The Spa Experience : At The Oaks in Ojai, Forget About Lounging by the Pool. You’ll Eat Like a Bird, Go for the Burn and Learn to Love It.


Maybe someday--after working hard enough, saving long enough or marrying rich enough--you, too, will be able to slip away to one of those tony luxury health spas that Robin Leach might use for a backdrop.

You know the kind of place: where deeply tanned, pencil-thin women wearing expensive perfume and clinking gold jewelry exercise in posh rooms and pat themselves dry with $100 towels; where the women lounge beside the pool for a few recuperative hours in bathing suits from Saks and exclaim over the latest scandals; where the food s exquisitely prepared and so appealingly presented by that lovely chef What’s-His-Name . . . and, dahling, isn’t it unbelievable that it has only 50 calories?

Isn’t that, after all, what most people think of when they hear about a spa resort?

It certainly was what one reporter--an Outsider who heretofore thought that pushing 40 was exercise enough and whose idea of proper workout attire was cut-offs and a T-shirt--thought as she headed up California 33 from Ventura and pulled into the parking lot of The Oaks in Ojai for a two-day stay.


With its friendly looking dark wood exterior and surrounding oak trees, the spa certainly didn’t look imposing or exclusive. There was even a dented Ford Escort and an old Chevrolet parked among the Mercedeses and BMWs.

Still, the Outsider couldn’t forget the spa’s reputation:

Over the last decade, the 46-room health resort, nestled in the northern Ventura foothills just two hours from Los Angeles, has been included in the same breath with such notable luxury spas as La Costa and The Golden Door.

Although most of its clientele is from Southern and Northern California, a glance later at its guest register reveals a healthy number of visitors from as far away as New York, Florida, Alaska and even Europe.

Autographed pictures of movie stars--and some who would like to be--line an entire wall inside.

Many of the more illustrious visitors, employees say, are drawn by the reputation of owner Sheila Cluff, a 57-year-old, Size 2 powerhouse who can out-aerobicize any of the spa’s instructors. Cluff not only has promoted fitness in two books she co-authored and a video she produced on “Fitness Secrets of the Stars,” but also has the high-energy lifestyle that goes with it.

“In a lot of ways, she’s a star herself around here,” one employee says later. “When she’s here, you can’t find a place in the advanced exercise classes. Everyone, even the stars you recognize, wants to be near Sheila.”


But time is ticking away, and the newly arrived Outsider must now leave the parking lot. It is only as she lifts her suitcase and heads for the building’s front door that she is suddenly plagued with doubts:

Can an ordinary working mother of two, who hasn’t seen the inside of a gym since Carter was President and whose workout wardrobe looks like a rattier version of Seattle grunge, really be accepted among the elite clientele inside?

Will she be able to survive on 1,000 calories a day--or will she be forced to sneak to O-Hi Frosty Cone down the street?

And most important: Can someone with no particular weight problem--whose monthly expenses go to such extravagances as groceries, kids’ clothes and dental bills--ever hope to justify shelling out a couple hundred bucks for a few days of pampering? Or will it simply prove to be a brief respite from her normal, ‘90s-style fitness routine of curling up with Haagen-Dazs, the kids and a couple of videos?

She steps inside.

The Spa’s Benefits

Dietrich Panke, The Oaks’ healthy-looking, 60ish general manager, stands at the front desk in corduroy shorts and a T-shirt. Panke has only been at the job for six months, having come from a hotel management background and, before that, his native Berlin.

Even though he’d never been into a fitness routine before, he says, it took him no time at all to adjust to his new lifestyle. Within just a few days of arriving, he says, he was taking advantage of all the benefits the spa had to offer.


But of course, the Outsider doesn’t know yet what those benefits are. Panke will fix that.

To the right of the lobby is the spa’s restaurant, which he says serves up “appealingly prepared, low-calorie meals.” Over there, at the end of the hall, is the workout area with shiny new resistance machines. To the left, he points out, is the Coral room, where 14 aerobic and yoga/stretch classes are held throughout the day. On the right is the “Winner’s Circle,” a room with a dark-wood bar that is laden with herb teas, ice water, coffee and vegetable broth.

