Fifty-two days ago today I landed at Newark International Airport on a flight returning from Asia, just hours before the US borders began locking down in the mounting defense against COVID-19. As it happens, I was returning from a small naturist hamlet in Thailand – Harmony Naturist Resort – Rawai. I simply can’t remember when I’ve gone this long without stepping on an airplane or walking through an airport, and I’m not sure when I’ll be able to do that again. But I do wonder if that little naturist resort in Phuket will still be there when I get back.
Who could have imagined, even twenty years ago, that naturist travel would become the trending niche it is today? While the sprawling naturist centers in France and Croatia have been anchors of the industry for nearly half a century, now we have naturist cruise ships carrying thousands of passengers, an entire network of Naturist BnBs, and beautiful boutique clothing-optional resorts popping up in the most unlikely of places like Uruguay (Refugio Nudista), Honduras (Paya Bay), and all over Thailand. (There are too many to mention here!)
If you go digging for the origins of clothes-free recreation, sources point back to France and Germany in the early twentieth century. I think most Americans forget that for many people, these were incredibly oppressive times in Europe (e.g. people were so frustrated, they were migrating en masse through Ellis Island to the United States to find a better life.) Even up through the end of the communist regime in East Germany in the 1980s, social nudity represented a source of freedom – silent defiance if you will. A tacit statement that says, “At least I have ownership over my body and being.”
Meanwhile, Stateside, parallel movements took root in the US, most notably with two nudist places that still exist today, Rock Lodge Club and Skyfarm, both in New Jersey. Given the puritanical attitudes on this side of the Atlantic, these were largely secret societies that hid in rural areas behind high fences while Europe found an entire industry in naturist travel.
I have referenced the author Stephen Harp several times in my blogging over the years, in particular, his book about the history of French naturism. As he tells it, adventurous sun-seeking Germans discovered newfound freedom on the rocky shores of northern Croatia, along with a quiet little island just off the coast of Toulon, France – Île du Levant. Those early accounts of naked camping on Levant are bewildering, given the primitive conditions on an isolated landmass with no electricity or running water, and all for the privilege of having to wear a small piece of cloth to cover the genitalia – a tradition that remains problematic on Île du Levant to this day. (See: Yet another round of CRAZY on Île du Levant)
Within just a few years, this little island (For the record, it’s quite a large island, but the French government would only relinquish the southwestern tip – approximately 10% of the island’s total landmass – to the naturists) became the mecca for European naturists with a tacit nod from the government that saw naked tourism most beneficial in the generation of tax revenue. The original naked greed!
To this day, if you visit Île du Levant, they will tell you “this is a municipality,” not a naturist resort. That factor was key, as the lack of a code of conduct allowed an island of (mostly) naked holiday makers to push the envelope of social nudity into the realm of sexual freedom. Such was not the design of the naturist pioneers who simply wanted to doff their cloths and soak up the sun on a remote French island. The calculated, if not inevitable, response was the appearance of places like CHM Montalivet in France (1953) and Koversada in Croatia (1961) – each HUGE naturist centers, mainly just campgrounds at first, but with evolving infrastructures intended to compete with the ever-growing Baby Boomer tourism industry.
Strangely enough, while the appearance of naturist centers in France and Croatia increased exponentially over the ensuing decades, the US counterpart couldn’t seem to get past the secret society part of the equation. Sure enough, smallish “nudist colonies” could be found all over the country, most of which trace their origins back to the 1930s under the banner of the American Sunbathing Association (now AANR), but while Americans were building elaborate theme parks (thank you Walt Disney!) for wholesome family vacations, Europeans were seeking out destinations with the amenities and the freedom to get naked with the whole family. In 1973, a windblown stretch along the French Mediterranean called Cap d’Agde was granted a sanctioned nude beach, and the swinging sixties crowd of Île du Levant moved back to the mainland to become part of the world’s most renown naked city, attracting tens of thousands each year to experience a “freedom” that the naturist forefathers could have never imagined. (See: SEX ON THE BEACH: Why a Newbie Naturist Should NOT Visit Cap d’Agde!) All well and good in a land where naturist establishments are well-sign posted while the prevailing public attitudes allowed people to own up to their desires for social nudity without judgment or embarrassment.
Such was not the case in the United States, however, despite valiant efforts in the development of large nudist parks in Florida, notably Paradise Lakes and Cypress Cove, and quite a bit later, entrepreneurial endeavors in Southern California, the most prominent of which (in this author’s humble opinion) was Desert Shadows Inn (now Desert Sun Resort.) We were among the earliest guests of Steve and Linda Payne at their little nine-room nudist hotel on the north end of Palm Springs, sometime around 1993. The Paynes had just come from St. Martin where they were running the restaurant Papagayo at Club Orient. They would return to manage the entire Club Orient resort for several years until it literally got blown off the island by a hurricane a few years ago.
