Tuesday, July 19, 2016

It's not the heat, it's the humidity (and the heat)

Chapter 4 of our search for a retirement location.

We had been slacking off in our search for a retirement location.  Two weeks in France in May, followed by about a three week recovery period, featuring a really miserable cold and cough for me that Jody caught and devolved into pneumonia for her, slowed us down.  In July, we got going again.

The theory is to visit a potential retirement location at a bad time, weatherwise, to see if we can handle the worst it can offer.  When we went to Port Townsend in January, it was dark, cold, and damp.  No snow, no heavy rain, but just unpleasant.  When we left, we had a hundred mile drive to the Seattle/Tacoma airport, and it was just awful, right on the edge of being undrivable, raining so hard.  So we were discouraged from pursuing that option.

This trip was inspired by one of my cousins living in the Fort Myers area and another thinking about moving nearby, to Cape Coral.  Rather than focusing on only one area, we tried to explore a place on the Atlantic coast, a place on the Gulf side, and given the very cheap air fares into Orlando, a place in the middle.  The first place we decided to check out was Port St. Lucie, on the Atlantic coast, where the New York Mets have spring training.  I'm sure the local bail bondsmen welcome the Mets every year (thinking back to Doc Gooden and Darrell Strawberry).  This town is north of the really expensive places, but seemed to offer a certain amount of charm.  We contacted a developer (Kolter) who has a new community being built on the west side of town, called Verano.  They offered a stay-and-play package, where we could stay three days and two nights in the community to get a feel for what it would be like.  But we were flying into Orlando, which is a bit of a hike to Port St Lucie, and we decided to schedule our two nights to begin the second night after we got there, or we would essentially be wasting the first night.

Our trip got off to a good and bad start.  The good part was running into our dear friend Anne at the Admiral’s Club at DFW (there are four of them so we beat the odds).  Anne has been our French teacher for a long time, although we are not currently enrolled in class.  She was on her way to California for the weekend.  So we had a chance to catch up.  But then we were a little pressed for time to get to our gate. I was proceeding through the crowds making pretty good time, and looked back over my shoulder to see if Jody was keeping up, which she always does.  But she wasn’t in sight.  I looked around, and she was slowly catching up.  There had been a problem with her Rick Steves rolling bag, something caught in the wheel.  She got that straightened out and promptly fell behind again, complaining that the bag wasn’t rolling right.  One of the wheels was coming apart.  I handed her the handle on my bag, and asked her to roll it, while I carried hers.  We’ve had those bags for a long time, but mine has endured far more abuse than hers, since I’ve made a lot of business trips with it.  But hers failed first. It wasn't rolling worth a damn. (After a while the debris from the 'tire' fell off and the bag rolls okay, at least for now.)

Our flight was uneventful. We had reserved a car, but had some difficulty figuring out where to go to get it. Every airport is different.  At Orlando, the rental cars are in a multi-level garage across the street from the terminal. Hertz has a person standing out in front of their counter to intercept people like us, who have #1 Club Gold (like O.J.?) and don’t have to check in, but don’t know where to go.  So we got directions, headed outside over to the garage and then it hit us.  Florida is really, really hot.  We worked up a sweat in no time. It was breathtakingly hot.

I had asked for a Corolla but got a Jeep Compass.  I guess you would call this a small SUV.  It had Texas plates.  A sign? 

Our drive to Port St Lucie went okay.  Florida has a lot of long, straight roads, and is really flat.  You would think someone from Texas wouldn’t notice, but we have much more in the way of changes in elevation in our part of Texas than Florida does.  We used Jody’s iPhone for navigation, having previously captured in Contacts the addresses we needed.  Siri took us over to I-95 and then down to Port St Lucie.  We found our hotel without too much trouble.  It was a beautiful Hilton Garden Inn, with everything shiny and new. Our room was comfortable.  We ate dinner in Chili’s, probably taking the easy way out instead of trying to find something local.

The next morning we left the Hilton to go to the first of the communities we were going to investigate. With Jody’s roller bag being disabled, I took both our bags out to the car, but as soon as I stepped outside, I was blind.  The humidity was so bad that my sunglasses, cooled from the air conditioning in the hotel, fogged up immediately and completely. I’d not seen anything like it. A bright, sunny, hot and humid day awaited us.

The Kolter PGA Verano development was our next stop. We got past the gate guard, but the office was not open yet, so we drove around the development checking things out. We noticed a couple of things right away.  One was that everything was very uniform – the yards were immaculately maintained and the grass was all one color.  Trees and shrubs were harmonious.  The other was that we saw some new construction, and they use cinderblocks or concrete blocks for building, not wood with brick veneer as we are used to in North Texas.  I guess it makes sense.  If you are encountering hurricane-force winds, you need a hurricane-resistant house.  Verano has an association with the Professional Golfer’s Association (PGA) and is the only development having it.  This development is not age-restricted, but it sure seemed like it was mostly for retired people.

