Cap D’Agde in the South of France is just like any other holiday village, except that the holidaymakers there wear no clothes.
A curious Deirdre Morrissey, pictured, got her kit off and joined the nudists, the swingers, the hedonists and those who are simply trying to spice up their sex lives. It was to be a holiday she would never forget.
Packing for my recent trip to the South of France, I had anticipated many new experiences, but having trouble with my luggage was not one of them. My boyfriend was not amused when I joked, "Well, I won't be wearing any clothes, so maybe there's no point packing a suitcase", but that was the truth of it. At Cap d'Agde, my destination, clothes are optional -- and in some cases outlawed -- so I puzzled over what to bring with me. Never before had I left home for more than two days without an overweight bag full of countless changes, each outfit complete with matching shoes and bags, but all I imagined needing this time was modest hand-luggage of sandals, accessories and shades. As I zipped up my bag, I felt strangely naked already.
A few weeks prior to heading off, I had read a review of Cap d'Agde, one of the world's best nudist resorts, near Montpellier on France's Mediterranean coast. Devotees raved about this huge, gated, self-contained village, which offers all the amenities common to every village, plus one major difference: everyone's naked. In high season, 40,000 naturists from all over the world swarm to this resort to swim, dance, shop and dine out in the buff, and my mind boggled with images and questions. I'd only ever seen nudist communes in movies, where they were inhabited by weird, cultish types. I wondered what kind of people go there -- are they old and wrinkly or young and hot? If they are young and hot, is everyone walking around in a constant state of arousal? I wasn't sure if it was all about sex, or just getting a tan without strap marks; whether it was a philosophy or a perversity, and I wondered, most of all, if I had the balls for it. So to speak.
I decided I had to find out more, and rang my photographer pal, Emily Quinn, to see if she'd be willing to join me in my natural state and take the pictures.
"I don't have to take the photos in the nip, do I?" Emily asked, panic-stricken. I laughed at the absurdity of offering someone a job that required them to take their clothes off. There have been major sexual harassment cases over less, but in the end she was up for it, though the suitcase full of flesh-toned thongs that she brought to Cap d'Agde suggested she had some reservations.
Apart from the packing issues, going on holiday to Cap d'Agde couldn't be more straightforward -- anyone can enter this naked city. There is no initiation ceremony; you don't need to crack a code or find a secret map; you just get a flight or a train, pay a small local tourist tax at the gate and you're in. We flew to Marseilles and stayed overnight before heading to the train station the next morning for the short journey to our clothing-optional resort. At the SNCF station, I innocently asked a group of security guards for the train to Cap d'Agde and they smirked and laughed to one another in French, the glint in their eyes suggesting they were picturing us walking around in a state of undress. Or maybe that was my imagination. In any case, this was our last experience of anyone thinking it was smutty or silly to be letting it all hang out on holiday.
As we entered the resort and made our way to Hotel Eve, it was a struggle to keep the eyes from popping out of our heads. Bare bodies cycled merrily by on bikes and wandered in and out of their houses with all their bits on show. We passed couples sitting on high stools at the bar, sipping margaritas, not wearing a stitch. Every lounger by the pool was occupied by people wearing nothing but their shades, and a group of nude, middle-aged folk were frolicking in the pool. They were all as brown as caramel and seemed extremely at ease and comfortable in their skin. At the hotel reception, people checked in and out completely starkers. The manager, a young Frenchman called Jeremy, never lost eye contact or changed the expression on his face as he dealt with the naked guests, though. It later emerged that Jeremy was brought up in a naturist family, so nudity's the norm for him.
Once in the privacy of our room, Emily and I giggled like schoolgirls at the strangeness of it all. And then set to deciding what was appropriate to wear. Or not wear. Emily went for the flesh-coloured underwear -- which, back in Ireland, she thought would pass for naked -- and I put on my bikini bottoms and so many accessories that I was completely covered, albeit officially half-naked.
We hit the beach first and feasted our eyes on two miles of glistening, naked bodies, all brown as berries. A couple of Pamela Anderson lookalikes came walking towards us with their boyfriends. Emily and I agreed that one of the girls had the hottest body we'd ever seen, but this could well be because we've been imprisoned in the so-called 'textile' world for so long that we haven't seen too many naked women up close and personal.
