Nude Beach 101: Why Temptation Island Loves to Be Naked

St Martin 6
Orient Beach, St. MartinZach Stovall

But for my waterproof watch and wedding band, I am nekkid.

Starkers.

Nary a stitch.

One. Nude. Dude.

But I am not the only one.

I write this with my bare bee-hind planted on a lounger at the southern end of Orient Beach, St. Martin, a couple hundred yards of prime Caribbean playground set apart for the practice of naturism. As the still-potent late-afternoon sun bakes the left side of my body and throws a harsh glare off the tender white bits that don't get out much, I am struck by two observations.

The first has to do with the comment, "People who go naked are never the ones who should." Anyone who utters that cliché has never sat in this beach chair, observing that playful quartet of 30-ish women frolicking in the surf 40 yards away. I can't help noticing that one in particular is endowed with attributes that would qualify her for Playboy or any of your finer tools calendars. There's a man in the shallow water who's quietly drifting in their direction with only his head above the surface, commando-style, with only his head above the surface; he's either trying to get a sneaky closer look or moving unconsciously, slave to a force stronger than the gentle sweep of the surf that carries him.

The gals themselves are whooping and hollering and jumping onto one another's backs while trying not to spill the contents of the big red plastic picnic cups. (I'm guessing that those aren't their first beverages of the day.) It's pure, spontaneous Wild on St. Martin material.

Of course, not everyone here is so exuberantly watchable; there is a preponderance of middle-aged free spirits with skin the color and texture of vintage saddlebags, with bright white stripes peeking from the folds and creases where the sun don't shine. Lifers. Pros. But the party girls are by no means the only fit specimens -- some of the men are buffed, zero-percent-body-fat types.

As for my other initial observation: I had been told that genital jewelry is verboten at Club Orient, the famous nudist resort here. But just a few yards to my left, one of those lean musclemen is sporting a complete set, including some shiny gold tackle on his gear -- not that I'm looking very closely but you really can't help noticing. Maybe, like me, he's just a day-tripper on this beach and not a guest flaunting the resort's rules, but he and his birthday-suit-wearing family look like they truly belong. The utter nonchalance of his wife and their young daughter corroborate what I've been told -- that the whole nudism gambit is not a sexual thing. But if that's so, why the flamboyant display plumage? Why the stealth horndog homing in on the frolicsome girl gang? And most of all -- why do I care? What brings me to this place, this state of undress and this baffled contemplation thereof?

I trace it back to a restaurant in Paris a month back. I was showing a copy of this magazine to some friends, and they immediately zeroed in, with no small degree of hilarity, on the back-of-the-book ads for nude resorts. (Another myth punctured, that of Parisian sophistication in such matters.) Their joking piqued my curiosity, and I made mental note to check out the au naturel side of French St. Martin.

My journey began on Sint Maarten -- the Dutch side of the island -- where, as it happened, some of the very first people I came across were women who make their living by undressing. "Strippers," in a word; "dancers" if you prefer. A few of the girls from the Platinum Room, a popular nightclub in the Maho Village hotel-casino complex, were lounging in front of the place as I walked by. I sensed a subtle solicitation to come on in and check out their professional qualifications, and I may have been so inclined -- simply for the sake of journalistic thoroughness, of course -- but I was being steered past them by a friendly St. Maartener named William. He was showing me the lay of the land during my first 24 hours and probably did not think it wise to take me to a strip joint right off the bat.

Our first stop that evening was nearby Cheri's Café, an outdoor club in the middle of the resort where families -- residents as well as tourists -- were dancing up a collective sweat with the help of a house band that pumped out a steady string of zouk, reggae and rhythm-and-blues crowd-pleasers. The atmosphere was more multigenerational party than club, such was the ease and familiarity between patrons and performers. William was right: That scene gave me a wholesome first impression of St. Maarten -- a picture of good, clean, island-flavored fun for all ages -- but it was not the whole story.

Ten minutes after leaving G-rated Cheri's, William and I were sidling up to a bar with a sign that said, "Topless women drink free." The alfresco Sunset Beach Bar sits between the sea and the foot of the airport runway, and legend has it that departing pilots are occasionally flashed an eyeful of boobies for a bon voyage as they go wheels-up. Though I didn't personally witness any exhibitionism, it's fair to say the funspot cultivates an anything-goes vibe.

"I've got a girlfriend back home," confided a fresh-faced young man from a Midwestern city, who was seated at a table with easy access to the octagonal bar and a view of the dance floor. "But I don't know, I'm feelin' kinda free."

He and his brother had been on the island for a couple of days and were as excited as kids in the grown-ups' candy shop. Oh, how they raved about the "model-quality" topless babes on Orient, and the pretty, enthusiastic Platinum dancers ("Dude, I've been to a lot of tittie bars, but these girls ...").

