During the time I spent living with my husband next door to Hedonism II resort in Jamaica, I often suspected the neighbors were having more fun than we were.
Strolling from the townhouse my husband Javier's employer rented for him in the coconut palm-lined vacation paradise of Negril, we'd dodge them on Seven Mile Beach in front of the resort, playing a game of bocce ball in the buff before noon or wading into the turquoise water to skinny dip.
Sometimes, we'd encounter them stepping aboard a snorkeling catamaran from the beach, not a stitch of clothing in sight.
The cheering I'd sometimes hear coming from the resort's guests when I passed by on the beach during what I later learned was called the "car wash" - imagine a version where humans are both the cars and the scrubbers, just add soap - had the effect of making my life seem quite inhibited by comparison.
And once, when we spent the night at Hedonism II after getting evacuated to its more secure buildings by my husband's company during a hurricane scare, pregnant and self-conscious me was surprised by how "normal" everyone seemed, despite being dressed up as sexy school girls and naughty headmasters for the theme of the night. ("Hedo baby?" one naughty school girl asked me in the buffet line, motioning to my seven-month baby bump, breaking the ice and cracking me up).
Indeed, Hedonism II - where the mantra is "Be Wicked for a Week" - is no ordinary resort. A magnet for nudists, swingers and sun-seekers looking for a relaxed, tropical vacation where judgment isn't part of the package, it's one of the oldest and most popular all-inclusive resorts in Jamaica.
So when I heard it was reopening July 1 (the resort closed March 21 as Jamaica closed its borders to inbound travelers) in the middle of a pandemic where social distancing has become the norm, I had to know how that was going to go down.
I left Jamaica in 2016 and now live in Florida, so I couldn't just stroll by the resort to find out. The hotel's new "Party Safely" policies are posted on its website and include "preventative measures" such as "enforcement of mandated social distancing in all common areas," "temperature taking using infrared sensors" and "constant sanitation."
But I wanted to know more.
So I spoke on the phone and via email with Hedonism II's owner, Harry Lange, who bought the property in 2013 and was onsite at the hotel in Negril, to find out how the place where people can be wicked for a week was reopening in these changed times.
New protocols at one of Jamaica's original all-inclusive resorts
Many of the resort's new measures are in line with new pandemic-era hotel protocols worldwide.
"We give everyone Hedo branded bottles of hand sanitizer and a mask in the room when they arrive," said Lange, 68, a former mutual fund manager who grew up in Michigan and first visited the resort as a guest eight years before he bought it. The resort also takes the temperatures of all employees daily and all guests upon arrival, he said.
The main restaurant's buffet line, which used to be self-serve, he explained, now has markers for social distancing on the floor to help ensure safe spacing, and the resort's staff plate guests' food for them.
Most of the property's public spaces are open-air, and masks are only required in the hotel lobby and inside the resort's boutique, he said, where a variety of sex toys and costumes are for sale.
So far, no guests at Hedonism II have tested positive while on property or have been required to quarantine in place, according to Lange.
"Everyone I talked to was tested negative at home and some had also been tested on arrival at the airport. I personally have had five negative tests. Everyone here is health conscious," Lange said.
The resort has set aside 20 rooms at the edge of the property for quarantining purposes, he said, should someone fall ill or have symptoms while at the resort.
"We had government inspectors come through twice during the second half of June and set up the protocols," Lange told me. "In that way, we're not different than the other resorts."
But Hedonism II, which opened in 1976 as Negril Beach Village (where the motto was "Be hedonistic for a week," according to Lange) as one of the island's first all-inclusive properties, does differ from other standard Caribbean resorts in some noteworthy ways.
A tropical 'lifestyle' resort
With dedicated "nude" and "prude" sides to the property (the latter is actually clothing-optional), Hedonism II is a 280-room all-inclusive oceanfront hotel that attracts guests from all over the world, with Americans and Canadians in the greatest numbers, followed by Europeans, according to Lange.
"It's a lifestyle resort," said Lange, using the preferred lingo for swinger or "consensually nonmonogamous," which Psychology Today refers to as "an umbrella term that captures polyamory, swinging and various other forms of ethically 'open' relationships."
"We think about a third of the guests would identify as swingers, a third could be exhibitionists or voyeurs and a third are not - they are more nudists who want to get overall tans," said Lange.
Lange, who identifies as a swinger and acknowledges that public sex occurs in places such as the nude pool area and a few other sanctioned spots for PDA around the resort, said that the resort's staff are not verifying the relationships between guests to ensure people who may have just met aren't getting too close in the age of social distancing.
