Friday, September 16, 2016

Chapter 6 - Coeur d'Alene - almost perfect

We had never been to Idaho or that part of the world. Coeur d’Alene is listed in the 100 Best Places to Retire book, and I recalled my mother talking about how beautiful it was, although I can’t recall if or when she might have gone there.  In researching the location, it seemed as though housing values were better than any of the other places we had considered, and while the climate is a bit iffy, we thought we’d give it a try.

To get to Coeur d’Alene from Dallas/Ft Worth takes a bit of doing. Coeur d’Alene has an airport, but it has no scheduled service and is for general aviation only.  The capital of Idaho, Boise, has non-stop service from DFW, but it’s four hundred sixty miles away from Coeur d’Alene.  The airport of choice is Spokane, Washington, about a forty-five minute drive from Coeur d’Alene.  So we booked flights to Spokane, through Phoenix.  This is an old US Airways or more likely America West route, not a traditional American Airlines route, and the service is reminiscent of US Airways, meaning very minimal. Our connection in Phoenix was pretty close, but I decided to risk it because the chance of bad weather in Phoenix was small. Actually, they had bad weather the day before our trip.  We had to walk a considerable distance to our Spokane gate, getting there five minutes before they started boarding.  Phoenix is very busy.
Pacific Southwest Airlines livery on an American jet - PSA was one of the companies that made up USAirways, which American merged with recently.

Spokane’s airport is pretty small, but they have five major carriers - Delta, United, Southwest, American, Alaska.   We had to walk what seemed like forever to get to the rental car location, and they do not really have Hertz #1 Club Gold service, although there was no wait at the counter. Our car was some kind of a Hyundai, but it ran well and sipped fuel.  The drive over I-90 to Coeur d’Alene was uneventful, except I noticed that no one was speeding.  Everyone drove exactly the speed limit.  When we go somewhere we’ve never been, I try to stick to the speed limit until/unless the local drivers show me I don’t have to.  This time they were showing me I had to.  Before we crossed into Idaho, we saw two motorists who had been pulled over by unmarked patrol cars, making me think not speeding was a really good idea.

We stayed at a La Quinta in Coeur d’Alene, where hotels seem to be pretty pricy. I was not expecting a lot, but was pleasantly surprised. The room was quite comfortable, and the included breakfast was pretty good, although you had to have some patience with the toaster. The hotel was ‘pet friendly’, and we saw some really big dogs. There were also families with small children, who were running up and down the halls above us, but they settled down before bedtime. Our room had a view of a defunct water part.  The weather while in Coeur d’Alene ranged from upper 30’s to 80 or so, mostly from 40’s to 60’s. We could not have asked for better weather.

Our first evening we ate at an Italian restaurant nearby, Tomato Street, which was a huge operation with lots of customers.  It was the Idaho equivalent of Olive Garden.The food was really good, but the portion sizes seemed to be designed so that you would take home leftovers.  It was just of highway US 95, which, we learned, is the road you try to avoid when driving in Coeur d’Alene.  The lights are long and the traffic can be formidable.

We had contacted a realtor, Kevin Bennett, via a web search. I sent him information about what we were doing and what kind of house we thought we might like.  He was really nice and set us up with the MLS service that most realtors use these days, so we could pick through and find what homes we would like to view.  We (meaning Jody) picked out ten or so and sent them to Kevin.  But before we got there, a bunch of them went to sale pending status.  I had rejected a few listings for no reason other than they were more expensive, so we reinstated those.

Our first full day, we identified on Zillow a few homes to look at, just from the car, as a way of learning our way around. Coeur d’Alene is a small community and it takes no time to get anywhere, We found a couple of properties that didn’t look too promising, and wondered by accident across one of the ones we were going to see with Kevin. The owners were there, taking out huge quantities of trash and recycles.  They offered to let us have a look.  The house was pretty nice but a bit tired. The owners had moved to assisted living and were looking forward to not owning a house, and were happy to show it to us.