We got the information on the home where we would be staying, and the salesman came out and introduced himself. His name was Lee, and he was Australian.  Lee basically gave us an overview of the development, and let us walk around through the model park. They have models set up in order of cost, from lowest to highest, and you help yourself.  Since we were so early, we were the first ones there, and had the place to ourselves.

The models were very impressive.  We have a fairly large house for only two people, and downsizing is a goal. Some of the houses seemed to fit our goal, but the layouts were sometimes problematic. I do not like having kitchen, dining, and living rooms all together, for example.  Two, yes, three, no.  Most were that way.  Jody is looking for a big new kitchen and a pantry, and wants to have a tub in the master bath, or at the very least, a tub somewhere.  Those are not universal.

Lee caught up with us to answer questions. One interesting thing is that in Verano all the houses have what he called ‘impact’ windows.  This is not a term we knew.  An impact window is strong enough to withstand hurricane-force winds without requiring shutters to be put up.  We also learned that the uniformity and excellence of the yard maintenance was because the homeowners don’t do the maintenance – a landscaping company does it for the whole development.  There’s a monthly charge (more than $400) which includes yard maintenance, security, internet and cable television.

We liked Verano, but there were two problems. One was it was hot as hell there, although the air conditioning in the borrowed home worked flawlessly.  Even first thing in the morning, it was too hot to go out.  The second was that there was nobody there.  We went into the clubhouse to see what was there, and two or three people were at the pool. We went into the exercise room, and there were two bored physical trainers helping each other work out.  I said, can I ask a question:  Where is everybody?  The answer is that many of the people in the community leave for the hot months and go back wherever they came from. Some have a place at Verano as a second home, and some live there but leave in the summer.  One of the advantages of Verano is that it is set up as ‘lock and leave’. If you go out of town, someone does your yard and unless you leave food to rot the house will be the same when you get back.  We even saw collection points at various places in Florida for people who are leaving for the summer to drop off food items for donations to the needy. 

Two major pluses for Verano:  1) a very nice supermarket was right outside the entrance, and 2) one exit on I-95 brought you to West St Lucie, a booming area with lots of restaurants and shopping, not all of it national chains.

Two major negatives for Verano: 1) it was deserted. 2) no on-site restaurant, not even in the golf course.

While in the Port St Lucie area, we ventured over to the ocean one morning.  There are barrier islands off the coast, and entry is only at a causeway at each end of the island in St Lucie county. We went to the beach, but no one was in the water.  A few people were fishing. Generally it was deserted, probably because it was so hot.  There is a long, lonely road down the island, and as you get to the southern tip it is more built up.  Lots of high rise buildings, with all the windows covered by hurricane shutters.  I guess they aren’t planning on returning until fall.  One disappointment was that the island contained a huge nuclear power plant.  Hmmm, nuclear power plant, only two narrow bridges to get you out.  Maybe not the best plan.

We chose a couple of floor plans out of the seven or eight they have at Verano that we thought might work for us, and went back the next day to check them out.  Then we got Lee to take us to some empty houses that were available with those floor plans.  We got the idea, but the extreme heat and the absence of any people worked against Verano.  Our house backed up to a golf course, but we never saw any golfers.  All the homes backed up either to water, golf, or nature preserve, so there would never be a neighbor behind you. 

While we were there I touched base with my cousin Mary, who lives in Fort Myers.  We had a terrible phone connection but the house had wi-fi, so I called her back with Face Time.  I later learned that the phone connection problem was my phone itself, not AT&T.  Face Time is fantastic. Mary sent a message later about a place called Pelican Preserve, another development near where she lives, which she thought we might like.

We left Verano fairly early the next day, and started across the peninsula in the direction of Fort Myers.  The drive across Florida was interesting.  Some areas were covered by a canopy of trees over the highway, making it cooler but hard to see. Other places we saw farmland, grazing, citrus, etc.  Lots and lots of trailer parks.  When we got past Lake Okeechobee, never having seen it, we lost the cellular signal, and Siri lost her mind.  We had to pull over and study the Hertz map for a while to determine which way to go. While we sat there, a sheriff sat in his car watching us, a couple in a car with Texas plates, obviously not supposed to be there, obviously up to something.  He followed us for a while. I was particularly careful to signal every turn and not to speed, thinking of Burt Reynolds in "The Longest Yard".  Welcome to Florida! Eventually the sheriff turned off.