"I have been at the pool every day since July 11 and haven't witnessed any couples hooking up with couples they just met. Of course, they could be going to each other's rooms," Lange said.
Most guests before the pandemic came as couples in organized groups - often with people they had vacationed with at the resort before. Most groups have canceled since the Covid
-19 outbreak, and people are mostly visiting as a single couple or two couples together, Lange said.
"Most of the sex is with people's own partners," he said. "I'm not more concerned about that than people dancing together or having a pool party together."
No more foam parties, 'car washes'
But the resort does have many new protocols - and canceled activities - in effect to ensure the safety of guests and staff during the coronavirus
pandemic. Certain events that were trademarks of the resort pre-pandemic have been put on hold in Covid
For now, according to Lange, the resort's regular foam parties - rollicking, sudsy dance parties - are no longer happening because of crowding and close proximity. Similarly, the "car wash" is "not a good activity for social distancing," he said.
"We don't want people to be forced close to someone against their choice," said Lange. "So if they want to be six feet apart, it's easy to do it."
People "in the lifestyle" frequently refer to engaging in sexual acts as "play." And currently, Hedonism II's main "playroom"- complete with mattresses and couches, an exhibitionist-style glass shower at its center, a dispenser with free condoms in an area called the dungeon and cubbies where guests can stash their clothes when they enter (nudity is required inside, and a security guard ensures that only couples or singles escorted by a couple are allowed to enter) - is closed, said Lange.
A smaller, unmonitored poolside play area that guests have dubbed the "Happening Hut," is open-air, accommodates just a few individuals and remains open, he said.
The troupe of in-house entertainers, who put on everything from cabaret to fetish shows, are still doing so, he said, just with masks covering their noses and mouths. And the resort's nude pool is still the place guests gather for games or poolside cocktails.
Markings and protocols at the resort encourage social distancing, but it's largely up to guests to keep their distance, Lange said.
When asked whether he's being irresponsible by allowing close contact at his resort, potentially spreading the virus, Lange said that Hedonism II is following the same safety protocols required by government inspectors as Jamaica's other resorts and has passed all inspections. All seating areas are safely spaced, all rooms have capacity limits and there are "no places where there are groups of people in small spaces," he said.
"I am very confident that we are safer than anyplace I have been in the two months I traveled around the US from May 9 to July 10," he said.
How Jamaica reopened in Covid-19 times
Jamaica reopened its borders on June 15 after closing in March, and the Jamaican government currently requires all potential visitors to register on the Visit Jamaica website for a mandatory travel authorization.
The island recently updated its rules on Covid
-19 testing for arrivals from locations with widespread infection. Effective August 20, arrivals ages 12 and over from the United States, Brazil, the Dominican Republic and Mexico are required to submit proof of a negative Covid
-19 PCR test from an accredited lab ordered within 10 days before arrival on the island to receive travel authorization and to show the test documentation again upon arrival.
This list is subject to review and change. Currently, arrivals from Arizona, Florida, New York and Texas are required to submit test results.
At Jamaica's three international airports in Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and Kingston, health screenings, risk assessments and temperature checks on arrival determine whether visitors require a Covid
-19 test onsite or can proceed directly to their hotel.
Visitors staying at hotels and resorts within Jamaica's two "tourism corridors" denoted by the government are required to stay on property for the duration of their stay.
"In reopening our tourism industry, we had to make sure that we did this in a way that made it safe and secure not just for the arriving tourists but for every Jamaican, and in particular for the tourism industry workers," Donovan White, director of tourism for the Jamaica Tourist Board, said in a phone interview.
Tourism is Jamaica's No. 1 industry, he said, providing 9.5% of the country's direct GDP and some 34%, indirectly.
"All of our tourism products [hotels, restaurants, transportation, attractions and so on] had to be assessed, reviewed and certified to Covid
protocols before they reopened," confirmed White, when asked about Hedonism II. White did not respond directly to questions about close contact at a resort known to attract swingers.
"We have a very diverse tourism product, every operator within our tourism space are required to implement our national protocols for tourism," he said. "They've been developed from over 20 countries as benchmarks. We have been able to ensure all our workers in the industry are properly trained in the protocol."
Jamaica has seen more than 56,000 arrivals from international visitors since the country reopened on June 15, according to tourism metrics shared with CNN.
The island, which has a population of nearly three million people, had reported 14 Covid
deaths overall, with 1,106 confirmed positive cases as of August 16, according to the Johns Hopkins University figures CNN uses to track infections.
