I phrased the question hesitantly, a bit embarrassed. I was calling to book a weekend getaway at Sunny Rest Lodge, a nudist resort in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains. This was my first venture into social nudism, and I was unclear about a little matter of etiquette.
"Ummm, do the people at the resort dress for dinner?" I asked.
I had figured males probably didn't have to don jackets and ties, but I wanted to know if the resort's guests wore anything at all. Should I plan to pack slacks and a shirt for the evening? "It's up to you," said the reservation clerk. "But most of our guests usually don't dress at all for meals."
My mind quickly flashed an image of me seated in a formal dining room filled with naked people chatting amiably over dessert and coffee. The idea seemed pretty comical. Well, I wouldn't have to do much packing for this trip. Apparently I could get by taking only a pair of sneakers and a large bottle of sunscreen.
I confess up front that I am a lifelong skinny-dipper who early on discovered the pleasure of going naked in the outdoors. So nudity doesn't intimidate me. But most of my romps in the buff have been alone or with a few friends at a hidden beach or remote mountain lake. Much of the time, I have had to keep an eye out for park rangers. I was ready to try stripping down in a protected preserve.
Sunny Rest, a comfortably rustic hideaway in the woods, is one of the few nudist retreats in America that accepts unaccompanied males and females as guests. My wife had declined to join me on this adventure. She didn't think the management would permit her to wear a mask, the only way she would show up at the resort.
I would like to say my thoughts were entirely focused on the prospect of communing with nature au naturel. But most of us aren't candidates for sainthood. To be honest, I also looked forward to examining -- discreetly, certainly -- the multitude of shapely bodies I presumed would pass by as I lounged beside the swimming pool. Nudist groups tend to downplay sex in their philosophy, I reminded myself, but who are they trying to kid?
Of course, I was curious too about the nudist lifestyle. Many families, as I was to learn, have made nudism an important aspect of their lives -- firmly believing that, among other things, going undraped improves the self-image, eases tension, enhances relationships and helps them live in harmony with nature. Over the decades, they have joined private clubs -- about 200 now in the United States -- where they can openly practice nudism fairly free from snoopers, bluenosed busybodies and law officers.
My occasional skinny-dips qualify me only as an amateur in nudist ranks, but I think nudists are on the right track with this harmony in nature business. I have sensed it myself alone and unclothed beside a mountain pool, sunning on a rock after a dip. So I drove up to Sunny Rest Lodge, about 225 miles north of Washington, predisposed to participate fully in the resort's activities. I wasn't going to play shy.
I had indeed packed correctly. For the entire 24 hours of my stay, I dressed only in my sneakers and my sunscreen. I swam laps, hiked hillside trails, read under a shady tree, enjoyed an hour-long massage, soaked with the gang in the hot tub and, yes, sat down for dinner at a family-style table for 10.
What do you say to a naked lady on your left? "Please, pass the rolls," I barely managed, rather more unnerved than I had anticipated at the proximity of so much skin. But soon enough, my tablemates and I were conversing as easily as if we had dressed for a formal banquet. Still, I thought, this has got to be the oddest meal of my life.
At the table, I reached for my napkin to spread across my lap. But this move seemed almost obscene, as if I suddenly had become ashamed and had grasped for a fig leaf. Was the napkin for modesty or only to spare my body the unsightly stains of dripping salad oil? The correct answer -- for protection -- came at dessert. Someone bumped into the waitress, and she spilled coffee into a fellow's lap. He yelped loudly, prompting another tablemate to observe: "It's one of the hazards of dining in the nude."
The last half mile of the road to Sunny Rest winds uphill through thick, concealing woods to a high ridge top overlooking the Lehigh River Valley. At the entrance, a barrier blocks the way, and you must announce yourself over the intercom to gain admission. The resort office sits just in front of the swimming pool. I showed up on a Sunday afternoon, and there must have been 75 people swimming and sunning. This sudden sight of massed nudity is startling, no matter that you anticipated it.
In the pool area, a sign informs, swimsuits are not optional; they are banned. You must strip to swim and lounge. Away from the pool, you can wear as much or as little as you like. On a pleasant day, "little" appears to be the choice of most.
The resort extends across 115 acres of thickly forested hills and grassy meadows. I had booked a room in one of Sunny Rest's eight new motel units on a ridge several hundred yards above the pool area. Inside, I quickly shed my clothes, wondering why I had pulled the blinds since moments afterward I stepped outside. I carried a towel as instructed -- it is nudist courtesy to place one under your rump whenever you sit in a chair.
As a skinny-dipper, I can never get far from my clothing, since I might have to scramble into it quickly. So I found it especially satisfying to leave my clothes far behind as I hiked eagerly back down to the pool. And yet I also felt a brief, disconcerting twinge. Of doubt? Or guilt? Should I really be exhibiting myself this way? In the setting of a nudist resort, why not? I don't consider the nude body shameful.
"Happiness is no tan lines" is a popular slogan you often see on club brochures. I, however, have obvious tan lines, which immediately marked me as an outsider to the group around the pool. Almost everybody else, I soon realized, sported deep, full-body tans. Many of Sunny Rest's guests are regulars, and a few reside in a trailer park on the wooded grounds year-round. I felt welcomed, but I doubt I ever would be accepted fully into the resort's social life until I managed to lose my telltale swimsuit lines.
I draped my towel across a lawn chair and sat down to take in the scene. Here spread before me was a colorful Rubenesque canvas of naked bodies playing in the woods. At least that's what it looked like at first to my novice eye. Soon enough, though, I came to my senses and realized the activity I was watching was no different than at any sedate, family-oriented resort anywhere -- except at Sunny Rest everybody was naked.
