Terra Cotta Inn, Palm Springs and Living Waters Spa, Desert Hot Springs review

Return to previous page

Between a rock and a nude place

Palm Springs is America's sunniest town – and the country's naturist capital

   Sunday 14 February 2010
    Gareth Rubin


Gareth Rubin relaxes in the pool of the Living Waters Spa


"America is a Christian nation, and being nude has often been associated with being lewd," Pastor Jeff Bowman told me. He wants to change that attitude. That is why, as we stood facing each other, we were both completely naked.

"The point of this spa is to help people relax in the confines of nonsexual nudity. Not that there's anything wrong with sexual nudity, but not here," he added. His wife, Judy, similarly non-attired, nodded in agreement.

We looked from their office out over the pools containing mineral water pumped straight from the hot springs underneath the Living Waters Spa in Palm Springs, California. Jeff and Judy, who opened the spa four years ago, were two of the nicest people you would ever meet.

Despite a surreally, oppressively quiet atmosphere, Palm Springs is America's Nudity Central, with at least five "clothing optional" resorts within spitting distance of each other.

Taking your clothes off sounded simple but – good God – it wasn't. Standing in the doorway to my chalet, having made it down to my boxer shorts, I had gazed out over the eight or nine unclothed forms draped around the main pool, or quietly chatting in the whirlpool bath, sporting neon drinks with cocktail umbrellas in hand. These people didn't seem perturbed by their lack of garments; they seemed perfectly at ease with baring all. But then they weren't British, and we are a reserved people.

After 15 minutes of strategic posture – an arm crooked at the right angle to cover, stance nonchalantly twisted so that nothing was visible – I had walked out naked as the day I was born and slipped into the whirlpool bath, where I could breathe easily in the knowledge that the bubbles would obscure everything. Love those bubbles.

And then, all of a sudden, without preamble, life became quite pleasant. I watched the Santa Rosa mountains glow a deep orange in the afternoon sun, and gazed at the rooftops of the small town that was once a weekend getaway destination for the Hollywood elite – nudism was not without its attractions.

I fell to wondering quite why so many naturist resorts should be clustered around Palm Springs. The answer was eventually supplied by a plastic-holy-­virgin-on-the-dashboard cab driver: with about 20cm of rainfall each year (yes, year), it is America's sunniest town. If you're hot, take your clothes off. When you look at it in those terms, you have to admit it makes sense.

But there were difficulties: eating was a potential minefield. And whenever I spoke to anyone I was at a loss to know where to look. (I plumped for locking my eyes to theirs. "Here I am, naked and staring at you like a psychopath.") It was actually a relief when the sun goes down and everyone puts their clothes on.

Back at the Bowmans' office, Jeff stood in front of a bookcase on which were displayed a row of copies of Nakedness and the Bible, a treatise to which he contributed. He told me that everyone was welcome at the Living Waters: "Many naturist resorts only take straight couples. We don't discriminate – single, married, gay, straight or lesbian. We accept anyone."

The spa, perhaps partly because Jeff has an earring, a serious California drawl and addresses you as "man", had a faintly new-agey vibe that seems to attract a younger market than the naturist stereotype. With just a hint of sadness for days gone by, I noted that at the Living Waters, you will not find the old Health and Efficiency clichés of table tennis played by German-looking women with arms the size of Baden-Baden.

You do find smart chalet-like rooms clustered around the two pools in a former 50s motel (complete with the original neon sign) and stunning mountain views. Tranquil music played through discreet loudspeakers, making it very much a relaxing spa experience; indeed, Jeff and Judy are both trained masseurs. According to Judy, the idea is to lull guests into a state of "blissful boredom". Yes, drifting off seemed the natural thing to do in the soporific air.

There was a more lively atmosphere at the Terra Cotta Inn, on the other side of town. This was largely the doing of its charming, evangelically nude owner, Tom Mulhall. Tom is a former accountant whose overgrown schoolboy humour is infectious. "It kind of helps with the first-timers: it puts them at ease," he said.

The Terra Cotta was similar to the Living Waters, although the views of the mountains weren't as grand. At 4pm Tom wandered around the pools, pouring wine and handing out fresh strawberries. He wore nothing but a bow tie. In honour of my presence, today's was a Union Jack pattern. For meals, he will arrange anything from a Big Mac to caviar and oysters, and he surely must be the only chairman of the Palm Springs chamber of commerce to have had his official portrait photograph taken in the altogether.

The main leisure activities are still soaking in the pools or the sun. Tom introduced me to George, an estate agent from County Durham. We chatted a little about the housing market, and current trends in housebuilding. But I was clothed and he just wasn't.

George, however, seemed quite content; he had been going to naturist resorts for years: "It's the freedom really. And it's much more convenient – you do far less laundry. We pack the bare essentials."

Naturists are not swingers, and they're not weird: they just like an all-over tan and travelling light. Most are in their fifties. So although by later in the day I was holding my rucksack strategically in front of me a little less than during the first few hours of public nudity, it seemed I was just a little too young to be naked in public; maybe in a decade or two the time would be right. But I was not the only one caught out by age – Tom sometimes has to discourage bookings from young single men. "Some guys think this is a strip club," he explained. "Man, would they be disappointed." Really, they would.