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Weekend Escape: Ojai : Chasing the Pink Moment : Sunset-watching hits a new peak in the Topa Topas

Boorstin is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer

Everybody’s a sucker for sunsets, but the Ojai Valley is known for unique ones that the locals call “pink moments.” Instead of looking west at the setting sun, you look east to see its reflection on the bluffs of the Topa Topa Mountains, which for a few short moments are airbrushed a Day-Glo pink. Then I saw an ad for “Pink Moment Jeep Tours,” which takes guests on 3 1/2-hour excursions into Ojai’s back country, to the top of the Topa Topas.

My husband, Paul, and I knew our sunset prospects were good when on the planned Saturday in December, we awoke to a radiant day. We drove northwest on U.S. 101 past Ventura, and turned east onto California 33, heading inland. Backed by mountains striped with wide bands of piedra blanca (white rock--the better to reflect the pink moment), the Ojai Valley is strikingly beautiful. As we entered the tiny town of Ojai, the sky was crystalline, the temperature pushing 80. We parked in the park and ride lot on Ojai Avenue, where our friends Clay and Clara Stites were joining us, and walked to Ojai’s historic Spanish colonial-style arcade in search of lunch. Our choice was Bonnie Lu’s, a homey cafe where one special is the “green moment” salad. We returned to the lot in time to meet our tour vehicle, a snazzy open-sided Jeep Wrangler that had been converted to seat seven, with a windshield that folded down and a tinted plexiglass sunroof. Our driver was Kerri Mackenzie, a Pasadena transplant who raises horses and grows organic produce when she isn’t guiding Jeep tours. Mackenzie pointed out a distant mountaintop--Chief Peak, our destination--and warned us to bundle up as if for a sleigh ride; it would get cold once the sun set.

Soon we had left the town of Ojai behind, and were heading east on California 33 past oak-shaded ranches, fragrant citrus groves, and a retreat that was once “Pop” Soper’s boxing camp, where such champions as Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Max Baer trained. The road wound through Wheeler Gorge, known for its hot mineral springs; we could see water trickling down the rocky face of what locals call “Weeping Mountain.” The cottonwoods lining Matilija Creek still wore the last of their bright yellow autumn leaves, which shimmered like spun gold in the wind. It was almost corny the way we were marveling at the rich scents in the air--wild sage, mesquite and California bay--but they were hard to ignore.

We climbed gradually for 22 miles through pristine back country, to the turnoff for Rose Valley in Los Padres National Forest. At the nearly deserted Rose Valley campground, Mackenzie unlocked the gate that bars the fire road, and shifted into four-wheel drive for the “E-ticket” part of our ride. We hung on to the roll bars as she churned into a dip that sent us bouncing off our seats, then jounced up an even steeper hill. We were climbing Nordhoff Ridge, coming in the back way to the Topa Topa Bluffs.

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We considered hiking the last 200 feet to the top of Chief Peak, but there wasn’t time. The sun was sinking fast, suffusing the sky with golden light. We pulled out the bottle of champagne we had brought along to toast the quickly approaching pink moment.

At first we were all chattering away, exhilarated by the panorama and the sense of being surrounded by pure nature. Soon, however, we fell silent, watching the piedra blanca of the bluffs to the north and south of us turn golden--and yes, finally for one brief moment, pink. Immersed in the pink moment, our eyes were drawn back to the west. The sun stabbed into the ocean of clouds, and mare’s-tail clouds brush-painted the turquoise sky with fuchsia, mauve and scarlet.

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Eager to unwind over a leisurely dinner--and to warm up--we drove into nearby Meiners Oaks to claim our reservations at the Ranch House restaurant. I had dined at this Ojai landmark 15 years before, and remembered how innovative the food was. The Ranch House hasn’t changed in appearance over the years: The rustic dining room opens onto a bamboo-shaded garden filled with Buddhist shrines, fountains, a koi pond.

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We were seated on the patio near giant heaters, overlooking the herb garden. Service was friendly, but a little too hasty; with the entrees arriving just as the appetizers were being removed, we felt hurried along. A dish I remembered broiled salmon brushed with celery, poppy and sesame seeds--was one of the best this time, too. The rosemary and garlic-haunted New York steak was superb; the Ojai Valley-raised escargots (no kidding) were tender. But several of the appetizers and entrees were just OK. When the bill came, we concluded that the $100-per-couple price was excessive.

Our B&B; for the night was the Ojai Manor Hotel, built in 1874 as the valley’s first schoolhouse. Even though there were only three bathrooms to share for six guest rooms, we found the Ojai Manor charming.

Sunday morning, we awoke to another gorgeous Ojai day. After a complimentary buffet breakfast of pastries, fresh orange juice and fresh-ground coffee, the four of us set out for a walk through town. Our first stop was the local Sunday farmers market, where the produce ranged from tiny, sweet Satsuma tangerines to giant turnips.

We strolled down Ojai’s arcade, stopping to check out the listings in the window of a real estate office. One took us by surprise: the Ojai Manor Hotel, for sale at a--by L.A. standards--very reasonable price. We gazed at the azure sky, at the distant peaks of the Topa Topa Mountains, for the moment at least, sorely tempted.

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Budget for Two

Lunch, Bonnie Lu’s: $9.31

Jeep tour: $84.00

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Dinner, Ranch House: $114.04

Ojai Manor, one night: $110.00

Gas: $9.74

FINAL TAB: $327.09

Pink Moment Jeep Tours, tel. (805) 646-2903 or (805) 646-3227. Ojai Manor Hotel, 210 E. Matilija, Ojai, CA 93023; tel. (805) 646-0961.


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