Youngsters splashed happily in the pool while their parents sunned, read, played tennis or joined in the nonstop volleyball match -- apparently nudism's favorite sport. A few of the bodies were eye-pleasers, but only a few. Everyone else looked, well, ordinary. One older guy, I swear, must be Santa Claus undraped. He wore a bushy white beard and carried a roly-poly belly. Maybe he was down from up North for a summer getaway.
As a newcomer I admit to having stared, but not for very long. Honestly. The titillation evaporated quickly, I found, and so much nudity became curiously commonplace. A sexual undercurrent does exist, I think, and I felt it strongest the 20 minutes or so I soaked in the hot tub with half a dozen attractive young couples. In the shoulder-to-shoulder confines of a tub, you do notice bodies. Perhaps this is why a bold sign overhead prohibits "intimate" contact.
Even in the tub, though, I saw only one remotely risque activity. A mischievous women squirted her dozing companion with a cold water hose. Guess where.
Probably nudism's strongest appeal is the unusual feeling of freedom you enjoy out of the confines of clothes. Nothing constricts -- no tie, no belt, no straps. You are never confronted with a decision about what to wear. And there's a sensual quality too. An evening breeze teases the whole body. Lap swimmers like myself know that naked is best because of the caress of the water.
My impressions were strongly reinformed when all the weekenders went home Sunday night and I had the resort almost to myself. I had as much fun going nude alone as I did in the crowd. At sunset that first night, I hopped onto a plastic raft in the pool and floated in the breeze while I watched the stars pop out. The next morning, I hiked for an hour or so along a shaded trail, unhampered by sweaty clothes and reveling in a complete feeling of escape. I had only one worry -- poison ivy. That's another hazard of nudism, I'm told.
Only once in my 24 hours of solitude was I uncomfortable in my nakedness. After swimming my morning laps, I went into the dining room where I was surprised to learn I was the only guest expected. Off in the corner, a group of the resort's employees -- all fully clothed -- was taking a coffee break. The waitress too was dressed. And throughout my meal, a steady stream of housekeepers and other staff came and went. I felt like an exhibitionist. The staff smiled, and I smiled, and I kept my napkin firmly in place.
Sunny Rest is celebrating its 45th anniversary this summer. Owner Buddy Mesher, 38, first began visiting nudist resorts with his parents when he was 4 years old. His parents eventually bought Sunny Rest, and it has been in the Mesher family since 1978. Mesher, his wife and his two children live on the property year-round.
Mesher's first career after college was in public relations. But nudism had a stronger appeal. "I love the nudist life," he told me, as I sat naked in the resort lobby. "It's a healthy life." How do his kids handle it? I wanted to know. How did he handle it as a kid himself? Going naked among adults is no problem for me. But nudist families bring their children to Sunny Rest, and I was a little uneasy about their presence.
"Kids are natural nudists," he said.
Did he think he was different from his classmates? "I thought I was better. You get a good education in anatomy. My friends would say, 'Hey, look at this magazine.' And I would think, 'What's the big deal?' "
Sunny Rest is a membership resort, but admittance is not limited to members. In accepting nonmembers, Mesher is demonstrating what he considers a more sophisticated attitude toward nudism. Many camps, he said, are 20 to 30 years behind the times. "If you're not married, forget it." He has had no big problems with this policy.
Mesher describes his resort as "rustic," and that it is, which is fine with him. He likes the woodsy atmosphere. The motel rooms -- eight in place and eight more to be built -- are the most comfortable lodgings. About 40 other humbler cabins are scattered about the property, and there is a dorm for unaccompaniedmales. In addition, Mesher provides campsites and a bathhouse for those with recreational vehicles and tents. On a holiday weekend, the resort may draw as many as 500 nudists.
Several times I passed by a young family tenting in a field near my room. It could have been a campsite anywhere, but Mom, Dad and the kids were undressed. Dad even cooked dinner over the barbecue without a stitch on. (I would have worn an apron to guard against splattering grease.)
Sunny Rest offers little in the way of organized activities, which appealed to me. The swimming pool is small, but satisfactory, and it is heated. Beside the pool is a large lawn area, well-shaded by towering trees. A small stream trickles past. I found it an inviting place to read and peek. Among the other facilities are a large hot tub, a sauna, one tennis court, a volleyball court, a game room, a snack bar, assorted exercise equipment, a weekend bar -- you bring your own drinks -- and a good children's playground.
If I have a quibble about Sunny Rest, it is the operation of the dining room. The food is unpretentious fare -- which I accepted -- but I thought Sunny Rest was carrying the camping theme too far by serving it on plastic plates. Dinner on Sunday is at 3 p.m. and the rest of the week at 5 or 6 p.m., which is much too early for me. Fortunately, several restaurants are in the vicinity, although you must remember to wear clothing.
When it came time to leave, I dressed reluctantly. I know now why many people who try nudism become converts. It is wonderfully relaxing. Mesher said some of his guests get so enthused after a weekend they drive off the property naked, but he doesn't recommend it. Anyway, packing was easy. And on this trip, I didn't have to find a place to put a wet bathing suit.
Weekend rates at Sunny Rest Lodge are $255 per couple for two nights, which includes breakfast and dinner. The cost for unaccompanied males and females is $170 for two nights with meals. For reservations: Sunny Rest Lodge, 425 Sunny Rest Dr., Palmerton, Pa. 18071, (215) 377-2911.