Think Naked

Do nudists know something we don't? If you mean where the best luxury spots are, then yes.

    Photo: Chalabala/Thinkstock

C'mon, admit it. If you reflect on some of your most exhilarating moments in the wild, you'll almost certainly come up with at least one bracing skinny-dip or triumphant strip on a summit—moments that left you feeling more alive for facing nature the way you came into the world. The places where you bared it all are also precious, hidden gems you share carefully. Even if most of us never adopt the lifestyle of a true naturist (keep your Speedo on if you like), thinking like one can lead you to some of the few Edenic places left. In what follows, our brazen correspondents put this theory to the test.

Full Monty Maui
SQUINTING IN THE low light of the jungle to recheck our coordinates, I was having doubts. The writing on the back of the envelope was clear, but the directions were sketchy. "Follow main highway past town. Look for black mailbox. Climb through the big gate across the street. Watch out for cows. Follow trail to the Portuguese oven. Go right. It's dead ahead." Assuming that the pile of concrete and ashes we had walked past a few minutes before was the oven, we were on the right track. But the dense brush made it hard to tell if we were lost or on the edge of the promised Eden: the mystical "Venus Pool."

Pushing ahead through the moist leaves and the sweet stench of rotting mangoes, I stumbled into a bright patch of afternoon sun and then out onto a cliff. Below me lay a dark, bottomless pool framed by soaring rock walls lined with vines. At the inland end of the pool lay a massive hardened lava flow that snaked out of the overgrowth and into the still water; at the other was a thin ribbon of black-sand beach that separated the pool from the ocean. The only sound: surf pounding the shore. Then a middle-aged woman popped out of one of the crevices in the lava and waved. Pink sunglasses aside, she was buck nekkid. Waving back, I turned to my wife and said, "Well, this must be the place."

While we hadn't come to Maui with the express aim of taking our clothes off, it didn't take long to realize that nudists seem to have cornered the market on what was left of the island's unspoiled places. Since hanging out au naturel remains just outlaw enough to require some privacy, these folks have established a small circuit of remote and sparsely attended spots like the Venus Pool—one of our last finds, on Maui's eastern shore. Directions were available only through the "coconut wireless"—a word-of-mouth network—but plugging into it was easy enough. All it took was a stop at Mana Natural Foods in Paia, the north shore's best health-food store, where a surfer was more than happy to connect us.

Until recently, I'd never been one to equate discretion with nude sunbathing, but nudity is technically illegal in Hawaii—another reason that nude spots are off Maui's beaten path. It's covered by a state statute outlawing "lewd behavior," designed to protect the sensibilities of native Hawaiians who find public nudity shameful. Such delicacy hasn't always been the case; the ancient Hawaiians were not nudists in the modern sense, but they were certainly not offended by the human body, and most wore only small garments made of kapa-bark cloth that they removed before swimming, surfing, or fishing. Then the first Calvinist missionaries from New England arrived in the early 1800s and brought with them a host of Puritanical attitudes. These days nudity might not be equated with damnation, but complaints to the police are treated as a priority, and arrests—with convictions entailing as much as 30 days of jail time and fines of up to $1,000—still occur. No worries, though. Starting with the quick tip from the surfer at Paia, we managed to turn a series of casual suggestions into an amazing weeklong tour of secret swimming holes, remote beaches, and hidden waterfalls, several on or near the private property of out-of-the-way resorts, where it's perfectly legal to skinny-dip.

We began the week by visiting a place that was more like a carnival than a secluded paradise: the legendary Little Beach at Makena State Park. Nestled along one of the last stretches of undeveloped coastline on Maui's south shore, Little Beach was a hippie hangout in the sixties and seventies that gradually evolved into the island's best-known public spot for basking au naturel. While the great bodysurfing and beauty of the main strand, known as Big Beach, draws plenty of visitors from the nearby resorts at Waliea, the real attraction—100-yard-long Little Beach—is tucked behind the lava-rock wall at its western flank. (Authorities turn the other cheek to nudity here so long as you stay off Big Beach).

Stretching out among 70 or so sun worshippers, I surveyed a scene that would become familiar over the next few days: small groups sharing picnic lunches and fat joints of pakalolo, elderly men with oversize sunglasses strolling back and forth, sunburned middle-aged couples rubbing lotion into each other's skin. Many of the guys wore only sandals or baseball caps; the women tended to favor scarves or a gold chain or two. My wife nudged me, pointing to an ultra-groomed, gym-chiseled man in his thirties lying nearby. Trunk twisted, legs in the air, his yogic contortions made it look like he was trying to get a tan where the sun don't shine. "If anyone thinks that nudism is about sex, they ought to come to a place like this," I said, watching a large man jiggle down to the surf.

Even so, the beauty and casual vibe of the place inspired us to ask around about other nudie spots, and a woman we met in the parking lot suggested that we check out the Hale Akua Shangri-La, just past Haiku on Maui's north shore. Set at the end of a dirt road lined by a neat row of swaying wiliwili trees, Shangri-La's tidy compound of five wooden buildings is so well hidden that I had to ask the gardener to show us to the front door. 

Founded in the mid-eighties as a New Age retreat, this 12-room bed-and-breakfast now offers a comfortable option for those in search of an alternative to the standard high-rise hotel package. What's more, the Shangri-La's clothing-optional policy accommodates varying degrees of modesty. "It's perfect for couples where one person may be more comfortable with nudity than the other, but it seems that most people wind up naked after a few days," says Madhava D'Addario, the Shangri-La's manager and resident yogi. Shangri-La boasts a naturally ozonated, black-bottomed swimming pool, and a pair of hot tubs that offer dramatic views of both the ocean and the Haleakala volcano. It also has a rock pool with a small waterfall carved right into the cliff below the compound. Still, D'Addario had plenty of other suggestions. "We always give our guests directions to private beaches where they can snorkel among the sea turtles," he said. "My favorite is the hidden bamboo forest up the road." It didn't disappoint. We found the promised waterfalls and a natural clay cave where we spread mud all over ourselves. We also ran into a ponytailed massage therapist who set us on the path to the town of Hana, and by day four we were headed east on the twisty two-lane road to the Maui Sun Club.

Beyond a padlocked cattle gate, the Maui Sun Club sits in a small clearing in the middle of 19 acres of tropical forest. Known to locals as the Honokalani Ranch, the Club is surrounded by groves of wild bananas, mangoes, papayas, and guavas, all overgrown with creeping hou vines. Unless you subscribe to naturist journals, you'd never know it's the only totally nude resort on Maui. It has only three apartments and three small cabins, so there are rarely more than ten people visiting at any time, and it's about as off the grid as it gets: no television, no pool, no bar, no clothes. The Club is owned and operated by Georgianna Dryer, who, after checking us in, gave us directions to local refuges like Red Sand Beach, Makahiku Falls, Waianapanapa State Park, and the Venus Pool.

The next day Dryer personally escorted us to a favorite spot in her beater pickup. Coasting to a stop at a muddy opening in the trees, we climbed out of the cab, squishing fallen mangoes beneath our feet. Leading the way, Dryer picked a path down through the jungle and then along a rugged beach. Several hundred yards later she turned and whispered, "Blue Pool" to announce our arrival at a stunning freshwater hole crowned by a waterfall and a luminescent cascade of pink and purple impatiens. Pulling off her top, she pointed out at the horizon and smiled. "I love to come here for the sunrise." She added, "Floating in the pool, listening to the waterfall as I watch the waves, I feel blessed with a simple abundance and completely connected to nature. That's what my lifestyle is all about."

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