At that very moment, the stage was packed with clusters of attractive young women dancing together to classic hip-hop tracks. One of them was carrying on like a vixen in a Prince video, and she had the body for it, too. She recognized William and gave him the eyes that said "come dance with me." The man was seriously tempted -- any man would have been -- but he declined.

"But it's only dancing," I said, just to wind him up.

William explained that he's married, a pastor's son, and if he were to dance with a woman that fine the way he likes to dance -- tight, intense, doing the hippy-hippy slow grind with some special Caribbean hot sauce drizzled all over it ...

"No," said William resolutely. "It's too suggestive." He added that when the local guys dance that way with the tourist girls "it never fails."

Within mere hours of my arrival on the island, I had picked up a palpable Sin City vibe: What happens on St. Martin stays on St. Martin. William forbids himself to play that game. No drinking, no dancing, no flirting. One woman whose advances he once demurred responded with a slur implying he wasn't a real man. "I've seen better men than me go down that road and pay the price," William told me. "No. A real man knows to walk away."

We both took a long look over at the women steaming up the dance floor.

"There's a quote from the Bible I say to myself at times like this," said William. "Thessalonians, Chapter 5, Verse 22: 'Flee the very appearance of evil.'"

And so we fled, a pair of chaste gentlemen on a tour of Temptation Island.

William picked me up the next morning to give me the sober-light-of-day overview. The island's population of around 90,000, is split about evenly between the French and Dutch sides, half of the residents foreigners representing 140 nationalities -- a very global village. He said the island attracted the likes of Jackie O and Harry Belafonte from the 1950s to the '80s, but since then nearby St. Barts and Anguilla have siphoned off most of the glitterati, ceding the island to the fun-loving hoi polloi. An estimated 1.5 million cruise-shippers visited in 2005, he said, while some 450,000 guests (half from the United States) stayed over in the island's 7,500 available rooms, many of which are time-share condos.

St. Martin's vital signs are positive, William told me. Big hotel chains are coming in; the airport, the Caribbean's second-busiest, is opening a shiny new terminal this year; and the island is becoming a major yachting hub. He explained all this as we navigated a road that was being widened to create a more efficient and pleasant "tourism corridor" that terminated in Philipsburg, the Dutch capital and cruise-ship port. We parked and walked along the beachfront promenade, which was being rebuilt to make room for new bars and restaurants to complement the many duty-free shopping emporiums on the main drag, Front Street, which has also been spruced up.

By the end of the day, William had driven me around the entire periphery of the 37-square-mile island. On the road into Marigot, the French capital, we saw a trio of females wearing noticeable makeup and tight, scanty clothing. They happened to be hitchhiking. I looked sideways at William. He kept going, explained they were Platinum Club dancers and invoked Thessalonians 5:22.

"Keep it with you always," he advised me at the end of our orientation tour, intimating that I would need it.

That night I went solo on a sunset cruise in Simpson Bay, aboard the Celine, a catamaran that bar-hops a few waterfront spots. Most of the other folks arrived en masse, a clubby group in their 50s and 60s, the women in nice skirts and dresses, the men with pressed slacks and fresh tropical shirts -- frankly, a more refined, temperate bunch than one expects to meet on a booze cruise. They had Southern accents, and I took them to be card-carrying members of the red-state conservative base. Wrong-o.

Sitting on the trampoline of the catamaran on a star-filled night as it motored along the twinkly harborfront, I chatted with a professorial, white-bearded gent and quickly learned that the group had bussed over from Club Orient, the nudist resort. For him, St. Martin wasn't just a vacation destination, it was part of a serious lifestyle choice; the French influence, he said, made it hospitable to nudity.

I asked him to explain the appeal of staying in a nude resort. He said it was easier to relate to people; a feeling of tribal community forms.

"Is there a swinging element?" I asked.

"No, it's not about sex," he said, and cited some rules that discourage wanton behavior: no single men, no dancing naked, no genital jewelry.

It all sounded very civilized; I told him I'd come over and see for myself.

But first I was eager to see what all the fuss was about regarding Grand Case's famous dining scene, so I checked into the fully clothed, family-friendly, down-to-earth Grand Case Beach Club for a couple of nights. I asked the hotel's amiable general manager, Steve Wright, for a restaurant recommendation. "If you ask 10 people, you'll get 10 different favorites," he said. "You can't get a bad meal." Since I'd be dining alone, I asked if there were any that offered lively atmosphere. "No," he said, "it's more of a serious food scene."

So I perused restaurant row along the narrow main street of the former fishing village, reading the menus and sandwich boards on the sidewalks. There are, of course, plenty of districts in the world where virtually every storefront is a restaurant, but it's usually a sure sign of rampant tourist-trap mediocrity. Here, elaborate hand-written menu items announced the chefs' obvious ambition and creativity.