But there was every variety of human form on display. Saggy, baggy bodies with lumps and bumps in all the wrong places. Vibrant, toned, young bodies with everything where it should be. The mystique of boobs was over for us very fast as we took in every shape and size on show, ranging from big, drooping bosoms to tiny treasure chests and back up again to big, plastic melons with nipples that look like rockets set for space.
As for the men, it was just like being at a sausage counter with an array of frankfurters, cocktail sausages, Mexican sausages, larger chorizos and the occasional extra-large full salami. It was comical to see how small they shrivel up when cold and wet, fresh from the sea. Oh, and there was at least one Italian who was hung like a stallion.
We stopped to watch a group of aesthetically pleasing specimens playing volleyball. You could see every sinew in these guy's bodies. The aforementioned stallion's beautiful Swedish girlfriend -- who had big, perky, plastic boobs with rocket nipples -- watched from the sideline with her naked, seven-year-old daughter and told me they're nudists because they love being naked and exhibiting their bodies in public.
Three generations of hippies were also playing volleyball. The grandparents, Ann and Paddy Dufour, knocked the ball back and forth with their 29-year-old son and their five-year-old grandson, all of them in their noodles. The Dufours are the real deal: naturist old stock. When Ann was 15, she started dating Paddy, and the pair have lived the past 26 years as naturists, spending six months of the year in a naturist jungle community in Papua New Guinea, and the other six in Cap d'Agde. They looked like characters from The Beach; they had no inhibitions, they were lean and fit and carried none of the usual signs of stress and emotional baggage.
The different subcultures within the naturist village gradually unfolded before us. In 1963, when the resort was officially designated a naturist village, rules were set requiring total nudity as the norm, and banning photography, the wearing of provocative clothing, and the display of indecent items. Voyeurs and exhibitionists were not welcome. These rules were originally enforced by the authorities, but, by the beginning of the Nineties, for financial and commercial purposes, the rules were relaxed and there was an invasion of the libertine movement. Libertines believe in pure hedonism, including exhibitionism, as we discovered when we sampled the nightlife.
That night, a bit overwhelmed by the day's experiences, we decided on a quiet dinner in The Bounty, but got more than we bargained for. Over our apres-dinner cappuccino, we were a little surprised to see a buffed-up guy dressed in a police uniform mincing around the seating area of the restaurant bothering the patrons. His performance ended with him thrusting his naked bits at a pair of female diners, like some sort of bizarre, hedonistic digestif.
Next, out came a female Hulk Hogan type packed into a corset, who ripped some random punter away from his wife and up onto the stage. At first, what we found to be a little tongue-in-cheek fun turned into plain old cringe-comedy as she performed a full-on lap dance, which climaxed with her sliding her naked body over his, and simulating fellatio on the not unwilling diner. This is not an after-dinner activity I would like to see again.
We awkwardly asked the wife of the gentleman on stage if she was OK with this performance, and she took this as a cue to join us. As her husband pulled up his jeans I noticed that he'd shaved all his body hair off and was wearing a silver and diamante cock-ring. They told us that they both enjoyed the experience, because this is what they come to Cap d'Agde for. They were not naturists, she explained, but echangistes. That's swingers to you, and so, another Cap d'Agde subculture unfolded. This husband and wife revealed to us how they lie to family and friends about where they go on holiday, and how they come to Cap d'Agde every summer to fulfil their sexual fantasies. They refused to be photographed to protect their anonymity. They told us the best part of the resort was the adults-only beach where couples openly performed sexual acts in front of each other. We passed up their kind invitation to join them there.
"Nobody judges anyone here," the husband told us. "Everyone is accepted for who they are and what they are. If a woman in her 50s wants to dress up in sexy, kinky outfits, that's cool. I'm 30 now, and it frightens me to think we might have to stop expressing our sexuality at the age of 50. I love it that here, people of all ages are confident enough to flaunt their naked bodies. In society, we get too used to just seeing the aesthetically perfect form of the physical body exposed. Everybody, every shape and every form, is beautiful."
When we parted with this pair outside the restaurant, Emily and I watched them walk away, the wife's tight dress pulled up to reveal her bare bum to anyone who might be interested.
The next morning, when we told the hotel manager Jeremy where we had dined, he was obviously disappointed. "There are an increased number of these echangistes guests," he said, disapprovingly, "who treat the free atmosphere of d'Agde as the Eldorado of sleaze. The resort was cooler when it was ruled by peace and love years ago -- when it was just real naturists coming here. But I suppose we are still all part of the same carpe diem philosophy."