When we got to Fort Myers, we just happened to drive right past one of the developments we wanted to check out, a place called Verandah, also by the Kolter company.  We grabbed a quick bite at a Taco Bell, and went back to Verandah.

Verandah was a lot more attractive than Verano.  At Verano, the homes were all built with a faux-Italian design, with Mediterranean tile roofs, and the interiors had faux-Italian styling.  Verandah was more traditional, and each house had, guess what, a veranda on the front.  The floor plans were not all  the same as Verano, although they were definitely cousins, and they had more of the smaller floor plans available.  We currently have a four bedroom house with three bathrooms, for two people.  Smaller would probably be good.  This development had golf available (not mandatory) and lots of winding, treed roads and walkways, a rarity in this part of the country.  Florida has long, straight roads, but Verandah was not like that.  We viewed the models and went back and looked a second time at our favorites.

Verandah had the same ‘lock-and-leave’ setup as Verano. It had the same high ceilings and hurricane-resistant windows. 

The problem with Verandah is where it is. One one side is undeveloped land or agricultural land, and on the other side it seemed mostly industrial, and beyond that was a poor neighborhood.  So the question becomes, where do you go shopping?  Our salesman didn’t know.  Male sales people aren’t interested in that.  And it seemed like Fort Myers was even hotter than Port St Lucie. 

We planned to visit two developments the next day, one being the Pelican Preserve mentioned by my cousin, and the other the Del Webb Tidewater development.  We were getting up early and Pelican opened earliest, so we went there first.  It was off a beautiful, relatively empty, multi-lane divided highway.  We filled out the forms and a nice lady named Pat showed us around.  We really liked this place.  There were lots of people staying there over the summer, although some did not. The common areas were busy. They had a couple of on-site restaurants.  It just felt like it would be a nice place to live.

The homes we looked at were intelligently laid out and landscaped.  Every home seemed to have a screened in lanai in the back.  They did not have impact resistant windows as a standard but it was available as an add-on.  The way all of these developments work is to present a floor plan for X dollars.  There is a lot premium, which may be quite a bit, or could even be zero.  Then you work on what you want in the house, and upgrades are available on everything.  It seemed that a typical house with two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a den would go for, say $325,000.  With lot premium and upgrades, nicer granite in the kitchen, nicer faucets, bigger stovetop, it sneaks up to $400,000 pretty quickly.  Then there is a monthly charge for yard maintenance, and possibly a community development fee for road maintenance and the like, which can sneak on up there as well.

After checking out Pelican, we decided to forego Tidewater.  It seemed to have similar floor plans to what we saw in the Sun City Texas development, also Del Webb, except everything was $100,000 more expensive, and any attempt I made to contact them to make an appointment was unsuccessful.  I guess things are good at Del Webb.  So we decided to drive over to the Gulf, and see what we could see.  We made it as far as Sanibel Island, and the fun part is going over the causeway to get there.  It is quite spectacular. (It's also $6.)  Sanibel is low-keyed, with smaller houses and resorts, and it is virtually impossible to get even a glimpse of the water anywhere without paying an hourly parking fee.  I imagine Sanibel is crazy during high season, but it was not crowded at all on a cloudy afternoon in July.  We did get over to the lighthouse to snap a few photos, and got a few more on one of the islands used by the highway to get back to the mainland.  Later we stopped by Mary’s house and visited briefly.  It looks like they just moved in and haven’t unpacked yet.

The next day we left Fort Myers for our next destination, a small town north of Orlando called Mount Dora.  A ‘mount’ in Florida?  Every person we met was proud to tell us that Mount Dora was 180 feet above sea level.  By way of comparison, our house in Richardson is 600 feet above sea level. The drive up there was long and mostly boring, except for where the construction crews had reduced I-75 down to one lane.  When you get further north in Florida, the topography is a little more interesting, the roads have bends in them, and there are some changes in elevation.  It was a bit shocking.

We found the office for Pringle builders (everyone has to have a name, what can I say) but my contact was out sick. The guy who filled in for her was kind of frazzled.  He put together a packet for us and led us over to the Lakes of Mount Dora development.  But it is different. They had no models, only the guest house where we were staying. The guest house was a home they had sold and leased back for use for prospective buyers. They build everything custom, off a base floor plan to be sure, but the house where we were had been expanded considerably off the floor plan to make some of the rooms larger.  We liked our house, although the furnishings were not comfortable, the cable TV didn’t work and the icemaker wasn’t making ice.  But they had a huge bucket full of snacks, including, you guessed it, some Pringles.

Our host (named Jim, he called me Jimmy once but I didn’t kill him) said that if we were interested in any of the floor plans, he would try to get us into a house to look at it.  I assume he meant an occupied house where they had agreement from the owner, who was probably away for the summer, to have a look.  We picked out a couple of floor plans and agreed to meet with him back at our guest house at 10 the next day.

