hard to be anything else in this mountain-rimmed setting 80 miles northwest of Los Angeles: Pristine Spanish Colonial-style buildings stretch across 220 rolling acres that also hold three pools, gardens and dozens of insightful staffers.

Usually, the very idea of taking children to a pricey spa or golf resort seems ludicrous. Who baby-sits while parents soak or hit the links?

When I called to reserve a room for Easter weekend, the reservation clerk emphasized that the inn is a "family-friendly resort." Families? I thought only Hollywood celebrities came here, and only if they needed to detox before meetings with their producers or parole officers.

How wrong I was. The Ojai Valley Inn offers a half- or full-day program, called Camp Ojai, for children ages 5 to 12. They're entertained with art projects, a water slide and a trip to the on-site ranch to pet animals; they get to ride a pony and learn about farm life; and they can cavort on a big wooden swing set. The morning session is $55, plus $10 for lunch, or $80 for a full day.

Suddenly, a whole new kind of vacation experience opened up. I could bring my 7-year-old son, Eli, and even his Aunt Leslie. We'd have a sisters spa getaway and a family vacation.

There may be no better place to take children than a resort in a small town a short drive from home. On top of that, kids have lots of roaming room on these expansive grounds.

The $90-million renovation that began in 2003 and lasted two years added rooms and suites that give parents privacy and children a place to spread their Legos. Nearly half the rooms connect to the one next door, and just under a quarter of the resort's 308 rooms are suites.

The place oozes a mellow vibe, with trickling fountains, guests walking their dogs and kids happily occupied at Camp Ojai. The guilt-free dividend: The resort becomes a place for parents and their children to relax and play together — and, for a few hours, blissfully apart. I met several parents who had used the camp to leverage private time. In four hours, I was able to experience nearly every aspect of the spa — the wet room's sauna and steam room, the lounges, the treatment rooms and even the communal meditation and mud bath (the kuyam). Although treatments are pricey ($125 for a 50-minute massage), they take place in stunning rooms with fireplaces and ceiling murals. For spa patrons, there are separate spa and lap pools too.

As hard as it was to leave the spa, it was harder to leave the room. My 425-square-foot room in the main building featured two of everything important: poster beds with fluffy duvets, sinks, mirrors, desk chairs, drawer space, mega-electrical outlets and wine glasses.

The hotel reflects Ojai's artistic community with abundant original artwork, and the resort's vast herb gardens are used in private-label body products and meal ingredients.

Good thing there were great paintings to look at inside: I didn't want to sit outside on the balcony and stare down at the asphalt path, a thoroughfare for noisy guests, shuttles and housekeeping carts. Noise is part of the bargain when you have kids, but it shouldn't come at a price of $400 to $6,000 a day on vacation. (The more remote, and thus higher-priced, rooms suffer less noise and have great views.)

Fortunately, staffers were well-tuned to children's needs. On learning that I would be visiting with my son, the reservation clerk offered to install a DVD player and a refrigerator. The room and the extras were ready when we arrived three hours early for check-in.

We didn't take advantage of the hotel's rent-a-nanny service to try a grown-up dinner at Maravilla, the upscale dining room. Instead, we dined at the Oak Grill, where my meals had me longing for the kids' menu. By far the best thing I tasted was my son's macaroni and cheese. The grown-up fare was either too sweet (a fruity chutney on grilled shrimp), too awkward (lunch-meat ham on a charcuterie plate) or overpriced (everything).

We signed up for Easter brunch after a staffer called to suggest we snag the remaining reservations. The tab — $65 per adult and $25 per child — suggested that the food would wow us. It didn't. As for room service, breakfast was ample, but the orders were jumbled.

Menu missteps were easier to forgive because of the many free activities: fitness classes, swimming, hiking, tennis, bicycling, a driving range. Staff also can arrange guides for fishing, kayaking, wine tasting and hiking. And on Easter, the resort set up free face painting, cookie decorating and, in Eli's case, an ill-fated egg hunt.

About 40 children scoured an egg-laden field by the orchard and meditation garden. Eli not only didn't win one of two prizes, but the first plastic egg he opened also was empty. Dejected, he slumped in his chair at brunch. An alert maitre d' noticed his mood, learned about the prize problem and returned with a foot-tall, ribbon-wrapped chocolate bunny. Astonished, Eli's mood lightened dramatically.

The confection now stands like a trophy on his dresser, a monument to a weekend he'll always remember, at least until he eats the bunny.

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