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Martin Kelner, Journalist, Author and Radio Presenter.
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California's Shangri-La - paradise for ageing hippies

“In these days of wars and rumours of wars, haven’t you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight?”

The question is not mine. It is from the opening titles of the 1937 film Lost Horizon, and continues: “Of course you have. So has every man since Time began. Always the same dream. Sometimes he calls it Utopia, sometimes the Fountain of Youth.”

Those of you familiar with Frank Capra’s film will know that Ronald Colman, who plays a British diplomat rescuing his countrymen from war-torn China, finds Shangri-La, a legendary paradise where no-one grows old, after his ‘plane crash lands in the Himalayas.

Interestingly, the enchanted valley on which Colman feasts his eyes in the movie – which is some distance from the Himalayas – is still regarded by many as a fountain of youth. I happened upon it just a couple of hours north of Los Angeles International Airport, where my ‘plane had landed in the more conventional way.

I was there to visit my friend Elaine, a show business journalist in Santa Monica. Like any freelance worth his salt, I had arrived with a film script in my back pocket. I mean, holidays in the sun are fine, but when you have a pip of an idea and have absorbed every one of the Tips for Dynamic Pitching on the internet, it seems a waste to fly to the movie capital of the world less than fully prepared.

Not wishing merely to wander around Southern California in the vague hope of encountering a top Hollywood player, I drew upon Elaine’s expertise – her livelihood depends on knowing everyone who is anyone, and where they are likely to be at any given time – which is how my script and I ended up in Shangri-La, otherwise known as Ojai (pronounced: Oh hi) in Ventura County.

In a part of the world where the dividing line between reality and the movies has never been particularly well defined, it will scarcely startle you to learn Ojai has become something of a Mecca for seekers after eternal youth – which takes in most of Southern California – including, according to my intelligence, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Anthony Hopkins, and numerous agents, producers, and so on.

For Hollywood’s aristocracy, the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa is the favoured spot, a 220-acre resort built in the Spanish colonial style in 1923 by a wealthy Ohio glass manufacturer, including, among other refinements, an 18-hole, par 70 golf course, one of the most attractive in America, and a 3,500 square foot penthouse suite, with a private elevator, four bedrooms and two living rooms, a private treatment room, sauna, meditation loft, sunrise and sunset terraces, and private outdoor whirlpools.

That meditation loft is a dead giveaway, because the single most popular leisure pursuit in Ojai is getting in touch with the inner self. Quite apart from its role in Lost Horizon, the Ojai valley is believed to have special mystical significance since it runs East/West rather than North/South as most other valleys in the world do, which means, according to believers, that it is the perfect spot for communing with nature, speculating on the meaning of life, and allied activities.

Unfortunately not having the clout of recent residents like Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow or Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones – at least not until the film script is sold – I was unable to book the penthouse with the meditation loft, or indeed any other room at the resort.

I was staying twenty miles or so down Highway 33 by the coast at the “historic” Pierpont Inn, Ventura, which actually suited me fine, as there was a range of spa treatments, rejuvenating massages, and so on that I was able to ignore, almost as impressive as the Ojai Valley’s. In my view – and I am probably a little old-fashioned in this way - a few days at the seaside are every bit as rejuvenating as being wrapped in lemon grass, or whatever, and lightly pummelled, and Ventura fitted the bill perfectly.

It is a small slightly faded seaside town with one of California’s oldest wooden piers, built in 1872 but recently renovated, and a cracking place from which to view the coastline, the Topa Topa mountains, and the many hundreds of cyclists and joggers using the coastal paths that run under the boardwalk (to quote the Drifters’ 1960s hit record).

Actually, the old pop reference is quite apposite as Ventura seems replete with golden oldies. From my admittedly limited observation, the typical denizen would appear to be a fifty- or sixtysomething chap with his grey hair worn long, scraped into a pony tail at the back, jogging furiously along the coastal path in the sunshine, listening to old Grateful Dead albums on his iPod. Either that, or a woman of similar vintage, with cats, and a roster of tennis partners to help in her quest for everlasting youth.