I chose L'Auberge Gourmande because it was the most classically French of the lot, with an antique yellow-with-white-trim palette and provincial décor. The dining room was calm, a world apart from the party-hearty Dutch side; it was the kind of place my mother, a foodie Francophile, would have loved. I started with escargot and moved on to grilled lobster tails: garlicky and moist, they were artistically presented with shoestring sweet potato sticks arranged in a bouquet with the lobster's feelers. Dessert was a plate of three chocolates: a fondant and white and dark mousse. In a word: ooh-la-la.

The delectable meal struck me as exemplary of a hedonistic excellence that the French (God bless them) call a lifestyle, which I could happily indulge with the implied blessing of the absent wife. Then on the way out the door, the maitre d' joked that I might like to take the voluptuous brunette waitress home to America with me. I wasn't sure how Mom would have liked that idea but pretty certain that this was one souvenir the current Mrs. Herndon would consider a slam-dunk deal-breaker. Merci beaucoups, monsieur, au revoir, bon nuit, see ya later.

The next night I had a more adventuresome dinner down the street at Le Cottage. The starter was built like a Napoleon, with layers of crab and tuna tartare separated by seaweed. The main course was a duck medley (breast, leg, foie gras and gizzards), and the dessert -- basil sorbet and eggplant chips atop anise mousse -- tasted way, way better than it sounds. Best of all was the wine service by a spirited sommelier who came around to consult on just the right glass for each course. "I'm the wine man, I love what I do," he said. "We're swimming in happiness." That sublime image outlasted the aftertaste of the fascinating meal.

I was pretty much swimming in happiness myself by this point, using the daylight hours between one-man food orgies to nose around the island. Between the various beaches, cosmopolitan Marigot and myriad bars and restaurants, St. Martin offers a tasty variety of people-watching venues. The misen-scéne at waterfront Karibuni on Ilet Pinel was straight out of a French new wave seaside romp. It was hot, so the waitress wore a pareo with a bikini top, the waiter simply his boardshorts. When the pair of French burghers seated at the picnic table next to me ordered lobsters, they were plucked from a pen by the pier. A trio of twentysomethings completed the picture, playing ménage a trois games in the water while little kids clambered on the dock.

Afterward I drove back to the Dutch side, where traveler's luck led me to Varda, cave-dwelling goddess of the healing arts. In her early 20s, blonde with china blue-eyes, Varda administers massages on a platform in a niche in the Cliffside niche of Cupecoy Beach, with a sail overhead for shade. Clearly, this would be anything but a sterile claustrophobic hotel spa treatment.

I disrobed discreetly at the back of Varda's lair and positioned myself on the table. As she kneaded aromatic oils into my skin, wringing out any latent vestiges of tension or toxin, I synchronized my breaths in rhythm with the surf lapping the shore 20 feet below: exhaling with the crash, inhaling with the ebb. A few minutes of that and the rest is a blank -- linear thought was replaced with pure awareness of the sounds of the sea, Varda's skilled touch and the very rich sensory experience of absorbing them simultaneously.

"I thought you were asleep," said Varda as I dressed.

"Not asleep," I said. "In the zone."

I found out that Varda is an Israeli who took off for the white sands and turquoise waters of the Caribbean right after finishing her military service. She learned massage, fell in love with a man with a boat, and found the perfect spot to set up her table and make people feel as wonderful about life as she does. "My parents say I should be in school now," she said, "and I say, 'I am in school. I found my love here, I found my career, and I've found my freedom.'"

On my last morning in St. Martin, I went down to Orient Beach early and walked past its one-after-the-other bars and restaurants as the waiters, umbrella guys and water-sports enablers set up shop for the day. Soon I passed the jetty that demarcates the clothing-optional zone, found a place to put down my things (including my bathing suit) and went for a swim all the way down to the rocks at the far end. There I faced the choice of swimming back against the current or getting out and walking back. Skinny-dipping is one thing; parading along the shoreline in the altogether is quite another. I challenged myself: Did I have the cojones to walk a couple hundred yards in the unforgiving tropical sunlight?

Well, yes I did, as anyone there that day could plainly see. At first I was as self-conscious as Adam after the fall from grace, but I faked a certain degree of confidence and my comfort increased with every stride. But I still felt weird enough to avoid eye contact -- especially with the zero-body-fat guy sporting the gold gear on his tackle.

After I'd run the gauntlet, I swam out to a floating platform and allowed my body to recall Varda's massage, encouraging my mind to re-enter the zone. I breathed with the sea, rose and sank with the swells, absorbed the sunlight and stopped thinking. When my brain engaged once again after a period of blissful calm, I realized that by confronting my little fear-factor hang-up about simply walking down a public beach minus one bathing suit, I'd completely let go of any shame I had felt 30 minutes earlier. I was still buck-naked, but there was no reason to feel odd about it; rather, I felt as innocent as a newborn, as Adam before the fall.

I'd been sanctified in the sea of happiness.

No evil to flee.

No sin in Sint Martin.