Outside is the pool and hot tub, a gathering spot for clients, mostly women--80% of the spa’s guests--who are on leave from their lives for varying lengths of time.

“Some visitors stay with us for two days, and some stay for several months,” Panke says.

The Outsider quickly tries to calculate what the end tab of that last category of visitor would be: minimum price of a room is $125 a day, which includes all the classes, gym equipment and three meals; each facial, $42; body scrub, $50; massage, $42; full-leg wax, $45; scalp massage, $38; fitness consultation, $40. . . .

But even with some of the extras, she learns later, a stay here still costs a fraction of that charged by many other spas. At La Costa, for instance, the rooms are twice as expensive and don’t include use of the spa facility.

Panke, however, has already moved on. It is almost noon, he says, looking at his watch. He shows the Outsider to her poolside cabin, hands her a key with a coiled plastic cord attached to wear around her wrist, then bids her goodby until later.

The room is neat and clean, but hardly the vision of poshness that was expected. Two beds are covered in simple blue spreads and a TV is in the corner. A glass table is covered with a schedule of classes and services, along with plenty of stationery and postcards of extremely fit-looking older women, perhaps in their late 40s, happily working out.


Which immediately reminds the Outsider: It’s lunchtime.

Who the Guests Are

Food can be eaten in the restaurant, in the Winner’s Circle or on the poolside patio, which seems like the best choice on this warm Cinco de Mayo afternoon.

As the 220-calorie meal is taken to an empty table, a quick scan is made of the spa guests already seated:

Three women in their mid- to late-30s--who seem, due to their shared, comfortable laughter, to have arrived together--are at one table.

Two older women, appearing to be in their early 60s, are at another. They wear simple bathing suits and tennis visors.

A tanned woman of indeterminate age, with taut cheeks that call to mind Beverly Hills plastic surgeons, sits by herself at another.

But then there is the meal to consider.

In a four-ounce cup with a decorative sprig of parsley is vichyssoise, which tastes as bland as pureed jicama. A slice of nutty-tasting whole-wheat bread is sliced thin as an emery board. Three thin slices of turkey, one lettuce leaf, one tomato slice and a small portion of tabouli round out the meal. On a smaller plate is dessert: 10 grapes, one spoon-size piece of cantaloupe, half a kiwi and two berries that later will become the cause of serious debate at the dinner table.


The Outsider’s brain instantly is at war. On one side is the reason for being there: It is healthful; her body will love her for it. Maybe she will even learn to like it and change her eating habits.

On the other side, however, is a combat troop with a far greater arsenal: She hasn’t even worked out yet and already she’s starving; what she could really go for would be a hamburger with everything on it and maybe one of those O-Hi cones on the side.

She munches away instead, focusing on a conversation behind her, which is of the most observant and penetrating kind:

“Just think about the weight coming off. It makes everything taste so much better if you do.”

“Really? We only get one piece of cantaloupe? I didn’t think cantaloupe was fattening.”

“It’s not. I think we’re supposed to get used to smaller portions.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that. . . .”

Just then, the Outsider’s eavesdropping is interrupted by a woman named Patty, who asks if she might join her for lunch. Patty doesn’t look like an heiress or one of the idle rich, especially in her Size 14 bathing suit from L. L. Bean and haircut reminiscent of Jane Fonda in the movie “Klute.” And, as it turns out, she’s no more rich or idle than many of the women there.

So much for that myth, the Outsider thinks.

This is her first time at The Oaks, Patty says. She’s 37, an analyst for Los Angeles County.


She and her husband have only been married a few years, but they have a good understanding, you know? And since they don’t have kids, and all he’d have to do is feed the cat and take care of their apartment, which is no problem, why should he mind if she does something for herself without him for a change?