Some Hedonism II repeat guests are rethinking their plans
For a better understanding of how guests considering visiting the resort during the ongoing pandemic were weighing their options, I joined a closed Facebook
group with nearly 15,000 members to ask for insight from people who had visited Hedonism II since reopening or have upcoming trips planned. I spoke with 10 guests, four of whom have visited the resort since July 1.
The general consensus from the people I talked to who'd been to the resort since it reopened was that while things have changed, in keeping with Covid
times, guests are being left to make their own decisions about how to play safely, should they choose to do so.
"The resort is providing Hedonism-branded masks ... and absolutely everywhere you look somebody is sanitizing something," said Mickey Gordon, 44, from Orlando, Florida. Gordon, who is using a pseudonym (all of the guests I spoke to agreed to pseudonyms or first names only), was at the property on opening day and is a friend of Lange's.
Together with his wife, Mallory (also not her real name), 36, Gordon hosts a podcast, Casual Swinger (the two honeymooned at Hedonism II 10 years ago and are "in the lifestyle").
"There are less people (now) so it's easier to socially distance," said Gordon, adding that summer, hurricane season in the Caribbean, is typically low season.
"When the resort is full, there will be some unique challenges brought on," he said. "It will be really hard to drive people apart."
Lange said occupancy at the resort in early August was about 30% but could climb closer to 80% by October.
Cheryl, 59, a massage therapist from the Pacific Northwest, told me she plans to visit the resort again this December with a man she met last year while vacationing during her first visit to Hedonism II.
And while she says she's plenty comfortable with the nudity and public sex that's common at the resort, Cheryl said she is "not unconcerned about the implications of vacationing in the midst of a pandemic."
"I wear a mask and have been pretty rigid about social isolation since early March, so hopping on a plane and going to another country is way out of my current comfort zone," she said. "My greatest concern is about the health of Jamaicans. I don't want to potentially import Covid
-19 to spend a week at Hedo."
Some visitors seek more reassurance before 'playing with others'
Many of the resort's repeat guests I was in contact with - whether they're in the lifestyle, nudists or simply folks looking for a different kind of tropical vacation - told me the nonjudgmental environment and diversity of people from all walks of life entices them to consider vacations at Hedonism II, even during a global pandemic.
The most transformative moments they shared, it turned out, rarely had anything to do with sex- but had everything to do with people accepting themselves and others exactly as they are, while perhaps pushing their own personal boundaries a bit, too.
Past guests mentioned the good friends they'd made on vacation, many of whom they maintain contact with many years later.
"I've met students, janitors, tech workers, teachers, a VP from a major company," says Brent, an Ottawa entrepreneur in his early 40s who has visited the resort nine times with his wife.
Regarding the couple's next trip, Brent said, "We're holding off booking until we feel comfortable with the protocols with regards to testing, tracing and enforcement."
"If we can be reasonably comfortable with those three parameters, then we likely would book and feel safe playing with others," he said. "However, without a comfort level (for those things), we've pretty much decided that we will wait."
More specifically, he'd like to see testing with immediate results "in order to arrive in Jamaica and once again into the resort," or a "viable treatment and/or vaccine
" that very substantially reduces the risks of the virus.
Subdued party vibe
For one guest who recently left the resort, the good times Hedo is known for were still flowing, but in a more subdued way.
Most "playing" took place in guest rooms or at the nude jacuzzi late at night, said Jim, a guest from Pennsylvania who stayed for 31 days.
"People are playful with discretion," he said. "It's less crowded. All the employees are wearing masks."
As for Lange, he said he's committed to delivering "the full Hedo experience" to guests who are paying full price, even in pandemic times.
But some guests are going to wait to visit until things get back to something closer to normal.
Kim, 59, who runs her own business in Wisconsin, has visited the resort 26 times, but she and her husband are pushing back their planned October trip to 2021. She doesn't want to get sick on the plane or get turned away upon arriving in Jamaica, and many of the friends the couple usually see at the resort have canceled.
Kim first visited Hedonism II in 2000, when she won a surprise trip through SuperClubs (a collection of all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean that once owned an interest in Hedonism II).
She wasn't told where she'd be staying until she landed in Jamaica, she said.
"My husband was excited because of all the stories and I thought my marriage was done," she recalled, calling herself a "very strong, Catholic girl."
The pair ended up having the time of their lives, she said, adding that she stays on the prude side of Hedonism II and doesn't "play," but makes tons of new friends every time.
For Kim, it's a freedom "that's hard to explain" that keeps her going back.
"It's the freedom to decide what you want, not what's expected of you."