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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.

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