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A New Road to Ojai

The Ventura River Trail leads cyclists from the coast to a cozy B&B and back, with industrial art and eccentric Victoriana as rewards for 30 miles of pedaling


VENTURA — We were traveling to Ventura and Ojai much as the Victorians might have: by train, and then by bicycle. Our lodgings would date to that era too. The modern note was that part of our bicycle trip would be on the $4.5-million Ventura River Trail, which opened last fall.

The trail inspired my pedaling buddy, Wendy, and me to make the trip in May. Wendy had biked from Ventura to Ojai before, using an unofficial route, and we were curious about the new off-road trail. She recalled the terrain as pretty flat--a major plus for me, a recreational cyclist who's hardly ready for the Tour de France.

OK, we did drive a little bit, to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, to pick up Amtrak Train No. 769. It was equipped with bike racks that day. (Not all trains on the route have them now, but they will by spring 2001, Amtrak says.) The train pulled out at 9:20 on a Friday morning, a half-hour late, and arrived in Ventura at 11:15. After buying snacks at a shopping center, we turned north off Main Street onto Olive, followed trail signs and picked up the Ventura River Trail a few blocks away.

We soon learned that the trail's name is a euphemism; we got only a couple of views of the algae-blotched river along the six-mile route. Instead, much of the smooth asphalt path threads through an industrial district near California 33--hardly postcard scenic but kind of fun. We dubbed it the "what-is-it?" trail.

There were junkyards with oddly shaped, rusty machinery parts; grasshopper oil wells; a huge refinery and oil works, some active, some abandoned; and numerous pieces of cryptic public art. The latter, which also served as distance markers, were topped by industrial detritus and inscribed with definitions of terms containing "mark," such as "marker flags" and "punctuation mark."

About five miles out, we finally exited Industry Land, and our trail linked to the Ojai Valley Trail, just outside Ventura County's Foster Park, a shady oasis with picnic tables and washrooms. A short nap there fortified us for the next nine-plus miles, much of which, it turned out, was uphill--mildly so, but continuous. It was work. But the scenery was worth it: tree-dotted foothills and mountains, the valley floor below and pretty backyard gardens of private homes.

Arriving in Ojai at 4:15 p.m., we cut away from the trail and found our lodging, the seven-room Moon's Nest Inn, a few blocks away. Opened in 1874 as the town's first schoolhouse, the building was later a family home, a boardinghouse and a B&B known as the Ojai Manor Hotel.

Three years ago, L.A. interior designer Rich Assenberg bought it and added a dormer, balconies and private baths. (Two rooms still share a bath.)

Reopened 1 1/2 years ago, the inn includes an expansive backyard with lawn, gardens and a pond. It's a soothing retreat just a block from the main drag, Ojai Avenue.

Our cozy second-floor room, No. 4 ($120), had a private balcony overlooking the lawn, wicker furniture, a modern bath and artworks.

Dinner was a couple of blocks away at La Veranda, a small French-Mediterranean place. I had a gigantic filet of sole with lemon and capers ($18.95); Wendy had black tiger shrimp sauteed with tomato, dill and feta cheese ($15.95). Both were delicious.

On Saturday, after an elegant breakfast of Swedish-style pancakes with berry compote at the inn (there was also an extensive cold buffet), we visited the downtown Ojai Valley Museum. It has small but informative sections on the Chumash Indians and town history, plus rotating art exhibits.

Lunch was at the new Ojai Brew Pub, 423 E. Ojai Ave., which served fine beers made on the premises, plus inexpensive salads and sandwiches. Then it was time to head back to Ventura.

Our return trip was all downhill, and pleasantly so. We left about 3 p.m., retraced our route and arrived in Ventura by 6. We approached our downtown B&B, the former Southern Methodist Episcopal Church, topped with a 96-foot-tall steeple. The building has been revamped as the five-room Victorian Rose. The Carpenter Gothic building, dating to about 1890, was impressive from the outside. But nothing could have prepared us for the inside.

As I entered the side door and started up a flight of stairs, I confronted more than 60 old prints, photographs, church memorabilia and other antique visuals jostling for space on the stairwell walls.

In the inn's lobby (the former church nave), hundreds of objects competed for my attention: antique barber chairs, embroidered pillows, mirrors, a dining table, a fountain with sculpture, a vintage oven and more. I ascended the spiral staircase to the choir-loft landing, looked down and experienced a kind of Victorian vertigo.

Owners Richard and Nona Bogatch acquired the building in foreclosure, spent two years renovating and furnishing it and opened it as a B&B in June 1999.

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