I feel a wee bit uncomfortable—not to mention overdressed by virtue of being dressed at all—as I’m given a tour of Rock Lodge, a rustic, private nudist club near the Sussex County town of Stockholm. My guide, after all, is wearing nothing but an unbuttoned plaid flannel shirt and a pair of soft, checkered loafers.
“The most commonly misunderstood thing [about a nudist club] is that it must be a sexual environment and that nudists must be some sort of subculture wackos,” says Sandy Kennedy, a 72-year-old retired banker and substance-abuse counselor from Manhattan who chairs the membership committee and serves on the Rock Lodge board. “The reality is that we are absolutely normal people, but we are no longer constrained by fear of our own bodies and other people’s bodies. And we are very comfortable being naked.”
Rock Lodge, with its abundant hiking trails, lush foliage and sparkling, spring-fed lake, is one of three nudist clubs in New Jersey that are landed—meaning each has its own grounds and facilities. The others are Goodland Country Club in Hackettstown and Sky Farm in Basking Ridge. There are also at least three non-landed clubs, whose members meet at a private home or some other approved venue.
The landed clubs offer the summer amenities you’d expect—courts for tennis, volleyball, badminton and bocce; an indoor recreation room with ping-pong, billiards and a flat-screen television; a pool, hot tub and sauna; and, at Rock Lodge, a pristine, sandy beach with boats for sailing, kayaking and fishing. There are dances and parties, potluck dinners and talent shows. Membership fees range from $450 to $625 per adult and, while technically open year-round, the recreational season generally runs from May to early fall.
Unlike the average swim club, however, members prefer to participate in activities sans clothing. “Nude when possible, clothed when practical” is an oft-repeated guideline in nudist circles. Kennedy isn’t the only one eager to dispel the notion that nudists are sex crazed.
“Actually, if you see people constantly walking around nude, it’s kind of de-sexing,” says Gretchen, a 77-year-old grandmother and 20-year member of Sky Farm who travels an hour from her home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to spend time at the club. “The more people you see nude, the less you want to run panting to your cabin.”
A native of Germany, where she says nudism is more widely accepted, Gretchen was raised to be unashamed of the human body, a view she promotes in her own home today.
“The grandchildren go to look at our photo albums, and of course, there we are,” she says with a hearty laugh, about pictures of herself and her husband at nudist resorts. “They got their anatomy lesson there.”
Members cite various reasons for choosing what they call the naturist lifestyle. Some say relaxing poolside in the buff is stress-free. Others say they like the acceptance that comes with being undraped. And some just hate wearing a soggy or sandy bathing suit.
“I was concerned about the way I looked,” says a North Jersey secretary and Rock Lodge member in her late 30s who requested anonymity. “Then I came here, and there were all shapes and sizes. I saw that it wasn’t a beauty pageant. It was a positive, life-changing experience.”
“It’s great swimming naked,” adds Rock Lodge member Joe Carrero, 64, a general contractor from Allendale who is sitting next to his wife, Diana, a 65-year-old meditation teacher. She is fully clad; he is sporting only sandals.
“Initially, I was uncomfortable,” Diana says. “But I was pleasantly surprised. Nobody stared at you. Once people had their clothes off, they were very real.”
K.C. Rice, who has enjoyed many a “nakation” (nudist terminology for “naked vacation”) with her husband, began looking for a more private alternative after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“In 1991, I had a mastectomy and a rather extensive reconstruction, and I got more self-conscious,” says the 74-year-old retired editorial director from Manhattan. “We saw an article describing Rock Lodge and made arrangements to go. Everyone was so welcoming and could have cared less that I had had [the surgery].”
To maintain privacy, last names are not used around the clubs (or in this article) unless a member permits it. Some worry about how an unsuspecting family member or employer might react.
“My mom might know, but she probably doesn’t,” says a 57-year-old Tinton Falls construction worker and Sky Farm member, who is nude save for a gold cross, a slender ankle bracelet and light blue flip-flops.
