They Came, They Stayed

  • After retiring in 1990, Charles and Helen Short did something they had talked about for years. They packed a tent and headed south from their Rochester, N.Y., home to camp, hike and enjoy some sunshine. On their way to the Gulf Coast, the Shorts stopped at a state park in Hattiesburg, Miss., where a camp ranger regaled them for hours about the town. As a result, they never did get to the coast. But five years later, having returned to that same park every year on vacation, the Shorts came back to Hattiesburg for good. "Going home that fourth year, we thought, 'This is silly,'" remembers Charles, 70. "'We love it here. Next year let's find a way to stay.'"

    Many people like the Shorts find their ideal retirement spot while traveling for pleasure. "If you spend three vacations in the same place, there's a good chance you'll retire there," says John Howells, author of books on retirement locations. That doesn't mean you're bound to where you've been. Advises Howells: "The most fun research you can do when you're planning to retire is take a trip somewhere new."

    There are plenty of reasons why a great spot to vacation may be an even better place to live year round: beautiful weather, for instance, or nice restaurants and outdoor activities. Conversely, there are also plenty of reasons why your perennial favorite summer getaway may not be the place to lay down permanent roots. "Sure, you like fly fishing when you do it two weeks a year, but what if that's all you can do for 52 weeks a year?" Howells says. If your vacation town is boarded up in the winter, you may find that the quiet life doesn't stimulate you enough, or that your summer cottage isn't so quaint when the heat doesn't work.

    Finding that delicate balance between an ideal spot to visit and the perfect place to live is no easy task. But here are seven places in the U.S. that you might not normally think of when you think of retirement. Our list avoids the obvious spots in Arizona and Florida, which continue to lure lots of retirees--and for good reason. But by 2001, when baby boomers will turn 50 at the rate of 1 every 6.8 seconds, you're probably going to be facing some stiffer competition as you scout for new territory. No town is perfect for everyone. Each of these places has its unique appeal, whether as a scenic escape to the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, like Newport, Tenn., or as host to a Shakespeare festival, like Ashland, Ore.

    These profiles are just a beginning, of course. To know whether one of these spots is for you, you'll need to do some research of your own. The Shorts suggest making good use of area shops, attending the local church or clubs you'll probably join, and talking to current residents. Above all, they advise, enjoy yourself. "Some people look at so many places, it becomes a stressor," says Helen. As the Shorts discovered, when you've found your spot, you'll find a way to stay.

    Donald and Dianne Cantor, both 54, took a six-month respite from their busy lives in Los Angeles six years ago to search for a new place with a gentler pace where they could retire. They bought a boat in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and cruised up the Intracoastal Waterway, rejecting Jekyll Island, Ga., and some North Carolina towns and eventually settling on Chestertown, Md.

    "We knew instantly that it was what we were looking for," recalls Donald. "It had a quality of life, peaceful yet vital."

    Chestertown, founded in 1706, was once an important colonial port on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Now a community of 4,000, it is home to more than 100 restored 18th century houses and buildings and has been named one of the Top Ten historic towns in the U.S. by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

    Residents enjoy 30 area marinas, miles of bike trails and the huge Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuge. Out-of-towners come to tour the historic homes and treasure hunt at craft and antique shows. Some folks bring cameras and sketchpads to chronicle the Sultana Shipbuilding Project, a community endeavor to create a two-masted 18th century schooner for educational projects. Others are enticed by the Blue Heron Cafe, an American seafood restaurant known for its to-die-for oyster fritters.

    Washington College, right in Chestertown, draws many retirees to its Academy of Lifelong Learning. The program offers classes to seniors on such varied subjects as foreign policy, Shakespeare and bird-watching for a fee of $150 a year per couple.

    "Every time I talk to someone on campus, I discover another aspect of Washington College that attracts seniors," says school spokesman Doug Hanks, citing fund-raising clubs, athletic fields and the student center, in addition to classrooms. "I'm sure they consider the college a big plus for their quality of life. What they may not realize is how much they improve the college's way of life."

    Though it sounds as though you may never want to leave town, the nation's capital is just 75 miles away. Chestertown is free of Washington's traffic and tempo but close enough that the Cantors go often to visit the Smithsonian museums. They also travel the 70 miles to Baltimore to visit its renowned aquarium.

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