We were then taken to dinner by a couple living in the community, actually about 6 houses away.  For some reason, they chose to go to a chain restaurant (Olive Garden) instead of one of the many very interesting restaurants in the town of Mount Dora, which we found out about the next day.  But they clearly love Mount Dora and love living in the Lakes development.  They had moved from the south side of Chicago.  Their house had extensive customization - a six burner gas stovetop, very high ceilings, expanded rooms of every kind.  It was really nice but way more than what we would need.  After dinner, we sat outside on their screened in lanai, which included a pool, and the temperature was comfortable for the first time for us in Florida.  Of course, there had been a pretty good thunderstorm right before we went to dinner, which cooled things off.

It seemed to us that the Lakes of Mount Dora lacked the critical mass we were looking for in a community.  It was nearly deserted, and did not have the club space and activity space that other developments had.  It seemed that the location was in fact a touch cooler and less humid than Port Saint Lucie or Fort Myers, and the topography was a lot more interesting.  The other attraction is that Orlando is not too far away.  Their literature said 40 minutes but our experience was more like 60.

We expected to meet up with Jim the next morning, but he called and said Ann (our supposed contact) was still sick and he was tied up with a client. He rescheduled for 1 PM.

We took the opportunity to drive into Mount Dora to explore the town.  It is a walkable town, but it would have been a lot more walkable in a different season.  We wandered down to the lake, and saw a rare lighthouse on fresh water.  Lots of signs about snakes and alligators.  We walked back into town, thoroughly soaked in sweat.  A coffee shop was open that featured cold drinks and cupcakes.  It was exactly what we needed, especially the air conditioning.  We did not walk that far but in the humidity it was pretty tough. A chocolate mousse cupcake ruined lunch as well as anything could.

We went back to the house to wait for Jim, but 1 PM came and went. We called, and they said he was still busy.  I said we would wait until 3, and after that forget about it, and he didn’t show, so we didn’t get to see much of the Lakes of Mount Dora except from the outside.  If they don't want to do business with me, I don't want to do business with them. 

The next morning we drove to Orlando, found the airport, and found the incredible ripoff gas station that we found the last time we were in Orlando, 1998 or so.  I needed only a few gallons so I paid for it.  On our trip home, we were upgraded to first class, but did not get to sit together.  Still, first class on a Boeing 757 is better than coach, and we appreciated it.

So our Florida adventure concluded with no decisions being made, but it seemed that if we moved to Florida we would probably want to go somewhere else during the summer.  We could do that here just as well.  

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Shared ride services

Over the weekend, we were in New York for my 50th anniversary high school graduation reunion. My aunt graciously offered us a place to stay, and we then had to decide how we would travel between her house in Flushing, Queens, and the reunion events, which were in Manhattan. The house is not near a subway. Our options were to get to the Long Island Railroad somehow and then take the subway from Penn Station, or take a taxi, or take one of the shared ride services. We had never done that before, except in, of all places, Croatia, but in New York everything has its own set of challenges.
I downloaded the iPhone apps for Uber and Lyft. They work similarly. You provide your credit card information to the app, which verifies everything. Then you provide your departure location and your destination. You have to allow the app to be able to use Location Services while active. When you do that, even before you request a vehicle, you will see how long it will take for the car to come, and you can get a forecast of the cost, which is in a range of dollars, between 40 and 60 for our first trip. You can see all the little cars crawling around on the map on your screen. To go to the reunion cocktail party for my class, at a place called India House, nothing to do with Indian food but with old India traders, we chose Uber.

The car was driven by Ahmed, and was a Camry. We left my aunt’s house at 4:49 PM, having requested the car about five minutes earlier. We arrived at India House at 5:29 PM, a distance of 16 miles through miserable Friday night rush hour traffic on the Long Island Expressway (LIE) and the horrendous Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE). He took us over the Brooklyn Bridge, which has no toll, and dropped us right at the door. Ahmed is from Pakistan, speaks excellent English, and has lived in the US for one year. He lives pretty close to my aunt, staying with his uncle in Bayside. Nice guy, and a cautious, careful driver. The fare was $44.50, and I gave him $5 cash. I think you can tip through Uber but wondered how much he would get. Uber sends you an email summarizing the trip, actually quite detailed, which is where I got these statistics.

