Relaxing �au naturel� at St. Martin�s Club Orient
by Parks and Suzanne Hall
You love to travel and read about travel destinations. You spend hours looking at display ads on the web or in top travel magazines and imagine yourself being there. When you notice the large colorful ads for �clothing optional resorts,� most of which (at least in this part of the world) are on the shores of the best beaches in the Caribbean, what do you think and how do you feel? Can you imagine yourself there? If you�ve never experienced an �au naturel� vacation, chances are you get stopped cold as you try feel the experience and the destination.
�Clothing optional� is the current, comfortable phrase used by the travel industry to identify� destinations where folks can choose to shed some or all of their clothing in a mixed social atmosphere. Obviously, the practice is not for everyone. But if the number of ads are any indication, there are plenty of people who wish to spend all or part of their vacation in this kind of setting. Some are naturists, the term favored over the older �nudist.� They embrace and practice� nudity as a regular part of everyday life to some extent or another. Many more people, however, choose clothing optional resorts for vacations to experience that occasional freedom of gathering with like-minded people to sunbath, swim, talk, dine and enjoy scores of other activities in a positive and safe clothes-free setting.
Probably the best place to do that in the Caribbean is Club Orient in French St. Martin. �Club O,� as regular visitors (and almost everyone becomes a regular) fondly call the resort, sits on the best section of the best beach in St. Martin. Even if it were not clothing optional, the resort would be�� unique. The 30 beachfront chalets each with a large sitting room-kitchen area, bedroom and bath. There are patios in front and back and an outdoor shower which is really appreciated when arriving �home� after a day on the beach. The bedrooms have whisper quiet air conditioners which keep the room frosty cool at night with the bedroom door closed. Open the door and they drop the temperature and humidity a bit in the entire chalet. We found that the ocean breezes made our chalet comfortable most of the time. But it was nice to have the AC for comfortable sleeping.
The rest of the accommodations are made up of approximately 60 garden chalets, mini suites and studios. Like duplexes, the suites and studios are smaller than the chalets, but quite roomy and fully equipped. There are no bad accommodations. None are more than two minutes from the beach and all have a view ranging from nice to fantastic.
You never have to leave the Club O property unless you want to. Many people don�t. The resort provides bright yellow beach umbrellas, chairs and towels for sunning or reading on the beach. Down near the end of the property where the beach meets a rocky peninsula, the water sports center rents small sail boats, kayaks and snorkeling gear. The club�s reception area provides free equipment for playing volley ball on the beach or tennis on one of the club�s two courts.� Just a few steps away from both locations is the social center of the resort. The Papagayo restaurant and bar serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and light foods in between. The food is a mix of American, French and island fare. It isn�t cheap. But it�s not out of line with the rest of St. Martin�s restaurants. Two nights a week live bands provide music for an enthusiastic group that make good use of the dance floor. It�s roomy and open to the ocean breeze. Happy hour is from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. each day and provides a wonderful opportunity to get to know other guests. And you will get to know others. That�s part of what�s so special about this place. There is an openness and congeniality that seems to draw people to each other and encourage conversation.
Maybe it�s the mix of people. During our visit, the majority of our fellow guests were couples from 45 to 60. Most were from the U.S. However, there also were a number� young couples, families with young or teenaged children, a few singles both male and female and oldsters into their 80s. We found that a surprisingly large number of the people we met come back to Club O again and again. We chatted with one fellow who likes the beach chalet right next to Papagayo so he and his wife can be close to the action. �We have been coming here for 15 years. We try to come about the same time every year. We have dear friends we have met here. Our children played and grew up together here on this beautiful beach year after year,� he said. �When we leave, we count the days until our return. To us and many of our friends, this is not just a beach vacation, it is spiritual experience.�
We also met many first timers. Some, like us, had been to St. Martin before and had made a day trip to Orient Beach. The entire beach is public and the resort encourages those who would like to bare their bodies to the sun and surf to rent beach chairs and join the crowd. There is a beach bar and a friendly young woman strolls the beach taking and delivering drink orders. Other first time visitors had tried resorts with clothing optional facilities on other islands and wanted the experience of a 100% naturist environment.