We also wandered down to the lake, in the morning. The lady at the La Quinta had told use about the free parking available downtown, and we parked there.  The lakefront is absolutely gorgeous, no doubt about it. Hardly anyone was there, just a jogger or two and some dog walkers.  It was a bit nippy, probably in the low 50’s with a bit of a breeze.  We also wandered around the downtown area, looking at all the quaint little stores that weren’t open yet.  We went to the Visitor Center downtown and in addition to clean toilets they had tons of information about the area and nearby areas, and some blurbs from various restaurants.  I picked up a couple that looked vegetarian-friendly. 

Lake Coeur d'Alene

We ate lunch at one of those restaurants, Pita Pit, part of a local chain, which was a bit tricky to find.   It was in a strip shopping center near a mall.  They make pita sandwiches to order.  You have to be more involved in the process than I was expecting.  It had a wide variety of veggie options.  In nearly every eating place we visited in Coeur d’Alene and in all the places around it we visited, there were decent vegetarian options.  Jody was pleased.

Our first impressions of Coeur d’Alene were that it was absolutely beautiful.  There is not a speck of trash to be found anywhere; there is no graffiti; the people are friendly and impeccably polite. We had heard that there were more gun shops than gas stations in Coeur d’Alene, and while we did see gun shops, there were a lot more gas stations.  The area is booming and the housing market is very active.

Fish tacos at Seasons
We found our way back to downtown for dinner, at a place called Seasons of Coeur d’Alene, supposedly featuring whatever was seasonal. It has a very busy bar and a not so busy restaurant. 

Grilled cheese

We ate at the restaurant and were pleased. People in Coeur d’Alene are just so nice.

The next day (Saturday) we met with Kevin Bennett from the Coldwell Banker Schneidmiller Realty.  Kevin took us to see eight different homes, plus the one we had stumbled on the day before. We liked them all, although a couple of them were too much for us to handle due to the size of the lot or a storage unit the size of an airplane hangar.  We saw homes with natural gas stoves, heated by natural gas, but with air conditioning. Lots of open floor plans and all the new stuff we are looking for. One or two of them had sickening paint jobs, but it’s just paint. Kevin explained about the different areas, about how Coeur d’Alene is booming, how the different localities cooperate on educational and development projects.  Lots of volunteer opportunities all around, and non-existent crime rate.   One home in particular, in the Hayden Lake area, north and a little east of Coeur d’Alene, appealed to us, although it was a bit distant from town.

After our tour, we had lunch in an excellent place near Kevin’s office, called Rivelle’s River Grill. I had some pulled pork sliders, unlike anything I’ve ever had.  Sloppy but good.

During the morning I had noticed that a pain I had behind my left ear was getting worse. I had this problem on and off for years and it had not been diagnosed.  I decided to go to an Urgent Care place, which was near our hotel and part of Kootenai Health, the big medical center in Kootenai County in Idaho.  They took me right away, accepted my insurance, and after a few minutes I was being examined by a doctor.  I thought I might have an ear infection, but he determined that I had an inflamed and probably infected salivary gland, back under my jaw, which could easily be taken for an ear infection.  He called in a prescription to the pharmacy across the street. I went over there and they addressed me by name before I could say anything, and I had my medication in a few minutes.  The whole medical event lasted 90 minutes from walking in the door to Urgent Care to walking out the door at Rite Aid.  I have to say, I was impressed.  And everyone was very nice.  At this point Jody was ready to move and I was not far behind.

The next day (Sunday) we had nothing planned, so on a whim we decided to add another state to our list of states visited.  Coeur d’Alene is not far from Montana, and it is 177 from Missoula, about which I knew nothing except it was mentioned in “I Miss You So Badly”, a song by Jimmy Buffett.  Off we went.  It was an amazingly scenic drive, through the woods and over the mountains.  Absolutely gorgeous.  Minimal traffic on a Sunday, but some very significant construction zones.  I am guessing that in the mountains they have to get road work done during summer.  Once we reached Montana, we found another thing we had not seen before – 80 mile an hour speed limits.  

65 for trucks was a joke.

I-90 is a road which is very winding, through valleys cut out by the Clark Fork River (after the Clark of Lewis & Clark), and the road is in bad shape at some points.  So you are driving around sharp curves, on a rutted highway, and you are going 80.  Well, not for long.  I slowed down until that road straightened out, and it wasn’t like I was holding anyone up.