She then addresses an issue that hits the Outsider where she lives: the entire question of fit versus thin.

“I joined a gym when we came here and I can do advanced aerobics classes, no problem,” Patty says. “I don’t look fit because all my weight goes to my thighs, but I really am. On the stair-stepper, I can go 40 minutes, the top level.”

The Outsider nods her head and puts her last grape in her mouth. It is a wonderful grape, really. She rolls it on her tongue, feels the cool smooth skin of it rolling against her teeth--and then bites into it suddenly so it explodes with flavor. She then looks forlornly at her empty plate.

“How about you?” Patty asks.

“How about me, what?”

“How are you on the stair-stepper?”

It is a moment of truth, when it seems inevitable that she will be discovered for being the fitness fraud she is. “Oh, I can do 30,” the Outsider answers after a moment.

“Thirty minutes?”

“Uh, no. Thirty steps.”

Patty gets a look on her face that is a mixture of shock and disbelief.

It isn’t until the Outsider hears comments over the next few hours--when she nearly drops from exhaustion in the middle of an aerobics class, when her thighs are burning in a water resistance class, when she gets a genuine achey-breaky heart on a treadmill--that she begins to understand.


Unlike more than half of the women there, the Outsider isn’t overweight. And thin, in the eyes of the world, seems to mean fit . Thin, it seems, excuses everything.

Never mind that most of the women like Patty have 10 times the stamina and 10 times the strength. That none of them are sneaking behind their cabins to smoke a cigarette.

“Well,” Patty says after a minute. “At least you look fit. And that’s all that matters.”

The Outsider knows that this isn’t true. And so does Sheila Cluff, who later addresses that attitude, one she says is only now--and very slowly--beginning to change.

“The myth of thin being the same thing as fit has been around for a long time, and it’s not something that just disappears overnight,” Cluff says a few days later from her offices across the street from the spa.

“But more women in the ‘90s, I think, are beginning to realize that the two aren’t the same. That’s why what we do here isn’t just directed toward losing weight.

“The idea is to create an atmosphere in which people see how eating right and exercising makes a difference in their lives,” she says, “so they can take that spa experience home with them.”

What First?

Figuring out how best to obtain the “spa experience,” however, is no easy task.

Immediately go lift weights? Swim? Have a massage? Facial? Sauna? Yoga class? Sneak across the street for a burrito?

Cathy Cluff, Sheila’s daughter and the personal manager at the front desk, pulls out a list of options along with a piece of paper that looks as if it’s been torn from a date book. Guests can do anything they want, she says--including nothing--but she recommends not taking on too much the first day.


No problem there.

She writes down a proposed schedule for the next two days:

2 p.m.--Water aerobics class in the pool

3 p.m.--Lap swimming, whirlpool

4 p.m.--Yoga class

5 p.m.--Aromatherapy discussion in the Winner’s Circle

6 p.m.--Dinner

7 p.m.--Massage

Next day:

7 a.m.--Three-mile brisk walk with group

8 a.m.--Breakfast

9 a.m.--Body awareness class

11 a.m.--Aquatoning class in pool

Noon --Lunch

1 p.m.--Body scrub

2 p.m.--Facial

3 p.m.--Aerobic contouring class

4 p.m.--Yoga

After her tiny lunch, the Outsider has neither the strength nor the courage to ask Cluff if she has somehow offended her, or done something else to insult her. What other reason could Cluff have for trying to kill her?

For the next few hours, the Outsider swims, stretches and attempts to do “The Lotus” position--in which feet are crossed and put on opposite thighs--in a yoga class.

The only posture she seems to do well, however, is one she has named herself: “Dead Person Outstretched in the Middle of the Road” position. No one does it better.

Fistful of Tamale

By 5 o’clock the first day--and after three hours more exercise than the Outsider has had since high school--it is difficult to concentrate on anything but the rumbling of a greatly deprived stomach. Gratefully, dinner soon follows in the restaurant.