While Cypress Cove in Florida attempted to create a family friendly environs (as they still do with some success), the Paynes sought to create an upscale resort that would attract a clientele who would otherwise stay at a Marriott or Hyatt resort, but preferred their family vacation without clothing. (The Paynes were in fierce competition for many years with a smaller establishment called Terra Cotta Inn, a “child-free environment” that embraced non-sexual nude recreation. That story has a couple twists in the end that have been less than helpful in the crusade of separating nudity from sex. Maybe for another blog post.) In the end, Desert Shadows became a Utopian dream gone awry, shrouded in litigation, nearing bankruptcy, and finally becoming an adults-only community as well. As I understand it, the “no kids” policy wasn’t an endorsement of permissive adult activity, but instead, a response to the feverish pitch of American paranoia and a general disdain of even considering nudity around children.
Much has been written about whether naturism in Europe is on the rise or decline, as numbers at the major naturist centers have fallen since their heyday at the end of the last millennia. This, however, doesn’t account for the ever-expanding spa culture in Northern Europe where casual nudity has become an integral part of mainstream social life throughout Germany and Holland. (See: So Many Naked Germans! A Rookie’s Guide to the German Sauna Experience.) Or the appearance of little naturist inns all over Spain and Italy providing even more destinations for the adventurous tourist who wants to walk the cobblestone streets in the morning, then take a naked nap by the pool in the afternoon. And thanks to new portals like Naturist BnB, you can find clothing-optional accommodations all over the world, even in the most unlikely of places.
The bizarre divide, however, between naked Europe and the rest of the planet seems to be the debate as to whether social nudity is a viable family endeavor. Bare Necessities, based in Texas, has literally changed the naked landscape in orchestrating naturist cruises all over the world, the most famous of which is the annual Big Nude Boat. While some of their competitors have catered to the friends with benefits crowd, Bare Necessities has held true to their original charter of non-sexual nudity, but it is accompanied by a “no kids allowed” policy that reinforces that idea that nudity is damaging the children. I get it. They market mainly to Americans, and the message is simply too complicated.
Perhaps the grandest scheme of all time was an expansive resort named Caliente, opening in 2004 near Tampa. As I recall looking at the drawings online, this was going to be the ultimate family naturist destination in the United States, seemingly a challenge to bring the ideals of European naturism to warm and sunny Florida. But within months of their grand opening, they found they simply could not generate enough cash to operate the place without the income from the Friday/Saturday night partiers. It wasn’t long until they were shunned by AANR, while blatantly changing their marketing scheme to capture the wildest imaginations of those weekend crowds. Suffice it to say, that was not the same demographic as the young naturist family en route to Disney World.
Since the unveiling of the Caliente project, landmark events like the Jerry Sandusky case have made parents – here and abroad – more paranoid than ever about the concept that an adult and a child could be naked in close proximity to one another, devoid of some nefarious agenda. Sadly, that paranoia has seeped into the European consciousness as well, evidenced in our recent visits to places like Koversada and Valalta in Croatia where we have seen an aging and declining population, as well as more swimsuits even on the pre-school age children at the beach and in the water. More optimistically, we were encouraged to see a whole new generation of young families at La Jenny in France last summer. That seems like hope for the future!
Author’s note: We have yet to visit Bare Oaks Naturist Park near Toronto, which appears to be the closest thing in North America to a European naturist resort. Maybe we’ll get there this summer since I’m not likely to get on an airplane anytime soon.
Meanwhile, naturism has found its way to Thailand with no fewer the eight naturist venues as of this writing, each dedicated to adult world travelers who are seeking warm climates during the long winters of the Northern Hemisphere. Paya Bay on Roatan started as a yoga retreat, but found a broader appeal in creating a clothing optional destination, and Refugio Naturista is a humble but welcoming abode just a couple hundred meters from Chihuahua naturist beach in Uruguay. On the upscale end, Skinny Dippers has been our favorite haunt on Mallorca, and is typically booked a year or more in advance, largely with a British clientele that can’t wait to get naked in celebration of their empty-nester years. (How many times have we met people there who expressed their regrets for not finding naturism twenty years sooner?)
With this proliferation of boutique naturist destinations like those in Uruguay and Thailand, along with the increasingly casual reference to such places in the mainstream media, one might assume that Americans are finally becoming more comfortable with the notion of “coming out” as members of the clothes-free constituency!
But finally, to the point… WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
Just as small bistros and boutique hotels all over the world are gasping for air at a time when travel is forbidden and social distancing is the new normal, how will these enterprising naturist ventures get through to the other side? There’s a glimmer of hope that suggests more people have embraced “naked at home” as an everyday thing – even appropriate working attire – which has the potential to create a whole new population of would be naked travelers. But how does a little naturist inn in Thailand or Honduras survive more than a few months of this? How does any business survive? And even when the barriers are down, how many of us will be in a financial position to travel to the far-flung corners of the earth for a few days of nude recreation?
The only another time I can recall a situation even vaguely similar to this these days of COVID-19 is that following 9/11, when people were terrified to get on an airplane or visit a large city. The travel industry mostly recovered from that, with fewer airlines and consolidated hotel chains. But those years also spawned discount airlines and the emergence of AirBNB, not to mention so many internet resources that made it possible for a small naturist inn to make it’s way into mainstream marketing.
One could make a case that naturism has benefited greatly during periods of renewal and re-conceptualization. I can only hope that the fine people we’ve met during our travels who have been the visionaries for naturist travel and recreation will have the resources and tenacity to ride this one out.
I, for one, can’t wait for the next opportunity to get out there and put my nakation dollars to work!