COLERAIN TOWNSHIP, Ohio — I was alone and naked in the woods.
I wasn’t lost. I was walking the hiking trail at Paradise Gardens, a nudist camp less than 30 minutes from Downtown Cincinnati in Colerain Township.
I didn’t really want to go to Paradise Gardens. I’m a shy guy. I wasn’t totally keen on being naked with a bunch of strangers. I didn’t understand why they wanted to do what they do, and I didn’t want them ogling my body, or judging that weird mole with the hair growing out of it on my back.
What if they were all in better shape than me? What if they were all ravaged by old age? What if I inadvertently experienced some growth in southern market sectors? Plus, by the time we decided I was going to write this, it was already October — not exactly the prime season for visiting a nudist resort.
So I was surprised, sort of relieved and a little disappointed when I arrived at Paradise Gardens for the first time that chilly October afternoon and found everyone was wearing clothes.
“Well, we’re not stupid,” Libby, a 10-year member of Paradise Gardens and nudism advocate other visitors call their “poster girl,” told me.
But what makes someone want to hang out with other people naked? Who actually tries that?
I sat down by the pool at Paradise Gardens with a few members to find out.
“When you take it away, it’s all people,” Libby said. “It helps build relationships with people, helps you meet more people and you have something in common. You have fun with them. I’ve never had so much fun in my life until I joined here.
"The way we get carrying on some nights in here, I feel like we’re 12-year-olds. We’re re-living our childhoods.”
Members described enjoying the sensations of swimming nude, having the sunshine on their skin or feeling a warm summer rain.
“I wish people could realize how much of a stress relief it is,” said John, the manager. “You come here Friday night, get a campsite or a cabin, take your clothes off, and you don’t really realize that all weekend you didn’t think about work, didn’t think about anything going on.”
Paradise Gardens opened about 40 years ago. A group of regulars own it. The club is one of more than 200 clubs and resorts in the American Association for Nude Recreation, which claims 213,000 members nationwide.
Locally, manager John said the resort can draw around 150 visitors on big days like summer open houses. Many of the regular guests live in the Greater Cincinnati area, but some drive from hours away to stay for the weekend.
Members said they found Paradise Gardens was a good place to make friends and socialize. It offers a lot of facilities: there’s a pool, hot tub, sauna, social hall, volleyball court, lake, outdoor fireplace, plenty of picnic tables and numerous lots for members or guests to rent, along with a handful of cabins across 35 acres.
They said visiting Paradise Gardens was like a cross between a camping trip and a beach vacation.
Food events like wine tastings, pig roasts and Italian night are popular. Many visitors also come for organized karaoke, bowling, volleyball, darts and other events.
“It’s almost like any other close-knit social club...except we’re nude,” Susan, the office manager, said.
Members described how they had an interest in nudism for a while, but thought they had to take a trip to Florida or Mexico to visit a nude beach. They didn’t realize there was someplace for them so close to Cincinnati.
One member, Patti, said her husband was more into walking around the house naked than she was. Then he surprised her by bringing her to Paradise Gardens one day. She was skeptical but gave it a shot.
“I joined the Wednesday after that,” she said. “The barriers are gone when you come up here. Everybody’s on an even playing field, and you have fun.”
John, the manager, had a similar story. He’d been interested in visiting a nude resort for a long time, but had to talk his wife into it.
Then they realized Paradise Gardens was less than an hour from home. He called up, asked a few questions and booked a cabin for the weekend.
“I dragged her here, then I had to drag her out,” he said. “She giggled all the way down here.”
John and his wife would visit Paradise Gardens every weekend they could, even through the winter. They’ve only been coming to Paradise Gardens for about five years — less time even than Butterscotch, the club’s cat — but when the previous manager announced he was leaving, a few weeks went by and nobody stepped up.
Their youngest son had just graduated, and they realized there was nothing keeping them back.
“Next thing you know, I’m here,” John said.
Since then, they’ve introduced their daughter and her children to Paradise Gardens.
“When we broke it to our kids, finally told them where we were going, a couple weeks later, our daughter said, ‘I want to go.’ And my son said, ‘I don’t ever want to go.’ It was a little strange at first because we didn’t grow up that way,” John said. “But after the first few times, now it just seems so natural.”
Most of Paradise Gardens' visitors are couples, including a number of families. The ages range from early 20s to late 70s on any given weekend. Many of them rent lots and keep a camper there for weekend getaways.
“It’s like our home away from home,” Patti said.
And yes, “families” means that some people bring their children to Paradise Gardens. It may sound strange, but members emphasize the nudist lifestyle is not a sex thing — these people aren’t swingers, they just enjoy the social atmosphere and lack of tan lines. It’s not a sexual environment.