After the reunion party, which was a huge success, we summoned another Uber car. This time it was a Lincoln Town Car, driven by Syed. The car appeared almost immediately, but he didn’t stop in front of India House but parked up the street and called me. I said ‘we are here’ and waved at him. Uber cars have a little lighted symbol to aid in identification. He pulled right up. Syed was an extremely aggressive driver. He was also from Pakistan, but I could not understand his response when I asked how long he has been in the US. He needed a little help with navigation getting to my aunt’s house. Traffic on Friday night on the BQE and LIE was miserable. I was glad I wasn’t driving, especially after three or four Coronas (no Shiner Bock in New York), and I was also glad to be sitting in the back seat with my wife and not able to see much out the front window. He was really aggressive. We left India House at 9:03 PM and arrived at my aunt’s house at 9:39 PM. The fare was $42.60, and I gave him $5 as well. The distance was reported as 15.73 miles, probably because he knew his way around lower Manhattan a little better than Ahmed did.

The next day we went to the reunion itself at the school, located at 30 West 16th Street, which is between Fifth and Sixth avenues. I decided to try Lyft after reading an article in the New York Times about how the drivers preferred it over Uber. When you sign up for Lyft, they give you a credit for five free rides, which actually means up to $10 off for each of your first five rides. Our car this time was another Camry, and the driver was Mathieu. He got to my aunt’s house six or seven minutes after we requested pickup. Mathieu was a careful driver, perhaps a little too careful, because he would hang out in the left lane and drive the speed limit, and cars flew by on the right. He is from Haiti. When I learned where he was from, I started speaking to him in French. He just smiled widely and enjoyed it, but like every other French speaker in the world seems to do, he corrected me when I made a mistake, which was often. Mathieu picked us up at 2:56 PM and we arrived at Xavier High School at 3:32 PM. The distance was 13.61 miles. The fare was $45.02, including the Queens Midtown Tunnel toll, but the $10 credit reduced our cost to $35.02. I gave Mathieu $5 and he smiled widely and thanked us for speaking French. The LIE was not too bad on Saturday afternoon, although traffic like that in Dallas would have brought out the road rage for sure.

For our return we also chose Lyft. The estimated time was one minute, but the car got there before we even got to the sidewalk, and I saw the little light on the windshield and waved at him. Our driver was Tayeb and the car was some kind of a Lexus. Tayeb is from Bangladesh, and has been here four or five years. He has a business exporting construction equipment and, I presume, drives on the side. Traffic on Saturday night was unbelievably bad, and there was an accident on the LIE which brought it to a standstill, but Tayeb figured a way around it. He was a good driver, not too cautious and not too aggressive. He picked us up at 9:07 PM and we got to my aunt’s house at 9:53 PM. He did not need any help finding the house. The fare was $49.16, including the toll, but the credit brought it down to $39.16. 

My impression of both shared ride services was very favorable. I would definitely use them again, especially in New York. The cars were clean, late model, well maintained, and the drivers were good, and interesting to talk to. The hardest part is identifying your car, if you are in a crowded location with a lot of vehicles. Had we rented a car, the cost would have been $250 or so, and we would have had to pay a significant amount for parking, and I would have been drinking water instead of Coronas. So it all worked out for the best.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Driving through the war zone

Looking for a Retirement Place – Episode 3

We had been thinking about scouting out another place while our French class was on hiatus for a couple of weeks.  The thought was to drive to a town called Nacogdoches, Texas, a couple of hours away, which was listed in our 100 Best Places book, and check it out. But the days we thought about doing that were affected by some of the rotten weather we have been having this spring. I would rather not have grapefruit sized hail hit my car out in the middle of East Texas and then have to figure out what to do next.  So the window of opportunity closed.

There are ads in the paper all the time for a place called Robson Ranch, located near Denton, Texas.  Denton is (or was) an hour or so away from here, to the north and west. Robson Ranch is another one of these age-restricted places where there are lots of activities to keep the residents busy.  The company has only one community in Texas, but has half a dozen more in Arizona, so we thought we could learn something that might be applicable to both places.  I contacted the company on-line and got a call back from some guy in Arizona.  He set up an appointment for us to have a day visit to the place in Denton.  They can do up to three days at a time, where you pay something for the privilege, but that is more for people from out of town.

So on a Friday in April, we drove to Robson Ranch.  The ranch is close to I-35W.  I-35 is split between Dallas and Fort Worth, so there is an I-35E and an I-35W.  It does not indicate direction but relative location. It also helps to confuse newcomers beyond belief – imagine it’s your first time in a city and there’s a sign that says I-35E North.  Where the hell does it go?  I-35 is the NAFTA highway, and it was built way too small to handle the volume it has now. So the I-35E part, the part that goes through Dallas, is being widened.  The result is that the driving conditions between the Bush Turnpike, where we got on I-35E, and Denton, where we looped over to I-35W, are slightly worse than in Kabul, Afghanistan, and maybe a little bit better than Aleppo, Syria.  I’m just glad it wasn’t raining.

