Driving along the dirt roads that lead to Sunsport Gardens resort in Loxahatchee Groves, the area seems like any other camp site covered in thick subtropical foliage of bamboo and palm trees.
But when visitors reach the front entrance, they’re greeted by a sign they won’t find in many other places:
“Nudity is EXPECTED.”
In the spotlight after a recent stabbing by an accused 14-year-old resident, many had forgotten their naked neighbors or never knew the 40-acre naturist resort existed in Palm Beach County.
But for 50 years, it has attracted nudists from across theUnited States not only to visit, but to live. More than 70 residents stay year-round in trailers, tents and RVs.
And just like the rest of Florida, they see their largest amount of visitors during the winter, according to manager Morley Schloss, 74. Pegged as a family-friendly resort, the naturist community offers summer camps, drum circles every Friday night and other celebrations year round.
When the news broke of a young woman stabbed on a nature trail by a teen who lived on the resort for many years, the community was in shock. The teen, whom The Palm Beach Post is not identifying, was being held at the juvenile facility and was ordered to undergo a mental health assessment.
Isolde Boutwell, a resident since 1979, insisted Sunsport is safe.
“I can go out in the middle of the night without clothes on and no one will attack me,” Boutwell said. “I feel very safe and a small incident like this wouldn’t worry me.”
Life without clothes is comfortable
For Mary and Patrick Burge, it was important to find a quiet place where they could expand their family. The couple from Indiana had a teenager and then conceived their youngest, Izaac, living at resort. Though it took months of searching, and a little but of convincing from Mary to her husband, Sunsport was the perfect place for them.
“What you wear determines who you are out there, but here who you are determines who you are,” she said.
Nudity is only a requirement in the pool area, but many walk around with just a towel hanging off a shoulder or in their hands so residents can sit comfortably and cleanly around the campsite.
For Mary Burge, that was welcomed because her entire life she had trouble with clothes. Her mother was a beautician who was consumed by makeup and fashion, but that did not fit Mary’s lifestyle.
“People started catching on when I wore a bathrobe when answering the door,” she said laughing.
When the family arrived at Sunsport five years ago, she said she finally felt free.
Schloss said when he took over the resort with a few others in 2002 after the original owner died, one of the priorities was to make it family friendly. For years he brought his own children for summer vacations.
“Some naturist resorts feel like retirement communities, not this one as you can see,” he said pointing out the families. “What better place to bring up kids? Swimming pool, playground, other children. And they grow up feeling comfortable with their body.”
That’s what Mary Burge loved when she moved her family. With long, curly red hair past her bare breasts, she said people at the resort weren’t all Barbie and Ken dolls, but came in all ages and sizes.
“For Izaac, he’ll just grow up so much more accepting of everyone,” she said about living in this community.
Florida’s laws on public nudity clear
As Izzac, whose golden curls run down his back just above his bare bottom, attempted to push his father in a swing on the playground, an older, nude couple passed by on bicycles.
Burge said she’s never felt any kind of worry about having her boy here.
Public nudity is allowed when it is non-vulgar nor indecent in a place that “is set apart for that purpose,” like a nude beach or naturist resort, according to Florida statutes.
But that doesn’t mean the community is immune to problems.
In 1982, Sunsport founder George Hugo Forester was convicted of second-degree murder after he attempted to scare off a teenagers who wandered to the camp. He shot and killed a 17-year-old boy. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison and served three, according to news reports.
In 2013, a resident was arrested on child pornography charges after he was found taking photos of residents’ children. However, according to court records and Schloss, there have been no other reported incidents of that kind on the premises in the five decades of operation.
Though there have been 117 calls to service recorded by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office in the past five years, most have been business checks or the occasional suspicious person on the grounds.
Burge said even knowing that, and with the recent stabbing on everyone’s mind, she said she’s thankful for the close-knit community.
“I feel safe being here. No one gets through the gate without being checked,” she said.
Schloss said visitors must pass a sexual offender background check before entering the campsite and residents must pass a full background check. No guns are allowed on the premises.
Sense of Community for All Ages
Sara Thomas, 14, says the community at Sunsport Gardens is like no other.
Growing up in a military family — with her own aspirations to go to West Point for college — she said there was a little apprehension toward the family from the community that decorates their trailers with peace signs and “Bernie Sanders for President” lawn signs when they moved in a year ago. But within days, the family of nine, and their dog, Argos, were just another neighbor.
“Everywhere else, people kind of go in their house and mind their own business,” she said. “But out here everyone is there to support you. That is not how it is in traditional neighborhoods.”
The high schooler, who attends virtual school like many of the other children at the resort, said she’s comfortable both dressed and nude.
“The other day my parents were, like, ‘We’re going out to dinner,’ and I’m, like, “Nah, I don’t want to put on pants,” she said.
While there is only one other girl her age — most of the kids are younger than 10 or are older boys — she said the sense of community makes up for that.
“It’s perfectly normal to be sitting in a hot tub with an astronaut, a rabbi and a yacht captain. A lot of places you don’t get to have a conversation with a group that diverse,” she said.
‘People support one another here’
With a swimming pool, volleyball court and a multiple purpose room for dances and other activities, there are plenty of options for residents and visitors. Many of the residents work on the campus either in the restaurant or front office and other odd jobs, while some commute to their jobs.
The cafeteria offers everything from organic salmon to vegan meals. Some grow their own gardens or get everything shipped from Amazon while others get dressed and head to supermarkets.
Schloss said he’s lucky to have a partner like Anne Fischer, 68, who likes to go shopping for him.
“I hate leaving,” he said. “When I have to, I wear my naturist shirt.”
Fischer said she became a nudist at 55. Raised in a conservative Catholic family in upstate New York, she said she used to change her clothes in her bedroom closet with the door closed. Now, the only thing covering the retired Kodak engineer is her graying hair that runs past her knees.
Fischer said it was Schloss who changed her mind when he took her to Sunsport nearly two decades ago.
“So many times people come here and stay overnight and then stay for a month. And then they go home and then they come back and live,” she said.
“It’s the kind of place that the energy is so natural and friendly and people support one another.”