“That’s a hard concept for people to grasp until they experience it,” Susan said.
They even hold a weeklong summer day camp for kids each year, which includes lessons on nature, science and other cultures from teachers and engineers. Members said youngsters typically don’t have the same hang-ups with nudity that many adults do, at least until they hit puberty.
“It helps kids get over insecurities with their bodies,” Libby said.
Still, members said they have some reservations because they’ve see people experience repercussions in their lives when others found out they were members at Paradise Gardens. That’s why I agreed not to use their last names in this story.
“Some people aren’t as open-minded as others,” Libby said.
Out of everyone I spoke to, Libby is probably the most open about her nudism. Her children know to call before bringing anyone over to the house because she and her husband are regularly nude at home.
“Everybody I know knows. I don’t hide anything,” she said. “My mom calls me her ‘nudie daughter.’”
Libby, Patti and Susan have also helped represent Paradise Gardens at events where they seek new members, like last year’s Cincinnati Travel, Sports & Boat Show.
“People would say, ‘Oh, not at my age’ or ‘not with this body,’ and I forgot about that because I’ve been doing this for so long,” Susan said. “A lot of people can’t see past that, they think it’s all young people and it’s all perfect bodies. It’s not.”
I shared some of those concerns, and I guess I wasn’t alone. At work, we’d started referring to Paradise Gardens as “the naked place” or “the nudist colony.” It grew into something intimidating. My coworkers couldn’t believe I was really going.
As we sat by the enclosed pool, members told me they don’t really go for the term “colony.” That brings up images of a place you don’t leave, but nobody besides manager John and his wife stay there year-round. Most guests just visit for weekends.
“(Non-nudists) don’t know what it’s about, so they have all these ideas conjured up,” Susan told me. “And then they get here, it’s normal people.”
Despite my discomfort, I knew that I had to experience it for myself. But I’m a busy guy, and I wasn’t able to get back right away… not until November, when I got lucky with a not-too-cold Friday afternoon when I was able to get out of the office and drive back up to Paradise Gardens.
After signing in at the Paradise Gardens office, I walked back to my car, unbuttoning my shirt along the way.
It was a mild November day. The sun felt nice on my skin — all of my skin — and the breeze was strong enough to rustle some branches, but not enough to make me feel uncomfortably cold.
After slipping off my undies, I pulled my boots back on and headed up the hill, past campers and cabins, where I found the trail that cuts through the woods around the outskirts of the property.
I’d had some concerns about hiking naked. What about ticks? What about Lyme disease? John said he’s not aware of ticks having ever been an issue at Paradise Gardens — since it would be landing right on skin instead of clothes, it’s likely I would have felt a tick right away.
I enjoyed hiking naked. When a short wooden bridge crossed a stream, I stopped and looked down the cut in the wooded hillside. Birds were chirping. Trees swayed and branches rustled in the breeze. I might have still been slightly uncomfortable in the buff — every falling leaf sounded like approaching footsteps — but I could appreciate the serenity of the situation.
The trail at Paradise Gardens isn’t particularly long, so I just doubled back when I reached the end. It was starting to get chilly, so I returned to the clubhouse, removed my boots and sat in the sauna.
Though the winter is their slow season for obvious reasons, Paradise Gardens stays open the entire year. The club has an annual Halloween party at the beginning of the offseason that has some guests applying body paint and others wearing costumes.
The costume contest winners this year were dressed as Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man — and yes, they were covered up. The resort also hosts a big New Year's Eve celebration.
The club has activities all winter like game nights, dances and darts competitions. There’s a wood-burning stove in the clubhouse. They have campfires sometimes, and stay out even when it’s cold. While away from the fire, it’s not uncommon to throw on a robe.
Someone once cleared snow off the lake for hockey, and some members will enjoy a quick dip in the pool followed by a sit in the hot tub.
“It’s not as scary as you think,” Patti said. “It takes away the barriers. It heightens your senses.”
For anyone thinking about a trip to Paradise Gardens, here are some tips:
- Bring two towels. Everyone sits on a towel. That’s not optional. Anyone who wants to use the pool, hot tub or sauna will want a backup.
- The most common question club members get is about erections: “Will I get one?” Their answer is pretty much always “no,” and even if you do, the owners say just cover up with a towel and sit down or jump in the pool. No biggie.
- Check the calendar and call ahead. Especially during the winter, the resort has abbreviated hours, but there are still events for those who want to jump right in. Also, visiting at times like a Friday afternoon or weekend morning, you probably won’t run into too many other people, if you’re more of a toe-dipper than a jump-right-in kind of person.
- You can also ask questions by calling ahead. Any concerns you have, someone has probably had before. The resort also has an FAQ on its website that addresses a lot of common issues.