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No blushes for nudist resort's ambitions

Two bronze mermaids spout 92-degree water from metal conch shells into a wading pool stocked with naked couples clasping bar drinks.

The sun beats down on two nearby figures lying on white-sheeted tables _ a young man and a middle-aged woman _ getting massages from the firm fingers of the opposite sex.

In the background, construction workers swarm over an artificial grotto and waterfall, a 10,000-square-foot swimming pool and a two-story Mediterranean-tiled clubhouse.

Welcome to Caliente Resort, a place in which a Roman emperor might feel at home _ provided he liked stripping off his toga in crowds.

"We're taking it up a notch in the nudism industry," Caliente marketing director Catherine Walton said as a worker hammered metal sheeting into the ceiling of the 40-room motel to open in December.

The Spanish-style nudist hideaway is racking up big sales as the community's fifth nudist resort. All but about 20 of its roughly 150 townhomes and condos are sold. None of its 58 home sites for single-family homes remain.

Resort membership has hit 600 and should increase with the opening early next year of the 30,000-square-foot clubhouse, painted in muted peach.

Towering over a massive swimming pool that should lap with water in two months, the turreted clubhouse will house a sports bar, nightclub, dance floor, piano bar, European spa and 80-seat restaurant.

"We've got an 80 percent chance of being open by New Year's," Walton said. "That's our goal."

Land O'Lakes is considered the nation's nudist capital, and Caliente, following in the successful footsteps of Paradise Lakes resort, is among the most upscale naked destinations in the world.

The resort broke ground in 1996 on 100 acres east of U.S. 41 but lay dormant for years. Only two years ago did owners raise enough cash, from Lutz businessman Carl Anderson and Heritage Bank in Land O'Lakes, to start major construction.

Paradise's membership rolls dwarf those of Caliente. But the new boy on the block is poised to muscle in on Paradise's turf. The resorts put a good face on a rivalry that in reality is not always chummy.

Paradise spokeswoman Deb Bowen equated the presence of the two resorts to having a McDonald's and Burger King across from one another.

"They're an all-nude resort; we're clothing optional," Bowen said. "They're gearing towards the older crowd; we're gearing to the younger crowd."

The real estate market looks buoyant enough to support both. In the past couple of years, Paradise had no trouble selling out the Fountains of Paradise, 72 condominiums off U.S. 41.

But Caliente, sporting a newer and more extravagant nightclub, could chip away at Paradise's bottom-line-enriching bar business.

Looking over the resort's progress, Caliente owners have reason to be giddy. In the 80-degree sunshine Friday, nude and semiclad couples downed drinks at an open-air beach bar served by a waitress in a see-through top.

Prospective members swooshed by on golf cart tours of the grounds. A film crew made a travel video. A Halloween costume bash was hours away.

Caliente vice president Chuck Foster grinned as a couple from Great Britain visited his lushly furnished model townhome overlooking a man-made lake.

"How do you like it?" Foster said. "We're the best in the nudist industry."