How to Take a Vacation That’s Actually Relaxing

By Camille Styles
ojai valley inn & spa

Your bags are packed, auto-responder turned on, and the countdown to that long-awaited vacation has begun; it’s true that there’s nothing like a summertime getaway to inspire major excitement. But sometimes my intentions to unplug and truly relax don’t quite pan out, i.e. those times when I feel like I need a vacation to destress from my vacation (especially when kids are involved.) Anyone feel me? Since I’m fresh off a family trip to Cali where we checked into the dreamy Ojai Valley Inn & Spa for 3 days, I was inspired to share a few tips that worked to make it a truly rejuvenating trip, even with a 2 and 4-year-old in tow (yes, it’s possible!) Keep reading for a few ideas to help make your summer travels more blissed out than stressed out, and I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments!

A little planning on the front end goes a looooooong way.

Being a crazy, type-A planner doesn’t feel relaxing in the days leading up to a trip, but trust me: it’s so worth it and goes a long way towards avoiding stress when you’re on vacay. I like to make an itinerary for every day that I’m traveling, even if some of the time slots simply make room for laying by the pool or going for a hike. Make restaurant reservations in advance so that you’re not having to spend vacation time trying to figure out where to eat, or having to wait ungodly amounts of time for a table while everyone gets hangry.

It probably goes without saying that planning becomes 1000x more important when you’re traveling with kids — you can’t avoid hiccups altogether, but you can at least minimize them as much as possible. For example, think about all the gear you’ll need while you’re gone – I found a business in Ojai that lets you rent jogging strollers and hiking backpacks, so I picked up one of each on our way into town. We also booked a suite at Ojai Valley Inn & Spa that had a fold-out couch for Phoebe and a crib for Henry in a separate living area, so that after we put them to bed we could watch movies and order room service dessert without worrying about waking them up.

Be ready to roll with the punches if things don’t go exactly as planned.

Just as planning is key, so is flexibility! On the second night of our trip, we decided to park our car at one end of downtown Ojai and walk all way down Main Street towards a quaint little restaurant for dinner. By the time we’d walked the long stretch with Henry on Adam’s shoulders, we were all sweaty, hungry, and exhausted, especially Phoebe’s little legs from having to keep up all that way. We arrived only to be told that there was a mix-up with our reservation and they didn’t have a table for us after all (with a not-too-friendly glance at our toddlers, I might add.) Eek.

As we made the looooong way back to the car, we were tempted to just stop into the nearest pizza place for to-go food and call it a night, but instead, we made a concerted effort to shift our attitudes, make a fun alternate plan, and reframe the entire evening. I made a quick call to our hotel, and 15 minutes later we were nestled at a gorgeous table on the patio The Oak, just in time to catch the pink moment with an excellent glass of local wine in hand. That night as we watched the kids run around on the grass after grabbing the best ice cream cones at Libbey’s, Adam and I both took a deep breath and realized that if everything had gone “according to plan,” we would have missed that beautiful moment that turned into a trip highlight.

Sometimes the best part of vacation is allowing yourself to do nothing.

I’ve learned it the hard way: if your goal is relaxation, don’t try to do every tourist-y thing that’s recommended to you. For this Ojai trip, we chose a couple of key experiences (driving up Highway 33 into the mountains, packing a picnic basket with cheese and wine) but didn’t try to do it all. Even though there were lots of things I wanted to do, it was more important to me to make time for our kids to run around and play and be free, rather than being ferried from one activity to the next.

Some of our favorite memories from the trip were the simplest moments: for example, at the center of Ojai Valley Inn & Spa is a gorgeous grassy putting green. Phoebe and Henry’s favorite activity of the week was running around playing chase on the grass, and we spent an entire hour seeing who could roll the golf ball into the hole with the most accuracy. It’s those simple pleasures that so often get lost in the busyness of a normal work and school-week… and what makes a vacation feel like a true escape.

Go ahead, treat yo-self.

It’s a vacation after all! We splurged on two treats that took our trip to the next level in terms of relaxation. First, we hired a babysitter to come to our hotel room one night so Adam and I could go out for a real date night. We dressed up, ordered a bottle of champagne while we watched the sunset, then had the most incredible four-course meal at Olivella. We indulged in Chef Andrea’s incredible Italian dishes no-holds-barred: handmade pastas, burrata and bread, eggplant parmesan… it was truly a special meal that we’ll remember for a long time. We’ve made it a point to do this on a couple of other trips, and have either asked friends who live in the area for referrals, or in Southern California there’s a great mobile app called Helpr.

We also treated ourselves to a spa visit, which granted – does take a little more planning when you’re traveling with kids, but is totally doable. I called ahead a couple weeks before the trip to arrange for our massages to be staggered: Adam got his massage while I put Henry down for his nap, then as soon as he got back to the room, I headed out for my (heavenly sea salt stone) deep tissue massage. Meanwhile, we took Phoebe to hang out at Camp Oak for a few hours where she did art projects, created treasure maps, and was basically in 4-year-old heaven. Suffice it to say we all went to bed happy that night.

Try out my trick to managing email on vacation.

I’ve never shared this little trick here before, but it’s my MVP when it comes to truly relaxing while on vacation. Like many of you, my biggest barrier to truly being present while I’m traveling is the barrage of emails that continues to come in, especially during the week. Yes, I turn on my auto-responder, but if I can still see that little inbox count ticking up, I’m usually tempted to at least peek at my emails, and before you know it my mind is off and running on some issue at work. Which does not help with my vacation mindset.

To solve this, I’ve started deleting my work email account from my iPhone as soon as I get to the airport. I know, it sounds kind of extreme, but it’s really not. Family, friends, and my team know they can get in touch with me via text with any emergencies, and I can still use my phone to take photos and use Instagram if I want, but I can completely avoid the automatic stress that comes from an overflowing inbox. When I get back home and am ready to return to work mode, I simply reinstall my Gmail in two clicks.

Do you guys have any tips for making your vacation a truly rejuvenating experience? I’d love to hear in the comments!