No matter what brings people to Club O or how often they come, they become part of a familial atmosphere that quickly brings most everyone to a common comfort level. This is fostered by the naturist experience itself. Most of us rarely think about the influence of clothes in our social contacts with others. How a person is dressed sends signals that instantly control how we respond to one another. Without them, we all are more or less the same. Oh sure, some of us are more beautiful than others, some old, some young. But even this doesn�t seem to be a big thing here. Here, you can, and most do, swim, sunbath, dine, dance, stroll the property, shop in the L�Orientique market and gift shop where fresh French pastries and bread arrive early each morning and there�s a good selection of fresh, frozen and canned foods for cooking in, or� go to the office for fresh towels each day in the nude. And there is no clue to whom anyone is, what they do for a living, how much money the make, or anything else, unless they care to tell you. Most don�t. It is surprising how delightful conversations are without the trappings of clothes. There are no visual cues to trigger the responses that have been drilled into us from living in our overly self-conscious, class-structured societies. Here, no one cares!
We found that most guests tend to stay for at least a week or longer. Some for a month or more. What is there to do? After all you can�t stay on the beach all the time. Or can you? Well, there are abundant activities sure to please all interests. One of the really nice things about Orient Beach is its contrast. It�s about two miles long with Club O occupying about a quarter of a mile at one end. This part is well identified with a large sign designating that the beach is nude and that no cameras or boom boxes are allowed. While the Club O portion of the beach tends to be peaceful and quiet, beyond the sign another world awaits. Almost any water sport one could desire is available here every day. You can ride a jet ski, parasail over the water at the end of a 300-foot rope or arrange day trips to nearby islands. If you like high adventure, don�t miss the parasailing. The view is breathtaking.� The end closest to Club O boast several beach bars, small boutiques and restaurants. Pedro�s is a great place for lunch or a evening drink and some loud music. Kon Tiki was included in a short� list of the best beach bars in the world a couple of years ago in a well known national travel publication. It has a complete lunch and dinner menu. Both are no more than a five minute stroll from Club O.
Actually, the entire beach is wonderful for walking. You will find a large group from Club O and other resorts farther down the beach out each day for an early morning stroll. Before the beach businesses open, walking in the buff is fine. As the activity picks up, topless is okay, but total nudity is frowned on.
You can enjoy dinner along Orient Beach, at Papagayo or cook in any of Club Orient�s accommodations. But don�t miss the opportunity to dine at least once in Grand Case. Just a short drive from Orient Beach, this tiny town�s main street is lined with excellent restaurants too numerous to list. Most are small, intimate and have lots of charm. The menus tend to be French. We have eaten in several and were well pleased with all. If you eat on the beach side of the street, you can watch the sunset in the western sky. If� French dining isn�t your desire, then at one end of the street you�ll find several outdoor �lolos� serving local barbecue which is best washed down with a cold Carib beer.
Speaking of driving, a rental car is advised. While you can arrange to pick one up at the airport, your car can be delivered right to your door at no extra charge. This we advise for all but seasoned visitors to the island. The trip from the airport on the Dutch side takes about 45 minuets in a cab. The roads are good by island standards, but narrow and winding. It is easy to get lost, especially at night.
Renting a car also will allow you to pay a visit to Marigot, the capital of French St. Martin and the surrounding countryside. Duty-free shopping is excellent along Marigot�s very French-looking streets. The open-air market is a great place to buy crafts and fresh food. Before you use up all your energy shopping, though, walk up to the old fort that overlooks the city and its harbor.
Back home at Club Orient activities abound. The Brinks family, which manages the property and owns the public portions, hosts a wine and cheese party every Wednesday evening. These are very nicely done affairs and should not be missed. Two nights a week a local bands provide live music. These are good nights to spend the entire evening at Papagayo. Begin with happy hour and its two for one drinks, order dinner, then stay on to listen to the music and dance. We found that the crowd on those evening was always mixed �nude and prude.� (By the way, no one cares if you take your clothes off. We met several people who loved the resort, but didn�t want to let go of their bathing suits.) Some dine and dance nude or topless, while others wear beach attire. The music when we were there was oldies on one night and islands up tempo the other.