Missoula is hardly a tourist attraction.  We found a place to eat lunch, walked around the riverfront a little, and left. Jody drove back, so she could experience life at 80 mph.  Our little Hyundai was not really built for it, though.

That evening we went back to Seasons for dinner, and had a completely different experience. They were short staff and we could not get anyone to seat us in the restaurant. Jody talked to someone in the bar, and they recommended we eat in the bar (same menu available) because we would be forgotten about in the restaurant. I guess this illustrates a problem about Coeur d’Alene. It is booming to the extent that there aren’t enough young people around to take the entry level jobs.  At any rate, we ate in the bar, and I stuck to a burger, figuring that was a safe choice in the bar, which it was.

The next day (Monday) we checked out of our hotel, and decided to try to look at the one house we had really liked in Hayden Lake, and to try to find Costco, and to look at some of the new housing developments that have sprung up in Hayden and in Post Falls (just west of Coeur d’Alene).  We managed all of those.  The new housing places are very nice and we liked one of the floor plans, but most of them are much larger than we would like.  Prices are cheap, about 2/3 of what they are in the DFW area.  We found Costco, and even there gas prices are 50 cents/gallon higher than Texas. Costco had some different stuff – lots of heavy flannel shirts, and gun safes.  We don’t see those here.

We had lunch in a Mediterranean restaurant in Post Falls, called White House Grill. But, unlike Dallas, in Idaho Mediterranean means Greece, not Turkey or Lebanon.  The gyro was excellent.  They have belly dancing on Thursday.  We were leaving Tuesday..

We drove to our next hotel, a Courtyard in Spokane.  We had a very early flight on Tuesday morning and didn’t want to miss it, so we got a little closer.  Spokane has a really nice park along the river, where they had some sort of an Expo in 1973 or so.  

Along the river in Spokane

It was popular with strollers, joggers, skateboarders, and, sadly, bicycle riders,  So you have to be careful.  That night we used the river walk to get part of the way to a restaurant, called Saranac Public House, on Main St.  It was busy, but service was excellent and the food was quite good. And I finally hit 10,000 steps on my Fitbit for the first time in a week.  

We went to bed on the early side, and set the alarm for 5 AM, but consoled ourselves by considering it was 7 at home. We drove to the airport and took a while to find a gas station to top off the rental, and there was a back way into the airport which made returning easy. The Spokane airport has the best marked rental car return in the world.  We were really early.  We walked a considerable distance to the second terminal where American and Alaska are the only two airlines, and while there were kiosks, there were two absolutely bored looking agents at the American desk, so we went over there to give them something to do.  The agent who waited on us congratulated us on going through Phoenix instead of Seattle, which I guess is what some people do.  I just knew a connection in Phoenix would be more dependable than a connection in Seattle, due to the weather in the two locations.  Spokane does not really have TSA Pre-Check – they fake it with the standard lines.  But they did not care about my TSA compliant corkscrew.

Our flight home was uneventful, but we may need to reconsider these mid-week departures and arrivals, because we drove home from DFW Airport at the height of the evening rush hour.

The conclusion is that we liked Coeur d’Alene better than any other place we have been.  So far, we have visited:

·      Port Townsend, Washington
·      Sequim, Washington
·      Sun City, Georgetown, Texas
·      Robson Ranch, Denton, Texas
·      Port Saint Lucie, Florida
·      Fort Myers, Florida
·      Mount Dora, Florida
·      Ukiah, California
·      Fort Bragg, California
·      Mendocino, California
·      Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

The place we like best is Coeur d’Alene, but we did not go at the worst possible time, which is mid-winter.  So that is a consideration.  Other considerations about Coeur d’Alene are that it does not have an airport, and Spokane, 45 minutes away, has a nice airport, which claims to be international., but by ‘international’ they probably mean Canada.  Another is that it is far away from any of our families.  And finally, if you Google ‘Indian restaurant Coeur d’Alene’, it comes back with some in Spokane Valley (Washington) and some for that other kind of Indian.

We're not done looking, but we have a new leader in the clubhouse.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Chapter 5 - No Growth, Shut the Door Behind You

No growth, shut the door – our visit to Mendocino County.

Our next stop on our retirement search was to the opposite coast.  We had seen some information in one of our retirement guide books indicating that Mendocino County was a good place for retirees, with decent home prices.  The information was wrong, but we had to find that out for ourselves.

