Mind, body, spirit renewal on a budget

  • Written by Deborah Stone

It was with much anticipation that I headed to The Oaks in Ojai, Calif., a fitness and health spa, where I hoped to find rejuvenation, relaxation and renewed energy. Located 90 minutes from sprawling, urban L.A., the town of Ojai is one of the best kept secrets in California. The enchanting Ojai Valley is a mythical Shangri La, with its jagged mountain peaks, its tranquil creeks and streams and its groves of orange, lemon and avocado trees, which intoxicate the air with their heavenly scent.
   In this charming small town of 8,000, an eclectic mix of writers, artists, philosophers and film stars make their homes, along with several spas, a world-class resort hotel, five of the nation's top private, college prep schools, the 276-acre International Center for Earth Concerns and outdoor clothing superstar Patagonia's flagship store and corporate headquarters.
   The Oaks has been a part of Ojai for 25 years and during its longevity, it has earned a reputation for being an affordable retreat for a healthy mind, body and spirit. Owner Sheila Cluff, a fitness expert pioneer, started The Oaks in 1977 because she wanted to provide an affordable alternative to beauty spas, pampering havens catering only to the wealthy, and to fat farms, which she saw were mainly militaristic boot camps that used exercise as punishment.
   Over the years The Oaks has become known as a value-oriented destination spa, appealing to a wide age range of individuals from many walks of life. It attracts those seeking R&R and those who want a jump-start to their fitness. The emphasis is on a three-part philosophy that includes nutrition, exercise and alleviation of stress in one's life. The latter focus appealed to me the most when I made my decision to check into The Oaks for a long weekend. I was looking for a place to unwind, but not necessarily to veg out, as physical activity energizes me and helps me clear my mind. I wanted to concentrate on both my body and mind and a fitness spa seemed like the ideal solution to meeting my needs.
   The affordability factor of The Oaks enticed me, as I had always assumed that such places were only for those living life-styles of the rich and famous. Rates at The Oaks start at a reasonable $155 per person per night (plus tax) and include room, all meals and snacks, fitness activities, evening programs and complete use of the facilities (swimming pool, sauna, steam room, hot tub, weight training and cardio equipment). These modest rates do not give you glitz and glamour, but rather comfort in an informal and friendly environment lacking of any pretense.
   Staff, many of who have been at The Oaks since its inception, are warm, helpful and attentive. After I checked in, I was given a welcome orientation, explaining the spa's programs and activities, and then taken on a tour of the property.
   The Oaks was once a 1920's hotel and vintage touches still remain today, but over the years renovations have occurred to update the place and reflect a California mission style. There is still more work to be done, as evidenced by the worn and out-of-date look to many of the furnishings. Plans include opening a new dining room and remodeling the lobby, library and treatment areas. The property has 46 guestrooms which range from basic standard twin doubles to deluxe spa suites containing Jacuzzi bathtubs, fountains and artwork created by members of Ojai's artist community.
   Guests gather around the pool, the courtyard, in the dining area or lobby to mingle when they are not otherwise engaged in classes, treatments or other activities. Following my orientation, I was eager to try several of the dozen or more fitness classes offered on the daily activity schedule. I noticed that there was a full range of classes for all fitness levels and that they could be categorized into one of three areas: stretch and range of motion, cardio or muscle strengthening/body conditioning.
   The staff at The Oaks encourages guests to take at least one class from each category per day.
   Over the course of a weekend, I managed to sample 10 different classes and take one very brisk three and a half mile walk through scenic Ojai.
   The focus at The Oaks is on foods that are low in fat, salt and sugar and high in protein and complex carbs, essential for the energy needed while exercising.
   Menus emphasize fresh seafood, poultry, fruits and vegetables, whole-grain breads, clear soups, with herbs, spices, lemon juice and nonfat sauces substituted for more caloric flavorings.
   Calorie counts are posted next to the menus each night for the next day. Guests can preorder additional items or make substitutions to the menu items, at no extra cost.

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