Nude Beach Thrives In New Jersey Gunnison Beach, a clothing-optional beach in Sandy Hook, N.J., attracts about 5,000 visitors on sunny summer weekends. Sunbathers here are protective of their little piece of paradise — and their privacy.
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Nude Beach Thrives In New Jersey

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Nude Beach Thrives In New Jersey

Nude Beach Thrives In New Jersey

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And finally, today, it's July, it's hot, a lot of places staying closed. The new What for everyone - we are going to what may be the busiest and most popular clothing-optional beach in the entire country. It's Gunnison Beach in Sandy Hook, New Jersey. NPR's Margot Adler found the sunbathers there protective of their little piece of paradise, and their privacy. Still, there was one couple willing to share.

MARGOT ADLER: Anyone who's ever gone skinny-dipping knows there's a certain freedom to taking off your clothes and running into the water. Dale Distasio, the president of Friends of Gunnison Beach, has been coming here for more than 30 years. Remember when you were a kid, she says, and you were about to leave the beach, and your mom...

Ms. DALE DISTASIO (President, Friends of Gunnison Beach): She would put the towel around you and you had to drop your swimsuit, and then she'd make you rinse off. Well, a lot of kids would escape that towel and go running around the beach naked. And they remember that, they remember that freedom.

ADLER: There'd been nude bathers here, she says, even when it was a military base. The soldiers, all men, would take a nude dip. The base was decommissioned in 1972, and officially opened as a clothing-optional beach in the mid-1970s. At that time, a big crowd might be 20 people. Bob Gaestel is known fondly as the mayor of Gunnison Beach, because he's been coming here since the beginning.

Mr. BOB GAESTEL: It's grown and grown and grown.

ADLER: Is it too big yet?

Mr. GAESTEL: Ah, yes.

ADLER: He now only comes on weekdays. Recently, Manhattan-ites have been able to take the SeaStreak Ferry to the beach, no pun intended; a fast, traffic-free, lovely ride. But at 43 dollars round trip, it's expensive. Most people drive. As you watch the people on the beach, you see every race, you see almost every age, although most people seem over 50. You see a few smokers, you see people reading, people sunbathing, and there's volleyball.

About half the people are nude. A quarter are topless. And the rest are wearing bathing suits, shorts and beach wraps. But the thing that strikes one most is how easy it is to strike up a conversation. Dale Distasio.

Ms. DISTASIO: When you're not wearing clothes, you have nothing to show everybody else how much you make and what you do for a living. You know, the Nike sneakers are gone, the 300 dollar earrings got left at home, and it's a tremendous equalizer.

ADLER: But, if they're willing to strike up a conversation, they don't want to be interviewed by the media, and they certainly don't want to give their name.

Ms. DISTASIO: People think that if you take your clothes off, then there's go to be sex involved. Publicity brings a lot of gawkers, people that want to come down here and make my lifestyle their source of entertainment for the day.

ADLER: And every once in a while, a lifeguard or park ranger has to throw someone off the beach for acting inappropriately. Mayor Bob advises them.

Mr. GAESTEL: Get a room, you know, you can't do it here.

Ms. DISTASIO: Years ago, we didn't have a park ranger of our own and we didn't have lifeguards. And we used to have to police the beach ourselves. And we would tell people, get a room, if they were being inappropriate.

ADLER: Taking pictures without permission, for example, is a no-no. If gawkers understood, they said, that the average nudist can be a member of AARP, they might stay home.

Ms. DISTASIO: I think that you let a lot go once you hit a certain age. You don't care what people think of you.

Mr. GAESTEL: Nobody's going to say oh, you've got a bad body, you know, whatever. Everybody's got a different body.

Ms. DISTASIO: And eventually you don't care.

ADLER: Many of the people on this beach have come here for decades. The one group you don't see here are teens. Distasio says that's just human nature.

Ms. DISTASIO: Because they're developing, and everything is gross, and you don't want to see mom and dad naked. And then, somewhere in their late 20s, early 30s, they come back, and their kids stay until they're twelve.

(Soundbite of laughter).

ADLER: And it's true. My 17 year old said, You go, Mom. Margot Adler, NPR News.

(Soundbite of waves)

CHADWICK: Margot, you're looking very good. Day to Day is a production of NPR News, with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Alex Chadwick.

COHEN: I'm Alex Cohen.

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