Granted, not everyone is cut out to go to a nude beach, just like not everyone is cut out for birdwatching, rugby or chess. Go alone or with a friend. This writeup is intended for those who have thought about going more than once.

Nervous? Excited? Excitedly nervous? That's OK. It's to be expected. After all, it's not every day that you drive to a place to take off all your clothes in front of strangers. A few things will calm the butterflies of your initial visit.

Find a legal clothing-optional beach. Don't just go someplace where a friend of a friend said you could run around naked. You want to enjoy yourself without having to worry if you are going to get caught. The American Association for Nude Recreation (www.aanr.com) is a good place to start. It has links to listings of nude beaches, clubs, resorts and lakesides. Pick one of those and go. Where there are groups of nudists, there is peace of mind.

Choose a weekday. This will mitigate any shyness since the beach will be less crowded. Parking will be easier, and although the place probably won't be deserted, you'll have more of a choice as to where to lay your towel.

Go on a cloudy day. Face it, summer may have already rubbed you with a whole stick of burnt sienna, but if you were born with fair skin, your fanny (and for you ladies, most likely your boobies) will shine as white and pure as trout bellies, no color inside the lines. Beware, you can not force feed an all-over tan. Try and you will pay dearly. Trust me on this. It is best to ease your skin in to it. An overcast day filters the hammering UV rays, and you'll be able to stay out longer. Use sunblock anyway. Anything for babies ( SPF 40 or higher) is good. If the sun shines bright and hard, make sure you slather it on your virgin places like cake frosting, early and often, especially if you are doing a lot of sweating or swimming. Which is, of course, encouraged.

Just because you can see the equipment doesn't mean you can use it. Sadly, some people believe a nude beach serves as an acceptable stage for public sex, either alone or with others. If that's what you're in to, please oh please stay home. You may be arrested, thereby endangering whatever tenuous rapport we have with the local officials. Lotion your parts as directed and leave it at that. You've been warned.

A nude beach is still a beach. The idea is to have fun. Be courteous and considerate and friendly. Pack out what you pack in, trash and all. Bring things that you would normally take to a clothed beach: beach chair, umbrella, refreshments, book, towel, frisbee, bodyboards, fishing poles.

Now you've reached the beach, walking past groups of nudists enjoying a day at one of nature's great playgrounds. Oddly, being clothed, you may feel out of place. This will change in a few moments. Pick your spot and arrange your beach camp as you like it. Towel just so and umbrella angled correctly. Now the time comes.

It is really not such a big deal. Just pull off the shirt and drop the shorts. There. Maybe you'll feel a little self-conscious for a second or two, but the deliciousness will kick in.

Pale pores drink the sun like parched, searching lips. Breezes whisper generous welcomes to previously hidden skin. Like a freshly shedded snake your skin learns a new language written on pages of air with consonants of light and vowels of wind. Walk toward the ocean, dive in and relish the new freedom.

And guess what? No one is laughing or staring. You're naked. Big whoop.

That's because as much as going to nude beach is about chalking up a really cool life experience, it is also about body acceptance. With nothing to hide, the folks at the beach feel comfortable in their own skin and with benign inattention create an environment that allows you to do the same.

I can not deny that sometimes clumps of wrinkly-butted old folks indeed dot the shoreline. However, on any day I can also see taut 20- to 60-something couples walking hand in hand or watch an intense volleyball game. Young families looking for shells. Surfers. Fishermen. People chat and play like anyone else except that they choose to wear no clothes.

So if you feel like visiting, please do. If you find it is not for you, that's OK. If you go, however, I've got a feeling that you may return and even begin to coax your liberated epidermis toward a subtle shade of teak.

Come February you might be bundled in three layers of clothes and perhaps sniffley and you'll remember that bright day you embraced the sun and wind and water with your body unclothed and perfect as it is. You may pad in stockinged feet to the calendar and circle a day in early June when you'll begin work on eliminating your remaining tanlines.

You'll wonder why you didn't do it sooner.

Don't Forget the Sunscreen!

Vacationing at a Nude Resort

You might think that a group who espouses openness to the point of shedding all clothes would be relatively indifferent to the opinions of others. But at least on one point, nudists seem to be sensitive and quick to engage non-nudists, and that topic is swinging. For those unfamiliar, swinging (sometimes called The Lifestyle) is the practice of regularly exchanging / sharing sexual partners between otherwise committed couples. In a place like the United States, where a unique blend of the sexualization of mainstream media and the continued battle over private sexual issues has created a cultural psychosis, nudism (proponents commonly call themselves naturists) is associated with swinging because a sizable group of people believe that nudity and sex are inextricably linked. But within the nudist community, there seems to be a strong dislike of swingers and an express wish of the former to distance themselves as far as possible from the latter.

This is all being explained to me by a man sitting across a table who I have only known for a few hours. Seated next to him is his wife, who, like her husband, is wearing nothing more than a beach towel. I am wearing swim trunks, because it has been somewhat difficult for me to adapt to eating my dinner completely naked. My wife, clad in a semi transparent sarong, is seated on my side of the table and seemingly having the time of her life. I think he is explaining this to me in hopes that it will put my wife and me at ease. In fact, it actually does a little, because while I would have been hard pressed to admit it, one of my concerns about taking this vacation centered around some irrecoverable awkwardness if we were solicited in any way.

