I had fallen hopelessly out of step with my cardio-step classmates at the Oaks at Ojai. When they zigged, I zagged — and far too slowly.
"That's OK," chirped Randi, our instructor, politely trying not to look right at me. "You just do whatever you like. It's your vacation."
FOR THE RECORD: Oaks at Ojai —An article in Sunday's Travel section about the Oaks at Ojai health spa said guests could stretch a two-night stay into nearly four days of classes. Because guests are allowed to take classes throughout the day, even before the 2 p.m. check-in and after the noon checkout, they can stretch a two-night stay into three days of instruction. Randi made me laugh. I grinned a lot during my recent two-night stay at this 46-room destination spa in the artsy town of Ojai, near Ventura.
Although the Oaks takes fitness seriously, the atmosphere was more summer camp than boot camp. Guests took classes together and ate together. It was like visiting a favorite aunt who makes you feel comfortable but doesn't put on airs.
That's the way it's been for 27 years at the Oaks, the creation of Sheila Cluff, an exercise guru who advocates a sensible, fad-free fitness formula and still leads some classes here. Even the prices haven't changed much in the last decade.
It was those prices, plus curiosity and a few unwanted pounds, that inspired me to visit the Oaks last month for my first-ever stay at a health spa. I was glad I did.
I paid $212.29 per night: $179 for the room, plus a $25.06 service charge and $8.23 in taxes daily. Because I was traveling alone and trying to economize, the Oaks (unaware I was a journalist) arranged for me to share a double-bedded room with a quite-nice stranger from Santa Monica. (Private rooms started at $220 per person, plus the service charge and taxes.)
A scheduling conflict meant my weekend escape had to be a midweek escape, but had I stayed Friday and Saturday, I would have paid only $10 more per night.
The prices include three low-calorie meals per day, snacks and unlimited access to about 15 exercise classes per day. Spa treatments, massages and private consultations are extra. (Some multi-night packages include one or more of these options.)
My trip wasn't cheap. But the tab was half that of fancier, pampering spas.
The Oaks' lowest rate, $159 plus the service charge and taxes, was just $20 more than what the spa charged in 1995, according to a Weekend Escape published by this newspaper then.
On Jan. 1, the Oaks, which is undergoing a five-year renovation to upgrade its 1919 Spanish Mission-style complex and restore its period touches, is raising most room rates by $5 to $10.
But because you're allowed to take classes throughout the day, even before the 2 p.m. check-in and after the noon checkout, you can stretch a two-night stay into nearly three days of instruction.
As for the current décor, I overheard a staff member tell a prospective guest it was "shabby chic." But in my view, it wasn't shabby.
The teal-colored interior was soothing. The small whirlpool room, with its colorful new tile fashioned in retro-Spanish designs, was charming. My room was clean, simple and pleasant, with a sizable walk-in closet.
My chief complaint, echoed by other guests, was the moody shower plumbing, which ran hot and cold without warning. A staff member told me the management is testing regulators to fix the problem.
Other disappointments: The weight room had only about a dozen machines, the outdoor pool was not configured for comfortable lap swimming, and I felt hustled by evening programs led by business people with jewelry and clothes to sell.
But these were minor annoyances. For $5 per day, staff said, Oaks guests could visit the Ojai Valley Athletic Club, with its 25-meter lap pool and Spinning classes. Some of my fellow spa-goers said they enjoyed the evening programs.
I use "fellow" advisedly because I saw few men during my stay.
Most guests I met were female attorneys, accountants, school administrators and other professionals. My roommate, Mary, who seemed to have visited every corner of the globe, said she was living off investments. People came in all shapes, sizes and ages, with a tilt to Californians in their 40s and 50s.
It appeared that many guests could afford to visit a more expensive spa but chose not to.
When I asked Mary, who was visiting the Oaks for the first time, whether she would come back, she said, "Absolutely. I love the people."
At these prices, she added, she didn't feel guilty about splurging on a spa, even though she could take similar classes at her gym back home.
Taut and trim at 68
It's worth taking a class or two from Cluff, the spa's energetic co-owner, who spends more time at the Oaks these days since selling her other spa hotel, the Palms in Palms Springs, this year. (Ask the spa about her schedule.)
At 68, the former figure skater and gym teacher, who claims to have introduced "cardiovascular dance" to the world in the 1950s, is a size 2 and as taut as a teenager. She calls herself "chronologically enriched." If you're like me, you'll feel old trying to keep up with her.
Under her tutelage, what the spa billed as a 30-minute morning stroll turned into an hourlong power walk through Ojai. With stops (barely) at an artists' center, the town's first jail, its newest scenic park and more, the tour lent a new meaning to running commentary.
During and after "Mind/Body Awareness," an Oaks class that blends yoga, Pilates moves and stretching, Cluff dispensed her fitness creed.
"It's very unwise to compare your body to someone else's," she said. Instead you should set realistic goals.
To that end, I paid $60 for an hourlong, private "personal wellness training" session that included a few minutes hooked up to a machine that purported to calculate my body's fat, lean tissue and water content.
I can't speak for the science, but the verdict on the computer printout seemed plausible: I was 32% fat, versus the "normal" percentage for my age of 22% to 30%.
Nancy, my wellness counselor, outlined a program of aerobics, strength training and a low-fat diet of 1,400 calories per day that she said would help me lose 17 pounds in 16 weeks.
"I think this will be a pretty easy fix for you," she added.
Especially if I learn to cook like the Oaks' chefs.
I had been dubious when I logged onto the spa's website and read a sample breakfast menu: "freshly baked muffin, fresh fruit." How would I get through the day on 1,000 calories? But the food was surprisingly satisfying
A 350-calorie dinner was a tofu salad, rich-tasting spinach-stuffed mushrooms, wild rice pilaf, green beans with almonds and reduced-fat cheesecake with strawberries.
I found myself a bit peckish before the daily afternoon "veggie break." Otherwise I felt deprived only once, when a banana split on the lunch menu proved to be a quarter of a banana, with a drizzle of yogurt and two dollops of fruit compote. It just made me hanker for the real thing.
I enjoyed other classes, including tai chi and "Water Works," 45 minutes of vigorous pool exercises.
But what I most recall about my visit was the friendly atmosphere.
"We're not a glitzy place," Larry, a staff member, said as he showed me around. "We're not a fancy place. We're a casual, comfortable place."
Just like always.
Jane Engle is an assistant Travel editor and writes the weekly Travel Insider column.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Budget for one
Expenses for this trip:
The Oaks at Ojai, two nights,
three meals daily,
classes, tax $424.58
60 minutes $60.00
50 minutes, with tip $75.00
Final tab $576.55
The Oaks at Ojai, 122 E. Ojai Ave., Ojai, CA 93023; (800) 753-6257 or (805) 646-5573, www.oaksspa.com.