The meal is a small tamale pie about the size of a fist, in honor of Cinco de Mayo. Margaritas are nowhere to be seen. At several tables, the discussion turns to the two lunchtime berries: What kind were they? Weren’t they good, though? Does anyone think they might get three tomorrow?

After dinner, in a large back room painted in soft colors, Gail Victor gives the Outsider a massage. She kneads the draped body in front of her with peppermint and lemon oils, running her fingers between toes and giving each one a gentle jerk. Synthesizer music, made to sound like water trickling over rocks, plays from a cassette player in a corner.


When it’s over, the Outsider walks back to her room, takes the key off her wrist and falls onto the bed. Immediately she is sound sleep.

Margarita Confession

It’s 7 a.m. when a group of 15 women head out the front door, led by one of the spa’s fitness instructors, for their three-mile walk.

Most are dressed in casual shorts and T-shirts, with only a few color-coordinated warm-up suits. Only one woman--whose weeklong stay at The Oaks will be immediately followed by a month at La Costa--is wearing makeup, perfume and a glittery gold belt-pouch.

“Well, are we all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed?” the instructor asks cheerily.

There are murderous looks on the faces behind her. Panke, the only man in the group, smiles obliviously.

The group walks at a fast pace down East Ojai Avenue, then cuts over onto the footpath. En route, five of them make a most terrible confession: The evening before, unable to completely ignore the holiday, they sneaked across the street after dinner and got a margarita. There are moans from the women who didn’t know of the excursion.

Less than an hour later, the group is back at the spa.

Like prisoners of war (albeit voluntary ones), the group is developing a collective survival mentality: Everyone races toward the Winner’s Circle for the food. The payoff for a shirt-drenching military-style march is a hard bran muffin about the size of a small hockey puck and three small slices of cantaloupe.


After breakfast comes a body awareness class, which combines stretches with muscle-specific exercises. It is followed by an aquatoning class in the pool--essentially an aerobics class done underwater.

After what seems like an eternity comes lunch: a salad nicois and, by now, three slices of beloved cantaloupe.

The only thing that prevents the Outsider from heading directly across the street for a Snickers bar is the upcoming body scrub appointment, in which she has been told that her skin will be buffed and polished to its softest.

It is accomplished by Toni Tubbs, a warm, outgoing 33-year-old facialist from Santa Paula who has worked at the spa for 13 years. She has long chestnut hair, beautifully applied makeup and is significantly overweight.

“My weight goes all over the place,” Tubbs says cheerfully, as she smears on a gritty solution and begins rubbing the sunburned legs, arms and abdomen on the table before her.

“I know that Sheila (Cluff) isn’t too happy about it. I mean, this is a spa and everything, and there’s an image.


“But you know what?” she asks. “I really have no need for it, to work so hard to be thin.”

Tubbs then talks about the idea of commitment and priority, of the need for exercise and good eating to be personally important if it ever is going to last. As for her, she says, she just doesn’t have it. At least, not yet.

And she’s not going to go through the motions--or spend a lot of money, she adds--until she knows that she won’t just go back to her old ways again.

“My roommate had a weight problem, too, and her sister, who’s married to a millionaire in the Santa Ynez Valley, offered to pay for her to come here until she lost it,” she says. “She lost it--she stayed here 14 months and bought a bunch of new clothes, too. But then she just gained it all back.”

The Outsider, already feeling a bit better, wonders vaguely about the same thing. She has already gotten a taste of what it would be like to have a more active life. But will she make room for it upon her return?

“All it takes is 20 minutes, three times a week,” Cluff says later. “Is there anyone who doesn’t have that much time?”

After a moisturizing facial, it was time for another aerobic contouring class--a nice word for low-level aerobics--before a one-hour yoga class.


And then, as all good things must, the spa stay had come to an end.

There were bags to pack, new acquaintances to get addresses from, a bill to pay. Not for one instant did the Outsider feel a shred of guilt.

She had worked hard for that little bit of luxury.

She’d do it again.