The Oaks at Ojai: a lifestyle destination retreat 

Story and photos by MAGGI HENRIKSON

Ojai has long been a favorite weekend destination of mine. You can drive there in a little more than two hours from Laguna Beach, and be well rewarded with golden hills for hiking, farmlands full of great produce, a big, fancy resort, or several adorable little boutique inns plus a food, craft brews and wine culture second to none. The community, made up of hippies, celebrities, musicians, and farmers only adds to its charm. And the drive there is spectacularly beautiful.

They say that the Chumash Indians encountered spiritual healing in this place of the rosy sunsets, and the name Ojai means Moon. When the sun sets, the refection east, off the Topa Topa Mountains creates what is known as the “Pink Moment” – the nirvana of sunsets, especially as the moon glows simultaneously over the valley. 

Being in this vortex of Native American healing, with its beauty and small town charm is downright invigorating. So, I was doubly charmed when I visited The Oaks at Ojai to partake in their package of health and wellness.

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Located smack dab in the center of town, The Oaks is a large cluster of casitas beneath towering oak trees. It is not the Canyon Ranch or Golden Door type of destination spa, but rather a friendly, welcoming, inclusive place that also includes weight-loss goals and kick-ass fitness. It is actually affordable for the Average Joe (though most likely a Jane) as the stay includes all meals, 10 – 12 exercise classes, and often art or other mind-stimulating seminars.

I visited with my husband, who was one of only a couple of men we saw (though we were told that two men had just visited for an entire month). Nonetheless, my man is not daunted by a majority of female company, and I think that both of us came away with a greater understanding and appreciation for people of all shapes and sizes. The Oaks is an inclusive place, and guests seem to genuinely feel free to be themselves.

“When I pulled up to The Oaks, it was my first time, and I thought it was nothing special,” one guest shared with me. “Then I came inside, and was greeted by this unbelievable warmth. It was overwhelming.” She was tearing up as she described the negative outlook she has had about her own body. She feared judgment that she was overweight and out of shape. But at The Oaks she found acceptance, friendship, and classes allowing her to progress at her own pace. She is a Silicon Valley executive, and she told me she has already booked her entire company to come for a week.

There’s something for every level of fitness at The Oaks. We started the first morning with their Brisk Walk; a fast-paced 3-mile sunrise special. On that morning the route led through dirt paths, beside horse corrals, and on to neighborhood streets, including passing by the home of former resident Reese Witherspoon, and many homes of unique architectural designs.

 Accompanying our group of six walkers was Sheila Cluff, the fit and fabulous owner of The Oaks. Her story is quite remarkable and almost made me want to stop for a chat capable of breathing in between. But, of course Cluff could walk at fast pace and talk too. 

The Oaks owner and fitness expert, Sheila Cluff

Sheila Cluff was a teen ice-skating star from Canada. She began teaching cardiovascular fitness with dance in the 1950’s, and went on to become what she calls “the grandmother of aerobics.” 

“I had to convince the principal to pay for a piano player, so we could have music with exercise,” she said. She even taught fitness to new moms – using their babies as weights. Her drive and ambition met with opportunity, and Cluff moved first to New York and then to California with her husband. She opened The Oaks in 1976, building on the fitness trends into the 1980’s, which incorporated dance movement with traditional strengthening techniques but she tied in nutrition for the complete package. 

“I wanted neither a fat farm nor a beauty spa,” Cluff writes in her memoir, “but a place that focused on health and fitness, where people would come to enjoy themselves, not be ‘punished’ with exercise and diet food.”

Today Cluff still participates in The Oaks classes, which include yoga, Pilates, strength and toning, dance and zumba classes, as well as aqua cardio in the nice outdoor pool.

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Stretching along the morning Brisk Walk

The nutritional aspect involves three included meals per day plus two times a day snacks. We were offered yogurt, fresh fruit muffins, hard-cooked eggs, oatmeal, fruit and various teas at breakfast. Lunch and dinner featured soups, Caesar Salad with grilled chicken, Salmon, and Portabella mushrooms stuffed with spinach and cheese, whole grains, and even something sweet to finish – all very tasty. The mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack was a vegetable broth or energy drink, and raw vegies with dip or a smoothie. It was hardly starvation themed, as we all felt satisfied with these 1200 calories a day.

Guest will often share tables at meals, and most likely share life stories. One guest told us that she has been coming to The Oaks for 30 years, “Every time a need a breather… when I just need a break,” she said. Another guest said she was thrilled to have lost five pounds in four days. We also met a guest who is a participant in the mind stimulating part of The Oaks. Her specialty is handwriting analysis, as well as creative painting extrapolated from known works of art. That day she gave an insightful analysis of handwriting including those of great artists and President Obama.

We balanced our own activities of multiple walks, Pilates and yoga with some of The Oaks spa treatments. A good night’s rest was had following a deep Vitamin C facial (for me), and an invigorating coffee detoxifying body therapy (my husband). Both our treatments were superb and very relaxing.

Before checking out of The Oaks on Sunday morning, there’s the delightful Ojai farmer’s market located almost directly behind the campus, with lots of fresh produce and handcrafted items. After a healthy and strengthening weekend, I admit we bought a couple of pieces of homemade fudge to bring home. But as Sheila Cluff is first to say, it’s about balance, “Get a tight pair of non-stretch jeans, and make sure they always fit. Measurements are more important than weight.”

Ojai makes a great destination for lifestyle, fitness, and fun. The Oaks adds comfortable and attractive accommodations, and everything to fill your day with mind and body stimulation.

For more information about The Oaks at Ojai visit

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