We decided to try three locations in Mendocino County.  The first was a town called Ukiah, the county seat, but still a pretty small town.  All of Mendocino County, a very large area, contains fewer than 100,000 people.  About 10% or 15% of them live in or near Ukiah.  It was a mill town and an agricultural and manufacturing town. Most of that is gone.  There are vineyards in the valley (Russian River) and some other agriculture survives, and still some mill work but not much. 


Jody had contacted (through Zillow) a realtor in Ukiah.  He called back almost immediately.  His name is Clint Hanks, no relation to Tom, but is really nice, really honest, and very knowledgeable about the area.  He volunteered to show us around, and set us up on an automatic distribution about homes in areas we  might be interested in that were somewhere close to what we were looking for (as if we knew).   

We flew to Sacramento on a Tuesday, on a completely full Boeing 737, and picked up a very warm rental car and headed north on I-5. It intersects California 20, which heads over towards Ukiah.  The ride was pretty interesting, but got difficult as we reached Clear Lake, a huge natural fresh water lake surrounded by lots of vacation type places.  Slow going there. Our hotel in Ukiah was a dump. What can I say, we are seniors and look for bargains.  Our first night we ate at a local restaurant that was a few steps from the hotel.  The steps were warm – Ukiah can get really hot.

The next day (a Wednesday) we were meeting Clint mid-morning, but spent some time driving around the west side of town looking at some of the places he was going to take us to.  We did not attempt to go in, just looked around to get our bearings.  We’re used to seeing newer houses – our neighborhood in Richardson was built in the late 70’s or early 80’s, and most of the communities we’ve looked at have been new construction.  When Clint picked us up, we learned why that isn’t what we would see in Ukiah, or in all of Mendocino County.

The problem is that people who live there would prefer that everything remain more or less the way it is.  Growth is not welcome.  An example would be Lake Mendocino.  This lake was built, by the Army Corps of Engineers, in the 50’s, as a flood control project, and the Army offered the whole thing to Mendocino County for $.01.  They declined, saying they had no plans for any growth that would require that much water.  The lake water rights were purchased by Sonoma County, and Sonoma uses that water to this day.  This no-growth philosophy means that when you look at homes in Mendocino County, you will be looking at a lot of old homes, some of them built before indoor plumbing. more than a hundred years ago  The layouts are all over the place – we saw one home where the master bedroom and bath were in a finished attic, and all the rooms on the ground floor were beautiful but tiny, and the garage had long since been converted to living space.  We saw lots of gun safes, lots of propane tanks, and lots of homes that were on septic systems.  We even saw a couple of homes in Ukiah that did not have air conditioning.

On our first day with Clint, we saw ten houses in Ukiah.  There were a couple that we could have considered.  Prices are insane.  Clint says the first hundred thousand of the price of any house in California is for the weather.  Well, Ukiah is hot.  Not as hot as where we live now (Dallas-Ft Worth) but close.   (By the way, Clint’s phone rings with the theme from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”.  He said it was totally appropriate for real estate.)  Most of the homes we saw were on the west side of town, and many of them were homes built for mill workers 60 or 70 years ago, or more.  Most were well maintained and had been expanded, but each was very particular and had its own history. Some of them were in need of TLC.  All were expensive - north of $450,000.

The next day we left our dump of a motel and drove up to Willitts, another mill town without a mill any more, stopping for a cup of coffee on the way. Willitts has a population of only 4,000 or so, down from 6,000 a few years ago.  No jobs.  The drive from Willitts over to our second destination, the coastal town of Fort Bragg, was only thirty miles or so but took us ninety minutes. The road is very, very winding, with a lot of climbs and descents, and huge trees blotting out the sun.  California has 37 million people, but I would guess five trees for every person.  The drive was difficult and exhausting. I guess the locals get used to it.  Clint said it is easier after dark, because the light is consistent and you aren’t dealing with bright sun and near-dark shade every other second.  Makes sense.

