A larger vision for a vacation resort

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This is the moment of reckoning. In my hand is my old favorite two-piece swimsuit, a black, marginally skimpy number that hasn't seen the light of day for more than two years, during which time I've turned 40, had a baby, dropped my gym membership and married a chef who believes that any dish is made better by butter, cream or cheese or, if necessary, all three.

If I am ever going to wear it in public again, this is the place to do so: Freedom Paradise, a brand-new, all-inclusive resort on a secluded Mexican beach south of Cancun. It's calling itself the world's first size-friendly vacation destination. Meaning that if you're carrying a few -- or a lot -- more pounds than you should, this is the place for you. It has been set up with extra-sturdy furniture, employees who have been trained to look guests in the eyes rather than disapprovingly up-and-down, and a motto that says it all: Live large, live free.

"Of course there is a need for this," says Julio Cesar Rincon, a 51-year-old Cancun businessman who came up with the idea more than two years ago and couldn't believe no one else had thought of it first. "There are more big-size people all over the world today, but the world still isn't [set up] for them. I wanted to make this a place where everyone could come and feel comfortable, but especially the big-size person."

Rincon's vision: A gracious beach resort that would welcome guests of all sizes, but would be especially friendly to those with extra weight, the kind of people who may feel particularly uncomfortable in skimpy swimwear in a world where hard-bodied 20-year-olds are held up as the standard. If you're thinking, well, that's nearly everybody, you're right; more than 60 percent of Americans are now classified as overweight, and much of the rest of the world seems to be catching up fast.

So, if most Americans are overweight, do the overweight really need a vacation destination just for them? That's the $2 million bet that Freedom Paradise's owners have just laid down.

Comfortable touches

From outward appearances, the resort, which opened in June, looks like a lot of the beachfront hotels that have sprung up on the Mexican coast south of Cancun over the last dozen years. (In fact, it was not designed for larger people; Rincon and his staff spent $2 million refurbishing two adjoining resorts that had closed after several years of operation.)

The setting is gorgeous: a wide, white, crushed-coral beach, lapped by turquoise waves and with a great snorkeling reef close enough to the shore that you can swim or kayak to it.

The hotel has 112 rooms in several two-story buildings, painted in cheery tropical colors of gold, blue and coral. There are four pools, three of them directly overlooking the sea, with thatch-roofed bars at the ready. The beach is lined with little palapa umbrellas for shade and pristine white beach chairs; the grounds overflow with tropical flowers and gently burbling fountains.

If you know what you're looking for, however, you'll see the touches that Rincon and his partners designed with larger guests in mind.

In the dining rooms, about half of the sturdy chairs are extra-wide; none have arms that might uncomfortably restrict a larger person. Around the pool, the lounges are made of an especially durable tropical wood, and some are twice as wide as average. Picnic benches in a bar area are supported by tree stumps.

In the guest rooms, doors have been widened, bathtubs removed and showers enlarged; some have benches and removable showerheads for guests with limited tolerance for standing. The gift boutique sells golf shirts in sizes up to 6XL; "small" here is XL. Employees are all sizes; many are slim but a significant number are at least a bit overweight. And all of them received sensitivity training.

"We had to teach them to look everyone in the eyes," says Alejandro Elbjorn Luna, part of the management team. "None of this ..." He cuts his eyes, looking an imaginary person up and down.

That is the true test, say observers like Judy Sullivan, whose Web site -- www.sizewise.com -- offers links and articles supporting the plus-size population.

"The more important thing is that this be a place where [a large person] can go and be comfortable, and not have someone say, 'Oh, my God, look at that fat person,' " Sullivan says.

A slow start

And that -- not to check out the width of the chairs or the size of the showers -- is why I am here. So, on the bright sunny morning after my late-night arrival, I reluctantly put on that two-piece suit and head for the beach.

Sure enough, I feel perfectly comfortable, settling on an oversized chaise longue at one of the three pools overlooking the sea: No one points, no one laughs, no one gives me the disapproving, aren't-you-too-flabby-for-that once-over.

Of course, I'm also the only one there.

