It didn't take me much time at the world's largest nudist colony to master doing most things, from standing in line at the post office to dancing at a disco, without wearing any clothes. After all, absolutely everyone else visiting the "Naturist Quarter" at Le Cap d'Agde, a sprawling seaside community where the undressed population soars to 40,000 naked souls in July and August, is similarly exposed. I would have felt awkward wearing anything more than my birthday suit.
Naturally I was prepared for most of my fleshy social encounters in the bare-skinned section of the French resort on the Mediterranean Sea, which is separated from "the textile world" by a guarded gate where visitors pay a nominal entrance fee. I had been informed that one of the slogans for the Naked City is "See And Be Seen!" and heard about "boutiques where you can use the changing room -- or try it on where you stand!"
And I adhered to the rules. "It is quite natural and easy to live naked in the sun if you follow the naturist way of life," proclaimed a booklet I picked up at the entrance which suggested I "practice complete nudity......and avoid shocking or bothering other people."
There are dozens of naturist (Europeans prefer the word naturism to nudism because this is a "back to nature" activity) beaches and resorts, sometimes called "clothing optional communities," on the Mediterranean. But Le Cap d'Agde, THE nudist community with something for everyone (and I mean everyone), is the best-known and everyone has their own reasons for coming here.
"There is more finesse, a bit more je ne sais quoi, to French naturism," a well-tanned Austrian tells me as he prepares for another day of under (or it is over?) exposure on the sandy "Nudism Obligatory" beach, where cameras are taboo and coconut-flavored suntan oil seems to be the millennium rage.
"There's nothing like this in the world," enthuses Claudine Tartanella, who ran a Florida-based travel company with her husband. "Americans like the complete freedom and the fact that everything is open 24 hours a day."
There is certainly no shortage of available conveniences.
Clothing boutiques in a nudist colony at first seemed contradictory, but I easily adapted to shopping au naturel and even bought some T-shirts for my kids. I also dropped in on some of the fifty bars, including one with "provocatively sensual" pina coladas, and restaurants, where I learned it is polite, while eating the proverbial naked lunch, to put a towel over the chair.
I also checked out bakeries (one sells bread in the shape of various anatomical parts), a beauty salon called "Adam and Eve," and the Ladybel massage parlor where "we speak F-GB-D-NL-I-SP" (that's French, English, German, Dutch, Italian and Spanish).
Naturism began here in the 1950s when a simple campground attracted Northern Europeans who wanted to strip in the sun. But it became big business when the current resort opened thirty years ago following a French government decision to diversify the local economy due to a decline in the fishing and wine-making industries.
Today's foreign and French clients include not only 10,000 campers in tents, trailers and chalets at a tree-lined campground, where no one seems to mind that there are no curtains on the showers, but also 30,000 other residents in villas and multi-story apartment complexes.
"This is now the world's largest naturist center and is a key aspect of our economy," explains Christian Bezes, a naturist working at the local tourism office (www.capdagde.com). "Nudity brings everyone to the same social level."
Perhaps. But physically the unclothed, who let it all nonchalantly hang out during everything from beach volleyball and ping-pong to petanque and yoga, are, alas, blessed with an array of good, bad, ugly and very ugly physiques. "The whole resort is geared to living completely in the nude without embarrassment," an Irishman explains to me. "The experience is much more sensual than sexual."
"No sex?" I asked a German woman as we danced at Cleopatre, a nightclub "Reserved for Anti Conformists."
"I think you've been misinformed," she replied.
There is definitely a laid back atmosphere to life in the nude lane. A billboard urges visitors to "Protect Our Naturist Village - It is Unique and A Privilege" but most naturists don't talk much about the virtues of their lifestyle. And the clothed employees at the various shops and restaurants take the way of all flesh in stride. Delphine, the receptionist at the Hotel Eve, even tells me "naturists are more cool and less stressed than people in the textile world."
And during their stay many visitors even don clothes and head to the textile part of town, which is one of the most animated ports on the Mediterranean.
Indeed I venture there to determine why everyone else staying here is not a naturist. I approach a topless twentysomething woman on the Richelieu Beach who is attired, if that is the correct word, in a microscopic string monokini. Why, I ask her, isn't she over in the naturist colony to "see and be seen?"
"Mon Dieu, not me!" she said. "I'm much too self-conscious for that."
This article is copyrighted by Joel Stratte-McClure.