Sky Farm membership chairperson and Ringoes resident Cindy Thiboutot, 55, says most of her colleagues at the electronics company where she works as a buyer/planner know she is a nudist.
“Anybody I’ve told has been accepting,” she says. “I’ve never had anybody recoil in horror. People either make silly jokes or they’re curious and they ask questions.”
Answers to those frequently asked questions can be found on club websites. The goodlandcc.com site asks, “Do I have to be naked?” The answer: While Goodland calls itself a “clothing optional” resort where prospective members are encouraged to “discover their own personal level of comfort,” nudity is required only in the pool, the sauna and the whirlpool. Rock Lodge (rocklodge.com) notes that tattoos are allowed, but smoking and genital jewelry are not. At all clubs, proper etiquette requires one to sit on a towel when nude.
The website of the American Association for Nude Recreation (aanr.com) raises the question: Do men get visibly aroused? Answer: “Not often. Nudist clubs are far less sexually charged than places where bikinis, thongs or other provocative clothing are worn. On the rare occasion where this occurs, simply don a towel, turn over, or take a quick dip in the pool.”
The Florida-based AANR lobbies federal, state and local officials on behalf of its 33,000 members in the United States and Canada. Executive director Jim Smock says the group has plenty of friends in high places. “There are stories that we share about Benjamin Franklin being a nudist; of presidents [such as John Quincy Adams] swimming naked in the Potomac River; of other famous Americans skinny dipping or enjoying being nude.”
The New Jersey clubs report only a slight upturn in membership in recent years. What has grown considerably, they say, is the number of visitors who are interested in testing the waters.
“The country has changed,” says Jack, the owner and president of Goodland Country Club. “It’s not as hush-hush as it used to be.”
Cindy Thiboutot is wearing a simple summer wrap as she steers a golf cart around Sky Farm’s 35 wooded acres. As at Rock Lodge, there are privately owned cabins here, although members are not allowed to live year-round on the premises. The club’s members typically range in age from 40 to 60 years old. While she says there are roughly six member couples with young children, the number of families at the club varies from year to year. (Not surprisingly, some teenagers shy away from attending.)
Anyone wishing to join Sky Farm must undergo an initial telephone screening and a thorough background check. If somebody seems like the type who’ll gawk, Thiboutot says, it’s pretty obvious. “We have strict guidelines,” she says. “We keep [our club policies] within family values.”
Thiboutot and her husband, Rich, were married in 2008 on an expanse of lawn at Sky Farm. Photographs of the clothing-optional wedding hang in their cabin. The bride wears only a veil and a garter, while the groom sports a bow tie and top hat. The minister, also a member of the club, has a sarong wrapped at her waist and a clergy stole draped around her neck. All three are wearing sensible sandals.
For a long time, Sky Farm, which was founded in 1932, preferred to “stay under the radar,” Thiboutot says. “Now we’re a member of the Bernards Township Chamber of Commerce.”
Still, many of the club’s neighbors are unaware of the nudists’ quiet presence. Those who do know have mixed opinions.
“I don’t like it. It’s not my cup of tea,” says a middle-aged jewelry store clerk and 37-year resident of Basking Ridge, who lowers her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “I don’t know what they do there. It’s so secret. Who goes there and why?”
“It doesn’t faze me,” says Nicholas Ali, a 20-something fitness instructor who has lived in Basking Ridge since 2008. “But I don’t think I’d join. I’m a very private person.”
It is late in the season, and few of Sky Farm’s 280 members are in evidence—save for some hardy souls lounging around the pool or playing Petanque, the French version of bocce.
“I like when I come [into Sky Farm] and the gate closes behind me. It’s another world,” says Debbie, 53, a Phillipsburg resident with three grown children and six grandchildren. “I’m comfortable. It’s stress free.”
Besides, she adds with a grin, “I have to be a nudist because I don’t look good in a bathing suit.”
Contributing writer Mary Ann McGann says she respects those who choose nudism, but as for “getting naked with friends and family…I will never go there.”