These are not to be missed evenings. As the evening winds down, walk back to your chalet via the beach and enjoy the surf washing over your feet and the clear night sky. It�s perfectly safe. Orient Beach is a� long way from populated areas. Just to be sure, however, the beach and entire Club O grounds are discretely watched over day and night by security personnel. Some are armed. They are never obtrusive, but rather quietly watch from a distance to make sure guest privacy and safety are assured.�
Another absolute must at Club Orient is the �nude cruise� to Tintamarre Island aboard the Tiko Tiko. She is a catamaran of just under 40 feet run by two charming young Frenchmen, Nico and Philippe. The cruise takes place three to five times a week depending on demand. Sign up at the water sports center when you first arrive. The boat carries a maximum of 12� guests. The cost is $80 per person. It�s worth every penny.
The cruise starts out at about 9:30 a.m. and returns just in time for happy hour at Papagayo. During the hour-long trip to the island you will be served drinks. Once Tiko Tiko anchors just off the clean white sand beach on the leeward side of the uninhabited mile-long island, you may swim to the beach or ride in the outboard-powered rubber launch. When all are on the beach, Nico and Philippe set up beach umbrellas and bring snorkel gear, floats and coolers full of beverages. Until lunch is served aboard the boat, you�re free to explore the island, snorkel, and visit with your fellow ship mates. We can tell you one thing for sure. Well before lunch, there are no strangers among you. The same forces that draw people out at Club O become even more evident on the cruise. Before you know it, everyone is at ease and chatting with one another. One couple on our cruise was from France and spoke no English. Nevertheless, before the day was over, we were communicating. Another couple, were uncertain about the naturist experience. Well before day�s end, they were in the buff and having a great time
Back on the Tiko Tiko, Nico and Philippe dressed in bow ties (and aprons when working at the grill) serve a delightful, well-presented full lunch with wine on the open deck under shade of an overhead canvas. After lunch it�s back to the beach for a relaxing afternoon.
When we arrived back at Club O, most of us joined the �herd� trekking over to Papagayo for happy hour.� We all exchanged e-mail addresses and vowed to keep in touch and book a return voyage next year. It was quite a day!
The Tiko Tiko cruise is hardly strenuous. But if you want total relaxation, visit Club O�s fitness center for a massage. Reservations are essential for the Swedish and Shiatsu massages and other spa services. The massage therapists are all well trained. Most have been at Club O for years.
While Club Orient has been vacation home for naturists since the 60s, today it has a fresh face. Hurricane Luis in September of 1995 destroyed many of the beachfront chalets and the original Papagayo restaurant. This has resulted in all new structure not only being built, but built to withstand any future hurricanes. (As of this writing, the 1999 hurricanes which passed over St. Martin did no significant damage.) All of the new structures are attractive and blend in well with the palm tree-studded environment. The chalets and other units all are privately owned. They are available for guests when not being used by their owners. Everyone involved with Club Orient works to insure that the resort continues to function for the good of all and maintains its reputation as the one of the world�s premier naturist resort.
There is so much to say and share about the Club Orient experience. If you go, we promise that you will come away feeling you have found something very special. You will bring back your own special memories � perhaps of your cruise on the Tiko Tiko, of new found friends, of children frolicking in the surf, of a delightful woman in her eighties dancing to the music at Papagayo, or of the vacation where you found peace of mind, body and spirit.
As travelers and travel writers we visit many wonderful places. Some of them are so enjoyable we say we must return. But we never seem to. There is always a new destination to experience. We will return to Club Orient. The airline tickets are paid for and reservations in place. See ya at Club O next spring!!
For more information or to make reservations, contact: http://www.cluborient.com , [email protected]
by S. Parks Hall
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