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Living large and fitting in

This is the moment of reckoning.

In my hand is my old favorite two-piece swimsuit, a black, marginally skimpy number that has not 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 this suit again in public, this is the place to do so: Freedom Paradise, a new, all-inclusive resort on a secluded beach south of Cancun. It is 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 and its employees have been trained to look guests in the eyes rather than giving a disapproving up-and-down sweep. The motto 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 could not 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 host guests of all shapes but would be especially friendly to those with extra weight. These would be the people who may feel particularly uncomfortable in revealing swimwear in a world where hard-bodied, 20-year-olds are held up as the standard.

If you are 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 is catching up quickly.

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.

Makeover on the beach

From outward appearances, Freedom Paradise looks like a lot of the beachfront hotels that have sprung up on the Mexican coast south of Cancun over the past dozen years. (In fact, it was not originally 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, 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 gold, blue and coral. There are four pools, three of them directly overlooking the sea, with thatch-roofed bars nearby.

The beach is lined with little thatch umbrellas for shade and plenty of 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 standard size. 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; the "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 moves his eyes as if looking at someone from head to toes.

That is the true test, say observers such as 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.

Where are the guests?

On the 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 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 has. The resort had been open only one month the July weekday that 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 big grand-opening special. (The Freedom Paradise is independently owned.)

On the other hand, the resort had already received an enormous amount of press, getting early visits from the Washington Post, USA Today, the Associated Press and other journalists from as far as Korea. Jay Leno even joked about it during a monologue.

But during my three-night stay, there are never more than half-a-dozen other guests, fewer than half of whom appear to be significantly overweight.

One woman, from Maasachusetts, told me that the lack of other guests made her feel more conspicuous.

The lack of guests was cited by management as a reason that some of the features listed on the resort's 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 were not open. There was no karaoke, no Internet service, and only two stations were offered on the satellite TVs.

Managers say as the resort attracts more guests, they'll open more of the features promised. In the meantime, Rincon says they will continue to seek feedback from guests and size-acceptance advocates such as Judy Sullivan.

Some suggestions are already being acted upon; larger bath towels were ordered, Rincon said.

The more important 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.

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?' "

Still, he expects he will eventually send clients there; he has fielded a few calls about it and says, "No one else has really addressed this market."

Now living in the Bahamas, Patricia Rodriguez was formerly the travel editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

If you go

GETTING THERE: Freedom Paradise is on the beach in Tankah, about 75 miles south of Cancun.

Continental and American airlines offer direct service and other airlines offer connecting service from the Tampa Bay area to the Cancun airport. There, rental cars are available for the 90-minute drive south; expect to pay at least $50 a day from a major rental company. Alternatively, the hotel can arrange a shuttle or you can catch a taxi at the airport. This option will cost at least $75.

RATES: Until Dec. 20, introductory rates are $155 per person, per night, based on double occupancy. This includes room, all meals and most alcoholic drinks. There are additional fees for activities such as snorkeling tours, horseback riding and massages.

AREA ACTIVITIES: The Mayan archaeological site of Tulum is about a five-minute drive away; the larger, less-visited, Mayan site of Coba is about an hour away. There are shopping, nightlife and dining options in the small towns of Tulum and Akumal (about 15 minutes' drive). The stylish village of Playa del Carmen, with dozens of shops, restaurants and bars, is less than 45 minutes away.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact the resort by calling toll-free 1-800-200-2423 or 1-866-548-3995; the Web site is www.freedomparadise.com.

Up next:GIMME 5

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