We arrived at Robson Ranch and went to the sales center.  A very tall man came out and introduced himself as Tall Bill.  He is 6’9”. I said I was short Jim, and introduced even shorter Jody.  We chatted for a while in his office, and he explained some things we didn’t know.  Unlike Sun City, the age restriction for Robson is 40 years rather than 55.  This means about a third of the residents are still working, and the place is livelier than a typical retirement community where people are sitting around waiting to die. The minimum age for a son or daughter living there is nineteen.  Bill took us through four models, of different sizes.  The construction quality is excellent, much better than our current house. They have very good energy efficiency, high ceilings, vinyl clad double pane windows, mostly three car garages, although some are set up for a golf cart instead of a car. The place looks well thought out – 36 different options are available for the various models.

Some of the models were quite a bit smaller than our current house, but the layouts are so well designed you don’t notice.  Even the larger ones have a bar-style eating area in the kitchen and a dining room. 

The community has all manner of activities, an indoor heated pool, a very nice outdoor pool, a golf course, softball field, community garden, lots of clubs for various interests. 

BUT – it’s in Texas, where 100 degrees in July and August will take it out of you.  And I wonder about whether being a little more north and a little higher elevation will cause more of the s word.

They gave us a coupon for a free lunch for two, which we used at the golf course clubhouse. The regular restaurant is being renovated.  The golf course restaurant had a pretty limited menu but what we had was good.  The golf course itself looked pretty wide open, but I think the main hazard is back yards.

After lunch, a bit leg-weary, we went through the models we hadn't seen, and reviewed the ones we had, and ranked the ones we liked best.  Later, after we got home, we looked at the prices.  These homes are not cheap - as Bill said, it's all top of the line.

Driving home we took a different, longer, but less interesting route. More like pre-war Baghdad.

I think I like Robson Ranch better than Sun City Texas.  But we will look some more.

As an aside - Tall Bill drives a Smart Car.  Can you believe it?  I know the Smart has more leg room than most, since it has no back.  Also, he worked for a time in Japan, and a colleague of his was 7' tall. He said they stopped traffic, and caused a couple of wrecks.  If you ever go to Robson Ranch in Denton, ask for Tall Bill.  Everyone knows him.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Southern Exposure

Looking for a retirement place – Episode 2

Not long after returning from Port Townsend, after a quick visit to New York for a sad family occasion, we took a short trip to Georgetown, Texas.  Our goal was a place called Sun City, Texas, which sounds hokey, but, when you get there, it isn’t. 

For this trip, we elected to drive. The alternative would have been to fly to Austin, then rent a car and drive to Georgetown, but with all the hassles of air travel these days, it was an absolutely easy decision to drive.  The drive was interesting, though, because we had to drive through Dallas and get to I-35 heading south.  I-35 is a strange beast, because both Dallas and Fort Worth wanted the interstate, so it splits into I-35E and I-35W.  Both of these run north and south.  So you see signs for I-35E N, I-35E S.  It takes some getting used to.  I-35 is the NAFTA highway, the primary route for freight and the like from Mexico into the US.  It was built many years ago as a four lane divided highway, but after NAFTA it was overwhelmed with traffic.  The road is eight lanes through most of Dallas, and shrinks down to four.  Then at Hillsboro, Texas, I-35E and I-35W (the one for Fort Worth) combine, and we get six lanes.  Eventually, six becomes four, because the expansion is not yet complete.

When you are in the area that is being worked on, you have what I call the no-sneeze zones.  There are concrete barriers alongside the main lanes, on both sides, and the shoulders are not worthy of the name. It made for an interesting drive.

We found Sun City with no difficulty.  We had arranged to rent a small house for a night, which (they said) came with a full refrigerator.  First we went to the main office, and they said we could walk through the Model Park, a street with examples of each floor plan they offer.  The houses are very variable, so some of the models were over the top, with a second story, etc.  But it was interesting to look at them.  Click here to see some sample floor plans. Everything is of course immaculate in model homes.  We were really impressed with the open floor plans and especially the huge, modern kitchens.  

One problem we had is that we were trying to envision our setup in these houses.  Our house in Richardson is a four-bedroom, but we use one bedroom as an office and one bedroom as a den, which is where we watch TV.  The only houses that offered similar setups had more square feet than our current house.  I was hoping to downsize, not upsize!

Our one bedroom house at Sun City was actually pretty nice, well furnished, but the refrigerator was empty.  We found our way over to a convenience store to get some snacks.  We had imported some wine from home.  The office gave us our choice of a bottle of red or a bottle of white Texas wine.  We chose red, took one sip, and threw it in the trash.  I wouldn’t even pour it down the sink for fear it might melt the plumbingit was so harsh.  The house had wi-fi.  It looked like a model they don’t sell any more, having two full bathrooms and one bedroom.  It had a second living area which could have been a guest bedroom.  They also provided a golf cart which we could use to poke around, but the weather was a little cool for that.  