At breakfast on the roof garden, everyone was again in the nude, and I decided that when in Rome, I should do as the Romans do, so I got my kit off. Funnily enough, I had got more attention from the other guests when I was dressed, though at the pool in the afternoon, it felt wonderfully liberating to lie back and let the sun soak into every inch of my body. Walking around the resort naked, however, I was less laid back. I anxiously looked around me, expecting the men in blue to come and lock me up. I felt most indecent and scuttled along, trying to hide behind Emily, clenching my butt cheeks together and taking minuscule steps in an attempt to keep my private parts private.
A guy whizzed by on a bike and, forgetting I was in the nip, I ran after him and asked him for a photo. A few seconds later the realisation struck me: here I was, starkers on the street, asking a guy equally starkers if we could take photos of him. This genuine naturist was a little shy, but he agreed to do a few laps around us while Emily jigged about trying to find an angle that left the man a little dignity. I thought about how badly things could go wrong with just one slip of the pedal, at the same time marvelling at how quickly it felt perfectly normal to be standing around in the nude.
In one of the resort's coffee shops we met a lovely couple from Berlin: Katherine and Hans. Hans sat opposite me with a sarong tied loosely around his midriff, his package on full display like a pink elephant in the room that everyone was ignoring. I kept my eye line steady as I asked this nice, middle-aged couple why they come to Cap d'Agde.
"To me, coming here is like coming home," said Hans. "I know the owners of some restaurants for 20 years. I met Katherine seven years ago, and she fell in love with the place, also. Cap d'Agde is my paradise. The first thing I do when I park the car outside our apartment is strip. I think as soon as you put off the clothes, you put off the sorrows. Normally, if you fly overseas, you need two or three days to forget the stresses of business life, but here you take off the clothes and you instantly reveal another person. When people remove their clothes they break down the barriers that clothes put between them."
At night, the village again became a haven for hedonists, swingers and gays. The streets were lined with sex shops full of dolly-bird punters selecting seductive gear, with their proud fellas on hand to pick up the tab. Women strutted out of the shops wearing tops with peepholes for their boobs; others were togged out in cowboy hats, boots and nothing else. Impossibly tall transvestites were dressed up as schoolgirls in short skirts and long socks. Academic-looking men strolled around in leather hotpants.
As we walked past Melrose, one of the busiest nightclubs on the strip, Emily and I stopped to absorb the atmosphere, but we were prevented from entering the club as we were inappropriately dressed. The irony of being refused entry to a nudist nightclub because we weren't wearing the correct footwear was hilarious. Standing, rejected, in my flip-flops, thinking about the boxes of Louboutins stacked up at home, screaming for such an outing, I couldn't help but laugh and I concluded that it's better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.
Enjoying a nightcap back at the hotel, we sat by the pool as an older French couple had sex in the water. Post-coitus, the couple came and sat near Emily and myself and struck up a conversation. They told us that throughout their 40 years of marriage they had enjoyed a great sex life and were both deeply saddened when it died. They discussed it with their doctor, and his prescription was to go to d'Agde, in the hope that the sexual stimulation there would reawaken their sexual energy! Well, there was no arguing with the wisdom of their GP, though I doubt there are many Irish doctors who would recommend the same. It made me realise how we had so quickly become accustomed to this place, a world away from home and its rules and rigidity.
Never mind naturist villages, there are no nude beaches in Ireland, which keeps us all a little out of touch with our bodies. And I must admit that in an ocean of nudity one actually becomes less aware of personal body image, and begins to realise that we are all just variations of the same thing. The more nudity I saw, the more immune I became to it. What's the big deal about bums and tummies? We don't look much different to our animal friends when we're stripped of our polo shirts, Wonderbras and Spanx.
Then again, on what naturists refer to as 'textile' beaches, the suggestive nudity in bikinis and swimsuits is far sexier. When everything is laid out on a plate, there's nothing left to our most powerful sexual organ: the imagination. A guy seeing a sexy woman strutting by in a bikini could dream all day about undressing her, but when she's already naked, what's left to do?
Aer Lingus operates a twice-weekly service, on Tuesdays and Saturdays, between Dublin and Marseilles until the end of this month. One-way fares start from €78.99, including taxes and charges. See www.aerlingus.com