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Weekend Escape: Ojai

New Face in Town

At Ojai Valley Inn, a new spa with high-tech and traditional ways to de-stress

April 05, 1998|SHARON BOORSTIN | Boorstin is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

OJAI, Calif. — After delays in construction, the new spa at the venerable Ojai Valley Inn finally was up and running. And my daughter, Julia--who professed to be stressed out and in need of spa treatment--was home from college on spring break.

So on a recent sunny Sunday morning we drove north on U.S. 101 and turned east on California 33 toward Ojai Valley. Julia said she hoped we'd have time to go bike riding, as we'd done during stays here while she was growing up.

In fact, I've been coming to the 75-year-old Ojai Valley Inn since long before Julia was born. It was my parents' favorite golf resort, and I visited them when they vacationed here in the '70s. I've watched the resort expand--add rooms, an elaborate tennis facility, two swimming pools, a horseback riding center and now the spa.

As we drove onto the 220-acre oak-studded property, I was pleased to see that even more than the earlier additions, the new spa fits in with the gracious Spanish Colonial style of the original buildings.

Flanked on three sides by emerald-green fairways, the 31,000 square-foot spa, opened little by little between the first of December and mid-March, is set in a four-story white stucco and red-tile-roofed building with tiled courtyards and a 50-foot-high bell tower. At 10 a.m., it was too early to check into our room, but Julia and I didn't care.

As resort guests, we could use the spa facilities all day long. (Non-resort guests can use the facilities for a $20 daily fee.) Sunday, it turned out, was a good day to come. We had avoided the two-night minimum stay required at the resort on weekends, and as the attendant who greeted us pointed out, we'd missed the Saturday rush in the spa.

I'm no spa junkie, but I've been to enough of them to appreciate the luxurious facilities at Spa Ojai. The ladies' locker room, for example, has a sitting area with plush sofas, antique armoires and thick carpeting worthy of a Spanish Colonial mansion. Each of the 16 hand-tiled alcove showers is as spacious as many an ordinary bathroom (and has three shower heads!), and the beautifully tiled indoor-outdoor "wet treatment" area could accommodate a Sultan's harem. Julia and I resisted the temptation to slip into the bubbling water of the Jacuzzi. Instead, we donned shorts and T-shirts, determined to at least work up a sweat before our treatments.

We went downstairs to the "cardio theater," filled with state-of-the-art exercise equipment.

Later, since the weather was warm, we changed into bathing suits for a swim, and I learned with a shock that the spa's lap pool wasn't yet heated. Lunch from the poolside Acorn Cafe, though beautifully presented, was disappointing. Julia's ahi tuna sandwich tasted of soy sauce, and my portobello mushroom and pea shoot sandwich was saturated with balsamic vinegar. I could easily understand how the dishes contained only 105 and 65 calories respectively.

One reason for trying out the new Spa Ojai was that, as a returning resort guest, I'd received an invitation to try a complimentary Kuyam, their signature spa treatment. Though this wet-and-dry clay treatment is based on Chumash Indian ritual, the Kuyum chamber itself--a mosaic of blue, green and coral-colored tiles, with tiny pierced windows casting dramatic shapes of light--reminded me of the baths in the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, Spain.

Julia and I lounged on tiled chaises while attendant Marie Lynn showed us how to apply the elderberry-flower-spiked mud from two espresso-size paper cups. Then she left us to relax in the 100-degree heat. At first, Julia and I were reluctant to smear on the mud, but we soon got into it, giggling as we painted our faces, hands, arms, legs--every inch of our skin--with the supposedly toxin-cleansing substance, reputedly a combination of mud from the Dead Sea and a lake in Hungary.

When the mud had dried, Marie Lynn turned on the steam, which bubbled up through a ceramic urn holding dried lemon grass, and filled the chamber with a sweet citrusy scent. A few minutes later, she sent us, one at a time, to run a gauntlet of lukewarm showers, en route to private showers where we scrubbed off the mud.

After a cup of peppermint tea, we were ready for our massages. Lisa, my masseuse, was trained in the art of Shiatsu barefoot massage, and suggested I give it a try. Mellowed by the Kuyum treatment, I was up for anything. I chose a haunting orange-scented aromatherapy oil from the selection Lisa offered me, and lay down on a mat in her darkened massage room.

For close to an hour, she worked away at my tense muscles--sometimes walking up and down my back and legs with her bare feet as she supported her weight with straps rigged to the ceiling. For a 5-foot-tall, 100-pound pixie of a woman, Lisa delivered a satisfyingly firm touch. I was in bliss. Julia emerged from her massage--her first ever--with a look of bliss as well.

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