Insider's Guide to Spas
The Oaks at Ojai

Destination Spas

The Oaks at Ojai

Anne M. Russell


  • The Oaks at Ojai
  • Ojai, California
  • 800-753-6257
  • oaksspa.com

What does a serious amateur athlete do at a spa? Pretty much the same thing as everyone else: Relax, hope to drop a few pounds, and spend time bonding with other guests via conversations about food and eating habits. Being a competitive triathlete doesn’t mean I’m in that mode 365 days a year. In fact, I was probably more eager for some down time than the average spa-goer when I booked my three-day stay at the Oaks at Ojai.

When I was planning my time at The Oaks, in Southern California’s beautiful Ventura County, I imagined I would attend classes at every opportunity—which is seven times a day. (Or eight, if you count the vigorous early-morning hikes.) Nope. In reality, I only made it to three 45-minute classes on each of my days there, as well as joining the hikes. And the classes I did show up for were heavy on relaxation, not exertion. Rather than set an aggressive pace, I used my time at the Oaks to try fitness options that were new to me, like jazz dance, Zumba, aquacise, yoga ropes and tai chi.

The Oaks is different from other destination spas I’ve been to because its 1920s adobe hacienda building is integrated into the small, quaint town of Ojai, rather than being cloistered away. It’s easy to walk to galleries, antique stores, boutiques, or, if you’re determined to circumvent the 1,000-calorie-a-day meal plan, an ice cream and chocolate shop.

The Oaks’ salt-free food is surprisingly tasty, although the portions are, of course, small. The chef prepares a tiny dessert with every lunch and dinner, which kept me from getting too whiny. And the 8:30 a.m. breakfast is buffet style, so I probably ate a few more muffins (with the Oaks’ homemade jam) than was strictly ideal.  The Oaks has a staff nutritionist who consults with each guest at the start of a visit, so I could have pled my case to be raised to the “Athlete’s Portion,” but I wanted to see if I could stick to the standard fare.

Because Ojai is situated in a lightly developed valley bordered by the mountains of the Los Padres National Forest, the hiking at the spa isn’t just an everyday walk in the park. The fast-paced 6:30 a.m. treks last 90 minutes and cover 4 miles of dirt paths that wind steeply uphill through avocado and orange groves and then into scrub forest. I didn’t see any black bears myself, but spotting them pilfering avocados is a fairly common occurrence, according to the hike leaders. Although I sometimes hit the trails at home in Los Angeles, hiking with the Oaks’ group was more challenging, since it meant keeping up with someone else’s faster pace. Even though the mornings tend to be cool and misty in the fall, I was sweating by the time we finished. (And starving, hence the muffin gorging.)

 Almost all of the classes I took either allowed or required bare feet, which was a wonderful vacation for feet always imprisoned in either running shoes, bike shoes or heels. My feet went home happier and more rejuvenated than any other part of my body, although the quiet, dark nights did wonders for catching me up on restful sleep.

As much as I loved the expeditions, I was glad to get out of my stiff hiking boots and into the recently renovated bamboo-floored exercise studio. Almost all of the classes I took either allowed or required bare feet, which was a wonderful vacation for feet always imprisoned in either running shoes, bike shoes or heels. My feet went home happier and more rejuvenated than any other part of my body, although the quiet, dark nights did wonders for catching me up on restful sleep.

The Oaks offers some kind of program every evening after dinner—talks by various experts, movies—but I spent my evening time in the Spa Sanctuary area either relaxing in the Jacuzzi or the steam room. (The steam room and sauna are on-demand, so you have to plan ahead and start them up if you want to use them.) The Oaks also has a full roster of beauty services and spa therapies, such as river-rock, aromatherapy and sports massage ($90 to $135). A lot of guests book these after dinner so appointments don’t conflict with classes. There are also daytime off-site outings, including biking down to the seaside town of Ventura and kayaking on Lake Casitas, if you want to pay extra. And if you just can’t live without your Spin class during your time at the Oaks, you can trot over to the nearby Ojai Valley Athletic Club and pay a $5 day fee. Private Pilates instruction is available, too, for extra.

The Oaks has a wonderful large pool in its grassy central courtyard and the various aqua classes—core, cardio, Zumba, noodles, boot camp, yoga, etc.—are very popular. Even though the daytime temperatures were only in the 60s and low 70s when I visited, the water classes were almost always at capacity. After joining an Aqua Cardio class, I could see why. Quite simply, water exercise is fun. And since you’re mostly underwater no one can tell whether you’re doing the exercises right or how hard you’re working, so there’s no reason to be self-conscious.

In fact, it was nice for a change to be around lots of ordinary women my own age, rather than ultra-competitive, mostly younger athletes. The Oaks draws a 40s-50s-60s crowd, although there were a few young women joining mothers or aunts and a handful of 20s and 30-ish women there on their own. In recognition of its customer demographic, the spa graciously leashes reading glasses to the various bulletin boards where menus and activity info is posted. There were even a couple of male guests the week I was there, one a widower and one attending with his wife. With only 46 guest rooms, the Oaks is small, with fewer than 100 guests at a time, which is part of its charm. You see the same people over and over and have time to talk.

The word that I heard repeatedly from fellow guests to describe this bargain spa was “comfortable,” which I believe they meant less physically than psychologically. Although the private casitas that line the back edge of the property are very pleasant and even elegant, it is the ambiance, with friendly staff, competent instructors, and unpretentious guests that makes for a comfortable experience.

The word that I heard repeatedly from fellow guests to describe this bargain spa was “comfortable,” which I believe they meant less physically than psychologically. Although the private casitas that line the back edge of the property are very pleasant and even elegant, it is the ambiance, with friendly staff, competent instructors, and unpretentious guests that makes for a comfortable experience. In fact, almost everyone I spoke to was a repeat visitor. Most were from the West Coast as well. In one sense, it’s a shame that Ojai, a quintessential Southern California New Age village known for its wine, music, and lavender festivals, isn’t better known in other parts of the U.S., but given how small the town and the spa are, maybe it’s better kept as a local secret.

Oh, and if you’re wondering if I lost weight, no, I didn’t. My too-snug shorts that I arrived wearing were still too snug when I put them on to leave.  But I was only at the Oaks for three days, and I made a late evening trip into town to eat a “share”-size bag of M&Ms. Minus the M&Ms and with a couple more days, I would certainly have left a few pounds lighter.

Anne M. Russell

Anne M. Russell

Anne M. Russell has an extensive background in health and fitness journalism. Most recently, she was editor in chief of VIVmag, after previously serving as editor in chief of Shape. Prior to that, she was the editorial director of Fox Television's Health Network, where she oversaw the Network's website as well as on-air content. Anne joined Fox after serving as interim editor in chief of Vegetarian Times. She has also been the editor in chief of Living Fit. Early in her career, she was the founding editor of two trade magazines. Photo District News and, later, Digital Creativity. She is a magna cum laude graduate of Yale University.