We had dinner at one of the golf course restaurants, and it was clean and bright, and the food was pretty good, but the service was clueless. But it was a Monday. 

The next day we had a tour provided by a resident, a volunteer, who took us around to see the various amenities.  Sun City has three golf courses, and a couple of activity centers with indoor and outdoor pools.  There are also lots of facilities for hobbyists, wood work, stitchery of any kind, stained glass, art work, libraries, etc.  There are clubs for languages, clubs for people from wherever you came from, dozens of other clubs.  The community is for people 55 and up, and we seemed to be in the age range of most of the people there.  I have to say I was really surprised at how much they have going on.  Here is a link to their activities.

We are considering Sun City Texas as a possible retirement location.  It is far enough south to avoid the snow and ice issues that sometimes cause problems for us here in Richardson (but not this year).  But there are two other problems that affect living in Sun City that also affect us here:  one is July, and the other is August. But this one is still in the mix.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Northern Exposure - not for us

We’re trying to figure out where we want to live, in retirement.  Where we are now, Richardson, Texas, is pretty good.  Everything is convenient, we know where to go for whatever we need, and we have friends in the area.  There are just two problems:  July and August.  It gets incredibly hot here during those two months, and June and September can be pretty bad as well.  So we are looking at alternatives.

The first thing we did was to look at a book called America’s 100 Best Places to Retire, by Mary Lu Abbott.  Each of us devised a list of places we were interesting in checking out.  Typically, the lists were not the same, except for one place: Port Townsend, Washington. 

Port Townsend is at the tip of a peninsula sticking into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which separates Washington from British Columbia.  The town is described in the book as in the rain shadow of the Olympic range, and receives less rainfall than other parts of Washington.  The rain clouds have to dump their contents to clear the mountains, leaving Port Townsend with minimal annual rainfall.  But it doesn’t get hot there, which is something we are looking for.  We decided to check it out.  And we decided to do something smart – check it out during the worst time of year rather than the best, figuring that if we liked Port Townsend in January, we would like it any time.

Our itinerary included spending a couple of days north of Seattle, for a tour reunion put on by Rick Steves’ Europe (https://www.ricksteves.com) for people who took a tour with them during 2015.  There is also a day-long event called ‘Test Drive a Tour Guide’, which was really just them selling their tours.  We did meet the young woman who led our “Best of the Adriatic” tour and a couple who were on our tour, and that was nice.  We stayed in Lynnwood, near Edmonds, for three nights.  (My review of the hotel in Lynnwood is here). Then we caught the Edmonds to Kingston ferry and started on our way to Port Townsend.

The ferry was not rough, but the day was very, very dark.  This was at noon.

After arriving in Port Townsend, we had to wait a while for our room to be ready at Manresa Castle (review found here) and we wandered around the downtown area for a while.  Port Townsend has a lot of Victorian buildings, very well kept, and lots of nice eateries and shopping.  It may be in danger of becoming one of those tourist towns with nothing but t-shirt shops and art galleries, but it isn’t there yet.

We found a place to eat lunch called Jordini’s on the Water, part of kind of a shopping arcade on Water Street (the main street).  No customers were there except us, and in fact the whole town seemed pretty deserted.  I think everyone was watching the Seattle Seahawks playing the Carolina Panthers in the NFL playoffs.  When I had last checked the score, it was 31-0 in favor of the Panthers, but when we got to Jordini’s the game was on their giant flat-screen TV and the Seahawks had clawed their way back into the game.  The menu looked very good, and I chose a half portion of the Italian Stallion sub sandwich.  The half portion was six inches long and almost equally thick, and was excellent.  Unfortunately, that seemed to set the pattern – every meal we had in Port Townsend (not counting breakfast at the Castle) was very good, and portions were probably too generous.  While we ate, the game ended with the Seahawks trailing. 

Half a sandwich at Jordini’s

While waiting for our room to be ready, we stopped off at the Tourist Information office and spoke for a while with a gentleman who had retired to Port Townsend from Texas, specifically Austin.  We asked about how people get to Seattle and to the airport, where to shop, etc.  He made a point of saying how not hot it is there, since we were interested in less hot summers.  He also said it often rains on the fourth of July.

Our room at Manresa was ready at 4 PM, and they gave us a $25 coupon for something off dinner at a restaurant in town, since their restaurant was not open on Sunday (or any other day we were there). We took advantage of the coupon and ate at The Belmont, on Water Street, which would be considered ‘fine dining’ I suppose.  The crab stuffed halibut was pretty good.