When we finally got out of the woods, we headed north along California highway 1.  Fort Bragg is not exactly scenic. It has a quaint downtown, but a lot of chain motels and fast food places.  We were much too early to check in to our next hotel, but we at least made sure to find it, and then, totally by accident, stumbled on the most interesting park in the town. It is officially part of MacKerricher State Park but it is called Glass Beach.  The ‘glass’ is resulting from the old practice of using the ocean as a city dump.  Old bottles and such are worn down by the sea into interesting pieces.  They no longer dump their trash in the sea.  There is a nice walk along the shore, and the day we were there the wind was howling and it was cold, but clear.  We had fabulous views of the Pacific waves crashing on the rocks, and we had no idea that we would not see much of the sun again, at least along the coast. Fog is prominent on the coast in the summer, and this was our day of no fog – we could see the fog bank, but it remained a couple of miles offshore.  We took lots of photos, and found a place to eat lunch in the downtown area.  We found our hotel and it was a lot nicer than our Ukiah hotel, but we had an amusing little hiccup. The room was kind of stuffy, so I tried to put on the air conditioning, and when I did I got heat.  The room had no air conditioning, but it had windows that open, and the outside temperature rarely reached 60. 

Glass Beach Park

Later, we took a ride up the coast to a winery and bought a couple of bottles.  Pacific Star Winery is worth a visit.

The next day Clint came over to show us around.  He also works in Fort Bragg.  We saw ten more houses, with even greater variety in the age and quality.  There are a couple of subdivisions with more recent construction, and we saw some houses in there.  Prices are really high.  Clint noted that Fort Bragg was a soft market and we probably could get some of these houses to come down significantly.  Apparently, back in the Sixties, a lot of Summer of Love flower children moved up the coast from San Francisco looking for cheap places to live, and a lot of them settled in Fort Bragg.  Now as they age, they need to be closer to medical care. Fort Bragg has a small hospital, but for anything significant you have to go to Santa Rosa, and for serious emergency situations they fly you by helicopter to San Francisco.  There’s only three routes out of there going south.  One is the winding road through the forest over to Willits, and then down US 101.  Another is down the coast past Mendocino and across on CA 128 (winding and narrow) to US 101.  The third is down CA 1 all the way, which would take upwards of six hours.  If you want to travel somewhere international, you might try Sacramento and connect in DFW or LAX, or you might drive to San Francisco.  But you might need a hotel near the airport the night before you leave, or the night you come back, or both.

Downtown Fort Bragg
We are only a few years behind the Summer of Love people who are abandoning Fort Bragg because they are feeling too old, and we love international travel, and have an international airport half an hour (depending on traffic) from our current home.  Coastal Mendocino was not looking so good. Mind you, the real estate agent showing us around is the one telling the truth about the area.  When we were through with the ten houses in Fort Bragg, we gave Clint a gift of one of the bottles of wine we bought at Pacific Star.  He was terrific.

The next day we headed to our third destination, the town of Mendocino.  This was really a mistake. There isn’t much there at all.  What we should have done is to plan our trip with Santa Rosa as the third destination, not Mendocino.  There was really no point in our going to Mendocino, but we enjoyed it anyway. It is a quaint, picturesque, touristy town, with lots of great food and interesting shops.  I don’t know if anyone really lives there, and the official population is around 700.  We looked at a few properties that we identified on Zillow as being close to what we wanted, but they all turned out to be three stories.

Mendocino garden

Mendocino headlands park

Our next stop was Sacramento, just to be close to the airport and not to have to drive 200 miles of switchback roads with a deadline.  We elected to drive down to Santa Rosa for a drive-by, since some of our friends have talked about it a lot. We encountered seriously bad traffic problems at several points along the way.  We located one or two properties, but really didn’t know what we were looking for or at so it was a waste.  We split a really good flatbread pizza at BJ’s Brewery. The drive to Sacramento was a miserable experience, heavy traffic and several crash stop near misses. We were so sick of driving, we ate at the hotel.  It was awful but we didn’t care.

Our trip home was on another totally full Boeing 737.  The flight was delayed on account of weather in Dallas, causing the inbound aircraft to be late.  Rain in Dallas in August is unusual, but it’s better than 107, which was the temperature one of the days we missed by being in Mendocino County. We got home after the evening rush hour was over, so it all worked out.

So, the bottom line is that we did not find our retirement place in Mendocino County, but it sure was fun visiting someplace cold in the middle of August.

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.