It seems that, as with many ideas that are easily reduced to a sound-bite gimmick, the media have jumped on Freedom Paradise faster than the general public. To be fair, the resort had been open only one month the Tuesday I arrived, and new hotels often take months to attract a clientele, particularly if they don't belong to a huge chain that throws a grand opening. (Freedom Paradise is independently owned.)

On the other hand, the resort had already received an enormous amount of press, getting visits from journalists as far away as Korea. Jay Leno even joked about it during a late-night monologue. And some guests, like a charming couple from Massachusetts who were the only guests the night I arrived, were a bit surprised that there wasn't a bigger crowd.

During my three-night stay, there were never more than half a dozen other guests at one time, fewer than half of whom were larger-size.

The Massachusetts couple had booked the trip at the last minute, wanting to enjoy a quick vacation while their teen-age son was away on a trip of his own. Widely traveled, they're not the type to stay at home because of some extra pounds, but they liked the idea of being surrounded, for once, by exclusively big-size people and feeling fully accepted for themselves.

Instead, despite the staff's best efforts, they sometimes felt singled out because there were so few other people at the resort.

The couple, who asked that their names not be used, were also disappointed that many of the offerings listed on the Freedom Paradise Web site weren't yet available. Five restaurants were touted, including a steakhouse, an Italian bistro and a seafood place, but only one restaurant was open at a time, and rather ordinary Mexican food was all that was available. The bars weren't open. There was no karaoke and no Internet service, and only two stations were offered on the satellite TVs.

Managers say that, as the resort attracts more guests, they'll open more of the features promised. Meanwhile, Rincon says, they will continue to seek feedback from guests and size-acceptance advocates like Judy Sullivan. Some suggestions are already being acted upon; larger towels are on their way for the bathrooms, replacing the standard-size ones that are now issued, Rincon says.

Getting out the word

The bigger issue, some travel agents say, is just how the resort will continue to get the word out. Otherwise, recommending the resort might be a nightmare of political incorrectness.

"Say a customer comes in to talk to me about going to the Mayan Riviera," says Steve Cosgrove, owner of Dynamic Travel and Cruises in Southlake, Texas. "How do you present the hotel without telling the customer, 'I think you're fat?' "

Somehow, Freedom Paradise has to create enough buzz that people ask for it by name, Cosgrove says. Still, he expects, he'll eventually send clients there; he hasn't booked it yet but has fielded a few calls about it. "It's a good option," Cosgrove says. "No one else has really addressed this market."

"The sturdy furniture and the wider doors are nice, but what's really important is that this be a place where you don't have to be stared at or gaped at," says Mindy Sommers, a Vermont graphic designer who runs the online magazine Abundance for people of size. She has consulted with Freedom Paradise managers and offers a link to the resort on her Web site, but has not yet gone for a visit.

"Unfortunately, there's still contempt [for] fat people out there," she notes. "It's the last acceptable prejudice. So if this is a safe place and a welcoming place for [larger people], I think that's great."

And really, isn't that what we all want, whether we've got 10 or 100 extra pounds? With the implicit approval of the resort, after all, I wore my old favorite two-piece suit all through my stay, deciding I really didn't have to worry about what anyone else thought.

And you know what? It did feel pretty good.

When you go

Getting there: Freedom Paradise is on the beach in Tankah, about 75 miles south of Cancun. Several major airlines offer service from BWI to the Cancun airport, and you can then rent a car for the 90-minute drive south; expect to pay at least $50 a day from a major rental company. Also, the hotel can arrange a shuttle, or you can catch a taxi at the airport. This option will cost at least $75.

Freedom Paradise, Tankah, Mexico

011 52 998 887 1101

www.freedomparadise.com

* Until Dec. 20, introductory rates are $155 per person, per night, double occupancy, and include room, all meals and most beverages. (Premium liquors and some imports cost extra.) There's an additional fee for some activities, such as snorkeling tours, horseback riding and massages.

* A Philadelphia-based travel company is organizing a group tour to the resort at Halloween. For details, see www.fatcities.com.

What else to do: The Mayan archaeological site of Tulum is about a five-minute drive; the larger, less-visited Mayan site of Coba is about an hour away. There are shopping, night-life and dining options in the small towns of Tulum (10 minutes' drive) and Akumal (15 minutes). The hot spot of Playa del Carmen, with dozens of shops, restaurants and bars, is less than 45 minutes away.

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