But here we were, sitting in an open air restaurant called Papagayo's at the far southern end of Orient Beach. Night had already descended on the bay and a gentle breeze was blowing in from the open Atlantic Ocean. Several months of planning had brought us to this point, and sitting there listening to the waves and drinking, I began to relax. This was definitely going to be an adventure.

Almost a year ago, my wife had decided for her 30th birthday that we should do something big. Not only was it a major milestone for a woman (at least in her mind) but it would also be our five year wedding anniversary. We had not taken a large vacation since before our daughter was born, and she would be almost 2 1/2 when this summer arrived. My wife only had a couple of requirements: wherever we went, it must be warm, and preferably, she would like to try topless sunbathing. That second point might seem a little odd, but since having our daughter, my wife had put a great deal of effort into working out and had unquestionably reached the best shape of her life. As someone who had been shy and reserved in high school and college, I suspected that she now wanted an opportunity to show off a little but her shyness prevented her from doing it in any way around people we knew. She dressed conservatively at work, and to this day refuses to let people see her in shorts. So vacation was shaping up to be her escape from shyness, if only for a week.

We began to look at potential destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean, but most places that we initially found seemed oriented towards Lifestyle people (e.g. Hedonism in Jamaica). Realizing that the French remained a little more relaxed about nudity than the U.S. and Britain, we focused on French beaches and this ultimately led us to Club Orient, a beach resort on the island of Sint Maarten / St Martin, French West Indies. This wasn't just a topless beach, it was a resort that catered to nudists. Initially hesitant, we finally thought "What the hell?" and in the spirit of you only live once, we booked a room and airline tickets in February for a trip in June.

So here we were, surrounded by a room full of nude or near nude men and women who ranged in age from early twenties up to 80 years old (or possibly older!). The restaurant had a singer that night, and its small dance floor quickly filled with smiling and laughing people. At one point we watched as a group of four or five older women performed a line dance. Naked. And it was a blast.

Whatever mental conception you have in your mind about the people you would bump into at a nude beach, it is very likely incorrect. I say this because we encountered everyone. Young couples on their honeymoon, retired couples enjoying their waning years together, gay couples, families (seriously, this weirded me out a little, but I mark that up to what remained of my conservative nature), all colors, shapes, and sizes of people, and people from all different backgrounds from a mechanic to an energy commodities broker. Our dinner partners continued to explain, having visited this resort for several years running, that within the total group of Beachgoers there were three general cliques. First, he explained, were the purists. Think sun worshipers here. This group enjoyed nudism and being at the nude beach because they personally believed it was the most natural, healthy way to be. This group generally frowned on things like tattoos and piercings. For the next group, who we will call nontraditionalists, nudism served as an element of their personal expression. Tattoos, piercings, and body jewelry are common among the nontraditionalists. Finally, the third group that contained everyone who wasn't a purist or nontraditionalist, and this made up the majority of people. This final group contained a lot of people who weren't necessarily nudist but were just trying something different, such as ourselves, as well as limited nudists who only disrobed in this way on vacation, but took two or three such vacations each year.

Almost everyone was friendly to us, and once people became aware that we had never visited a place like this, they seemed to go to pains to make us feel welcome. Most nights we would have dinner with one couple or another, chatting and drinking into the night, something that my wife did not enjoy doing at home. In the mornings, many people would get up early to walk the length of the beach naked before the gendarmes came out (after about 8:00 AM full nudity was limited to the southern end of the beach). Resort guests all had reserved beach chairs and umbrellas, and the bulk of the day involved lounging by the waterside reading and watching people. And there were plenty of people to watch. Underweight people, overweight people, some of the most amazingly in shape and attractive people, sunburned people (ouch!), people with lots of hair and people with no hair (anywhere!), people with plastic surgery (both good and bad), and always people laughing and smiling and having a good time.

There was only one instance of awkwardness, and unexpectedly it involved me instead of my wife. Near the end of the week as we were lying on the beach she noticed that I was getting a lot of attention from a man down from us. He walked by a couple of times and according to her had conspicuously looked at me (or parts of me anyway) with more attention than was warranted. The gentleman's boyfriend was not present. I finally noticed it too and just took that opportunity to go swimming again.

And the swimming! Growing up in a rural area, I had been skinny dipping before but always in a lake or creek and always with the fear that someone might walk up unexpectedly. But here, it was the norm. The crystal clear water felt amazing, and within only a few minutes I had convinced myself I would never be able to swim in clothes again. Admittedly, sometimes a school of fish would float by in hopes that we would throw out bread or some other snack, and my first reaction would be to grab myself protectively. But the memory of swimming with my wife in the clear Caribbean will remain with me until the day I die. I spent a lot of time snorkeling, and saw starfish, devil rays, eagle rays, tons of tropical fish, conch shells, and even one small shark. Additionally, I found a woman's top, which she had worn to the water but then lost. I felt like it was one of the few places that probably wouldn't be too embarrassing.

Ultimately, our week at the nude beach turned out to be everything we had hoped. It certainly changed my perception a little. We may never return, but only because there's so many other places we would like to visit.

Below are some links for those readers who have considered a similar adventure themselves:

Club Orient Nude Resort

Orient Beach Forum, the forum we read prior to taking the trip.

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