I love the feel of the warm Key West sun on my Irish freckled skin. It’s a sensation I crave on a daily basis and during those times when I have to travel to western New York to visit my mom who still lives on our family farm, I yearn to get back to the welcoming rays of my Keys home.

I feel healthier and happier when I get my daily dose of vitamin D from that burning ball of gas in the sky. So it stands to reason that I would also enjoy being naked in the sun too, right?

Wait just one minute there. I hardly know you and we’re talking about putting my parts out in bright light for all to see.

I don’t think I have the guts to strip down and hang out (literally) in the buff in public places. I’m more than happy to sunbathe in the nude at home but I figure that for the most part no one can see me and if the pool guy or the FedEx guy catches me by surprise, he’ll be so startled that he won’t come back again for a really long time. If he does come back, he’ll holler loudly to announce his presence and give me plenty of time to put the girls back where they belong. Nude poolside sunbathing at home bears no resemblance to stepping out of my bra and panties in a bar and acting like it’s perfectly natural for me to walk up to the bartender and order a drink. I can picture myself saying something ridiculous like “May I have a penis? I mean a pinot! Honestly, I meant pinot!!” and getting kicked out for being a perv.

I know that naturists enjoy being nude and that it has nothing to do with sex any more than owning a gun means I’m thinking about murder. I also realize that the idea is to be free, it’s not a competition and no one is supposed to judge. But let’s be honest. We’re only human and I find it hard to imagine a setting of naked people in which at least one woman isn’t whispering about the other women around her. I can just hear it “Oh my God. Does she have any idea she’s about to step on her own boob?” or “Geez, someone better get her a bigger chair ‘cuz there’s no way she’s gonna squeeze all that cheek into the one behind her.”

Given Key West’s laid back, anything goes attitude it should come as no surprise that there are clothing optional hotels, B&Bs, cruises and bars. Beware that quite a large number of B&Bs and hotels allow “European sunbathing”. If you’re traveling with the kids, keep that in mind as you wander down to the pool for a dip because they may get an eyeful.

A recent conversation with a friend about an ad for clothing optional cruises sparked my curiosity. We might be in our mid-forties but our conversations haven’t changed much in the past twenty years. We’re endlessly sophomoric and find humor in things that grown-ups aren’t even supposed to think about. Armed with that background, you’ll understand why we talked about what men do if they become aroused on a nude cruise. I mean, what’s the protocol if you’re standing at the bar and suddenly the little guy jumps to attention? Are guys supposed to dash off to the bathroom to wait until it subsides? Should they cover themselves with bar napkins until things return to normal? Tossing an ice cold drink on it would probably do the trick. Seriously, I needed to know more about this. My friend, who lives out of state, put me to the task of investigating Key West’s naturist scene to get answers to these throbbing questions. Pun intended.

I take my work seriously and I had a job to do. I told my husband that I was going out for happy hour with some girlfriends but that I’d be home early. I couldn’t tell him what I was really up to because he would have wanted to come with me so that he could ogle the clientele. He’s the type who would stare and drool and I knew I wouldn’t be able to do my research while preoccupied about all the parts he was looking at instead of mine. Nope, this was something I had to do alone.

The Garden of Eden is located above the Bull and Whistle on the corner of Duval and Caroline Streets. I bellied up to the bar downstairs for some liquid courage and as I drank my vodka and soda, I was embarrassed to see my hand shaking. What the hell was I so worked up about? I’ve seen plenty of naked people before and the bar is “clothing optional” as opposed to “mandatory nudity”. I paid my tab and climbed the stairs like a woman possessed.

The bartender was topless and friendly. (Of course she was. She was a twenty-something with perky everything.) Talk to me in 25 years, hon. I looked around and found that not many people were naked. In fact, it occurred to me that maybe everyone with clothes on was here for the same reason I was. Maybe they were all curious and had no intention of getting naked and we’d all just sit there all evening ignoring our not-nakedness, wondering where all the nudists were hiding.