To look at, it is a typical Californian small town, with lots of buildings on its pretty main street dating back to the great rush West in the early years of the 20th Century. Some of it may look vaguely familiar if you remember the Perry Mason series on TV, as Erle Stanley Gardner started writing the stories when he was working as a lawyer in Ventura, and set them around the town, which was used for occasional location shots.

Sadly, Ventura has suffered the blight of many communities around its size in America, with quite a few of its fine old-fashioned shops now charity outlets, and “proper” shops having decamped to the mall on the edge of town.

There were even a couple of what used to be called “head shops” on Main Street – I was feeling younger already – selling hippy paraphernalia, and one or two shops stocking old vinyl albums. Frances, who sold me a Joni Mitchell album I had not seen for a while, and one of Lenny Bruce’s early efforts, told me the worst thing you could say about Ventura is that it is a little dull.

Dull suited me fine as it happened. On arrival at Los Angeles international airport, in a probably doomed attempt to look the part, I had hired a small Chrysler convertible for my journey up the coast. The big mistake was to take to the freeway with the hood down. I can honestly say that in thirty-odd years of driving, these were my scariest two hours behind the wheel of a car.

The chap at the car hire place had asked me if I wanted to upgrade to one of those huge sports utility vehicles that look they should be carrying small platoons of soldiers, to which my response was on the lines of: “I am on my own, why on earth would I want one of those big things?” I soon found out. Piloting anything less substantial along six lanes of freeway is like tackling Everest in flip flops.

Bumper-to-bumper at seventy miles an hour, cars passing you on either side, horns blaring at the merest sign of indecision – even the M25 does not prepare you for this. I began to suspect that all those grey-haired joggers I saw in Ventura were actually quite young blokes who had just spent too long on the freeway.

They did not look like people keen to have their exercise interrupted, even for a world class script, so I made for Ojai, where Elaine had assured me Sam, an agent friend of hers staying at the Ojai Valley Inn, would be delighted to meet us.

I got the distinct impression – and this is not an entirely scientific survey – on the drive in, that Ojai may be the only town in the world with more psychic healers than greengrocers. Certainly, if you are hoping to consult with a naprapathic physician or an empowerment trainer, healer, and ceremonialist, this is the town for you.

Sam looked pretty chilled, so I asked him whether he had enjoyed the Kuyam treatment at his hotel – it’s an Indian word meaning “a place to rest together” - which involves multiple guests sharing a special chamber where they are “introduced to the Inn’s signature cleansing mud, guided meditation, dry heat, and breathing therapy to emerge blissful and relaxed.” He said no, he had played a round of golf. (“Signature mud,” incidentally, was a new one on me, but this is California.)

We dined on the terrace, where we enjoyed some excellent sea bass, and what locals call the “pink moment,” when the mountains surrounding the Ojai valley appear to turn a brilliant shade of rose in the sunset. Sam talked of escaping the LA rat race to settle in Ojai, a popular idea at present, which is why property prices are escalating quite alarmingly. I produced my script, which I pitched in the prescribed fashion, by comparing it to two previously successful films.

“It’s like Shrek meets All The President’s Men,” I said, wholly inaccurately (it is actually about a waitress from the North of England meeting a visiting American pop star on the chicken-in-the-basket circuit in the mid-Seventies, marrying him, reinventing herself as an American, and then returning to her run-down Northern mill town after his death some 30 years later to a big surprise).

It may have been the mellow feeling engendered by the pink moment or too much signature mud, but Sam listened patiently, and promised to put me in touch with some people who knew some other people, who could probably get to some other people, who might listen to my pitch - and probably have a good laugh about it before sending me on my way, and commissioning a film starring Tom Cruise as a crusading lawyer.

But that is not the point really. The pitch had given me an excuse to go to a spot I should otherwise probably have never visited. I am not sure whether it really is the spiritual centre of the world, as some believe, or the “utopian land of perfect peace, love, beauty and harmony” Ronald Colman found in Lost Horizon, but it is an undeniably pretty spot, and for those of us who were hippies first time round, and thought we would never get the chance again, it could be Shangri-La.

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