The next day (Monday) I contacted a realtor who I had been emailing back and forth with about looking for a house in Port Townsend.  Her name is Anne McLaughlin, and she was perfect for us.  She showed us neighborhoods, explained about the lifestyle in Port Townsend, and showed us a couple of homes for sale that were not occupied.  The deal in Port Townsend is whether or not you have a view.  If you have a nice view, add $100,000 to the price.  We found the homes were smaller than in Texas, and a lot of them have septic tanks and heat with propane.  The peninsula (meaning the Olympic Peninsula, not just the Quimper Peninsula where Port Townsend is located) does not have a natural gas pipeline, so everyone heats with electric or propane or probably even wood stoves.  We saw a lot of the Cape George area, which is popular with retirees.  We would prefer a one-level house, and there are not a lot of them, but there are some.  I would guess that the price per square foot is 50% higher than in Richardson, TX, but the lifestyle is simpler and people aren’t so overboard with large houses. 

While meeting with Anne, we overheard her making a lunch date with someone at a place called Silverwater Café, so based on that recommendation, we went there for lunch.  It was the only place in Port Townsend that we went to twice, so that’s also a recommendation.  The food there was very, very good although the service was a little spaced out.  Marijuana is legal in Washington, which probably had nothing to do with it.

That evening we decided to try a place near Silverwater, called Alchemy Bistro.  I think this restaurant may have two sections, one less expensive and once fancier, but I am not sure. We ate in what was certainly fine dining, and we even had live music, a competent piano player.  I had a cod dish that was just okay.  Service was excellent.  Towards the end of our stay, an old man went up to the piano player and dropped some money in the tip jar, and spoke with him a moment.  The man looked familiar, and after a moment I realized he was one of the actors on a TV show from the 90’s called “Northern Exposure”.  The actor is named John Cullum, and he was playing an old man then.  He’s older now, but moving well.  “Northern Exposure” opened with a moose walking down the street, and the whole attitude of the show seemed to be replicated in Port Townsend.  We didn’t see any moose, but I saw more deer in one afternoon than I had seen before in my whole life.  And one big one was strolling along Lawrence Street, the main drag of Uptown Port Townsend, just minding his own business.

On Tuesday we decided to drive over to a town called Sequim, pronounced ‘skwim’, which is supposed to have what they call the ‘blue hole’, a hole in the cloud cover produced by peaks in the Olympic range.  Sequim is a bigger deal than Port Townsend, having the only Costco around, a Home Depot, lots of shopping.  It is home to a lot of retirees from California, seeking the sun but a cooler climate.  Anne, our real estate lady, seemed a little contemptuous of Sequim, saying they built houses there that resembled the houses they left behind in Southern California.  We saw some exceptionally tacky houses near the main road, but used our Zillow app to find some farther afield, and ended up in a large development called Sunland, where some nice new houses can be found.  We got a realtor to show us one, and it was very impressive, although attached on one side.  It was not a ‘duplex’ per se but pretty upscale.  Sunland is close to being built out, and seemed very nice, but the properties do not have much in the way of a view.  A golf course winds through the development.  Lots of deer hanging around.

We had a good lunch in Sequim in a place called Hiway 101 Diner, which was straight out of the Fifties.  Nice food.

That evening, back in Port Townsend, we had dinner at a Northern-Exposure type place called Owl Sprit Café (note – not Owl Spirit).  This was a pretty laid-back, inexpensive place that had an extensive lunch menu and a less extensive dinner menu, but the lunch menu went until 8 PM.  So I went with some sliders (below) from the lunch menu (I love sliders) while my wife chose some vegetable linguini (vegetarian).  We were both happy with our choices.


Our final day in Port Townsend we spent looking back at some of the properties we had seen with Anne, and in walking around Fort Worden State Park, looking at some of the old officer’s quarters that you can actually rent out, although probably not in January.  While there, we saw a bald eagle, but could not get a decent photo. The day was incredibly cold and dreary, and in fact I don’t think the thermometer reached 50F the whole time we were there.  We ate lunch again at Silverwater, and for dinner chose a place called Fountain Café, where I had something called Scotch Fettucine, meaning with smoked salmon.  So-so. Jody had a risotto dish large enough to feed a squad of vegetarian Marines, if any could be found.

When Thursday came around and it was time to go home, we were ready.  But we had a hundred mile drive to Sea-Tac, and endured a couple of hours of really heavy rain during the drive.  At times it was nearly impossible to see.  The speed limit was just a dream. I think during the drive it finalized our determination that we could not live in a place like this, no matter how nice it is in the summer time.  The difficulty of getting around was too much, and it was too remote and too much of a culture shock.  So our search for a place to live in retirement will continue.