As I was beginning to think this was a really stupid idea and I would go home to have dinner with my husband, several unclad sun lovers strolled up to the bar. They were men. Naked ones. Without clothes on. They were standing to my right and I suddenly became absorbed in something to my left and I kept my eyes riveted to that spot. They were a lively group and a couple of them were snapping their fingers and dancing on their bar stools. At least that’s what I think they were doing. I was still fascinated by a spot on the wall in the other direction. That’s when it happened. One of them spoke. To me. Without his clothes on.

I turned toward them and I forced myself to make eye contact. I was not going to look like a cougar on the prowl and get caught checking out their packages. They wanted to know if I had a suggestion for a really special place they could go for dinner. Good. Familiar territory. I can do this. I ticked off my favorites but cautioned them that it would be really hard for them to get into any of those places without reservations. Then I realized I’d said “hard” and “get into”. Ugh! While I was trying to recover, I heard myself say “You’ll have to put those away” and found myself looking and pointing at the thing between the legs of the guy next to me. Smooth.

As I prepared to be grabbed by the bouncer and thrown onto the street amid cries of “Perverted old lady!”, I realized that the naked boys were in fits of laughter. Before I knew it, we were engaged in a really fun conversation about the gay bar scene and the great drag shows on Duval. Finally, they asked the obvious. They wanted to know where I lived and why I was out alone. I figured that these guys were mature enough the handle the truth that had brought out my own immaturity. I told them that my best friend and I were talking about clothing optional cruises and we wanted to know what guys do if they become aroused in a public, nude setting. More laughter. I ordered a round for all of us. That’s when the girl talk got really good.

From the perspective of my new friends, nudists are normally not offended if someone in the group pops an erection because it’s seen as a natural bodily function. Again, nude doesn’t mean sex. I understood that. I have to endure an annual pelvic exam and while I’m basically completely nude and vulnerable, there are no sexual thoughts anywhere near my brain. Trust me on that.

I wanted more details and thankfully, they understood my childish curiosity and the conversation got juicier. Basically, the intent behind the erection and what the poor guy does with it are what determine how other people react. They schooled me that the appropriate attitude to have is that it’s natural and it will go away soon. Basically, if the guy with the erection doesn’t flaunt it or do anything to maintain it, everyone around him will ignore it. I asked why guys don’t go to the men’s room to wait it out or if they’re lying on a beach, why don’t they just turn over until it’s gone. They asked me if I go hide in the ladies room when my nipples get hard. Oh. Ahem. More laughter.

After another round, I told the guys that they’d been a godsend and that they’ve given me the insight I really wanted without embarrassing myself (too much). We enjoyed a round of thank you’s, hugs and kisses. Forgetting the no camera rule, I pulled my cell phone from my purse to snap an above-the-waist photo of my adorable compadres. That’s when all hell broke loose. Before I could pay my tab or explain myself, I was kicked out. The bouncer told me that they have my picture on surveillance and that I’ll never be allowed inside again.

I stood there in a stupor for several minutes, wondering what the hell just happened. The door opened, my friends appeared (fully clothed) and we stumbled out onto Duval in fits of laughter. We’d had so much fun that I just wasn’t ready to let it end but I was feeling guilty about leaving my husband at home alone. I called him to ask if it was okay to bring a couple friends home for dinner. As usual, he was easy going.

As we pulled into the drive, my friends spotted the pool and before I had the car in park, they were stripping down and jumping in. I left them to their fun and went inside to educate my husband about what to do should he ever pop a boner in public.

When you’re ready for something different and exhilarating, here are other clothing optional offerings in Key West:

Dream Catchers Adventures, 888.362.3474
Island House, 1129 Fleming Street, 800.890.6284 (Gay men’s resort)
The Pilot House, 414 Simongton Street, 305.294.8719
Olivia by Duval, 511 Olivia Street, 800.413.1978
La Te Da, 1125 Duval Street, 305.296.6706