It’s a lazy Sunday morning and I was looking for something interesting to read when I came across this thread on the Young Naturists America (YNA) page about their ongoing efforts (and to date, some recent successes) in normalizing coed nudity in an urban spa setting, where people can hang out for a few hours of relaxed, social interaction… without clothes!
The article spawned a lengthy and somewhat argumentative banter amidst readers who challenged the business model, the legalities, and even the likelihood that such a place could ever exist in the United States, suggesting that even if it did, it would fall to the immediate infestation of male voyeurs looking for a cheap thrill. The debate has meandered on while the young entrepreneurs at YNA have quietly gone about creating such a place at a New Jersey health club, if only during limited hours on a weekly basis. A brilliant move in the spirit of “I’m going to build it while you tell me why it can’t be done.”
What I simply don’t understand is how we, – and I’m trying to avoid nationalist-driven superlatives here – such a well educated, well traveled, and by comparison, well moneyed population, who live in the land of the free and the brave, can be so incredibly closed minded when it comes to anything that has to do with social nudity, while our European counterparts are floating happily about in a sea of inter-generational nakedness that feels about as deviant as a day at the minor-league ballpark!
Take Therme Erding near Munich, for example, which is about the most compelling reason I can think of to begin any European journey with a good long soak, given it’s convenient location near the Franz Joseph (MUC) International Airport. It is from this article in an international business magazine that I have derived the title of this blog post, noting that in 2007 they expanded operations in the clothing optional Sauna World to handle a daily capacity of over 1500 visitors per day, 364 days per year. One might say, “Well yeah, but how often do they hit capacity?” Having visited at least eight or ten times now, each time on a different day of the week, at various times during the year, it appears that it’s just about every day! Try and find two empty lounge chairs after 11:00 am on any morning is like looking for a parking space at the mall on December 23rd. (Click here for yet another perspective on this theme park for grownups; a particularly animated review from a British perspective.)
Under the banner of ‘what’s possible?’ you might want to take a look at one of their promotional videos, or even dig around on their website for a while. But it’s pretty easy to let an entire day slip by floating in the lazy river, sweating away your stress in a themed sauna, reading or taking a nap in one of the atmospheric quiet rooms, or simply socializing over a naked Erdinger Weissbeer at the swim-up bar, under the shade of real palm trees and a protective glass dome that brings Tahiti to Bavaria every day of the year.
It would be impressive if this were the only place in Europe where one is afforded a day of clothing optional recreation, but in fact, these mega spas can be found throughout northern Europe, each one seeking out a distinctive marketing edge congruent with the region, and the people who are drawn there. (Some are only clothing optional on certain days of the week, while others only allow swimsuits during designated hours.) Consider the Ludwigsfelde Therme near Berlin, seemingly the flagship of the Kristall Therme chain, but with extended hours that cater mostly to those who wish to bathe textilfrei (or Naked!). Or Mediterana near Cologne, where the pools are a bit more on the tepid side, but the specialty here is a pervasive sense of Zen. My favorite ‘attraction’ is a large room where everyone sits on a tiled bench around the perimeter, feet immersed over the calves in warm water, while a mesmerizing fire draws your attention away from the other naked onlookers.
Perhaps it’s due to the fact that the Netherlands share Germany’s gloomy climate that the naked spa culture is alive and thriving there as well. To date, we have only managed to find our way to two Dutch spas, but Elysium near Rotterdam apparently set the bar years ago for what many of the newer places in Germany seek to emulate today, where my favorite space is something like an IMAX theater where cinematic images of nature and wildlife are cast in 360 degrees around the room, but the seating consists of tile recliners submerged in a warm pool. Or how about the quirky Sauna von Egmond on a side street in Haarlem – smallish by comparison, but reminiscent of Gene Wilder’s imagined private quarters at the Wonka Chocolate Factory, with a surrealist décor, a deliciously warm pool, several dry saunas to help one thaw from the winter chill, and a particularly intimate reading room with a fireplace equipped with huge leather couches, where regulars curl up to read the Sunday paper over a cup of tea.
Interestingly enough, I don’t believe any of these places consider themselves a part of the commercial naturist industry such as the huge resorts in Spain, France, or Croatia; nor is their marketing strategy aimed at people who identify themselves as naturists! In fact, for those who are accustomed to visiting naturist places, it takes a bit of effort and patience to fully grasp the culture of nudity at the spa, where in fact, each and every spa seems to have it’s own unique culture. It’s typically a delicately choreographed dance between one’s robe, a bath towel, and nakedness. Where each is acceptable and/or appropriate varies from place to place, sometimes day to day. And it makes sense when you think about it. These are not places that cater to people who insist on being naked. These are places that market to people who aren’t afraid to be naked.
I have much admiration for the good people at YNA who are working so diligently to encourage a similar ideology in the New York metropolitan area, and having lived much of my life on the west coast, I know there are similar places where such environments have survived within a successful business model. We were once regulars at a little place called Frogs in Marin County, which apparently embraces a very similar ethos to the Common Ground Cooperative in Portland, Oregon. And, in fact, the interesting nuance of the aforementioned business article about Therme Erding is that they, the owners and investors, were responding to an evolving market as well. One that supersedes that more traditional spa culture in Germany with famous bathhouses in places like Baden-Baden or Wiesbaden; each of which still exist, but are seemingly spending most of their energy catering to American tourists who take a once-in-a-life time dare to get bare, while the new super-spas in Munich, Stuttgart, and Berlin are pulling in another half-million customers a year – few of them naturists – all of them naked.
I am well acquainted with the prevailing arguments about prudery and paranoia in America, but it occurs to me that not everyone in Europe is eager to drop their worries with their clothes as well. In fact, only a mere half-million per year in metropolitan Bavaria! Maybe what America is really lacking is a bit of imagination and a new marketing plan!