Where to Retire, November/December 2017
Nearly 500 years ago, European settlers stepped onto what is now Florida’s northeastern coast and decided to stay. Those New World seekers set the stage for a flock of retirees today, who love the history, golf, restaurants and sunshine.
The Gray-STONE CASTILLO DE SAN MARCOS fortress keeps watch over Matanzas Bay in St. Augustine as it has for centuries. Built by the Spanish between 1672 and 1695, the Castillo is the oldest masonry fort in North America. Its high walls and bastions safeguarded Spain’s New World treasures from looting by pirates. From the gun deck atop the structure, visitors looking east can see Anastasia Island across the water, home to St. Augustine Beach. Look west toward land and the city’s historic district unfolds.
St. Augustine is America’s oldest continuously European settlement, a result of the 1565 landing of Pedro Menendez de Aviles with his 11 ships and 2,000 people. He named the nascent village St. Augustine. Juan Ponce de Leon had arrived earlier in 1513, landing somewhere in present-day St. Johns County between Ponte Vedra Beach in the north and the St. Augustine area in the south. He had christened the region La Florida.
While explorers came in search of gold, pre-retirees and retirees seek the county’s other riches: 40 miles of beaches, plentiful golf courses and restaurants, many history lessons, a variety of housing options often at lower prices than in South Florida and mild weather in fall, winter and spring.
“A lot of people want to be close to the beach or on the waterfront,” says Frank O’Rourke, a broker with the St. Augustine Real Estate Co. “St. Augustine also has the historic area for people who want an urban experience where you can walk everywhere.”
Lana and Phil Kriss spent three years researching and visiting destinations before moving here in 2016 from Springfield, IL. They chose Del Webb Ponte Vedra, an active-adult community in the master planned city of Nocatee, 20 miles north of downtown St. Augustine and 30 miles southwest of Jacksonville.
The Krisses had looked at Phoenix; Nashville, TN; Wilmington, NC; Sarasota, FL; and the Florida Gulf Coast. “When we came to Nocatee and Ponte Vedra, we just knew it was the right place,” says Lana, 62, a retired elementary school teacher. Nocatee, with more than 5,000 households in 18 neighborhoods, is projected to have 12,000 households upon completion.
Phil, 61, a former marketing manager, say the couple’s home is 3 miles from the beach. “The topography is a beautiful combination of Florida palm trees and the long skinny pines you see in more northerly areas, and we’re in a master-planned community,” he says. “And Nocatee is not a tourist area, so we don’t have to deal with crowds.”
Del Webb Ponte Vedra, near a multitude of golf courses, has a golf league. “Our golf ‘czar’ determines the club and the times,” Phil says. “It’s better than having to play the same golf course over and over.”
Home owners enjoy free admission to the neighborhood’s splash park, which has several slides and five pools. A spray park with misting equipment is coming soon.
At the Anastasia Club, Del Webb Ponte Vedra’s 39,911-square-foot clubhouse, members gather at the pool, gym, café and billiards room as well as in club meetings. “The first club we joined was the wine club,” Lana says. “Through that and through Zumba, pickleball, line dancing and exercise classes, we’ve made many friends. Our neighborhood has monthly get-togethers and the women also try to meet once a month.”
Nocatee has some growing pains, as do all new communities. “We’d like to have more retail shopping, but that’s coming,” Phil says, adding that restaurants are opening frequently as well.
History and fun draw folks downtown. Locals and tourists stroll the historic area, especially the pedestrian-only St. George Street. The Oldest Wooden School House, a red cedar and cypress structure dating to the 18th century, is on the street as well as cafes and souvenir, T-shirt and craft jewelry shops. Columbia Restaurant, a well-known Spanish eatery, is a frequent favorite and Whetstone Chocolates of St. Augustine sells tempting treats.
Winding through the streets is the Old Town Trolley, which combines hop-on, hop-off service with bits of history. Walkers enjoy the promenade along the waterfront.
The region’s architecture, inspired by the Spaniards, is noted by experts as some of the nation’s most significant. The cathedral of St. Augustine, constructed by the Spanish between 1793 and 1797, was destroyed in an 1887 fire, but was rebuilt under the direction of New York architect James Renwick Jr. The cathedral is a National Historic Landmark.
Business magnate Henry Flagler also left an important imprint on the city. Enamored of Spanish Renaissance architecture, Flagler commissioned the luxurious Hotel Ponce de Leon – sweep of steeples, arched loggias and red-tiled roofs. Opened in 1888, the structure now houses Flagler College. He also commissioned the Spanish Renaissance-style Grace United Methodist Church, dedicated in 1888, as well as the 1888 Alcazar Hotel, now the Lightner Museum, a showcase for decorative 19th-century furniture and art.
Not far from these downtown treasures is another active-adult neighborhood: Villages of Seloy, which drew Roger Dickson, 69, and Janis Gregg, 62, form Harrisonburg, VA, in 2016.
The development’s location as well as its design and accessibility were prime selling points. “We’re five minutes to the beach, five minutes to downtown and just off the interstate, so it’s easy to travel, but we do not have Jacksonville’s sprawl,” says Roger, a retired health-care consultant. Also, Orlando is 110 miles south. “Sometimes, if we have company, we go with them to Orlando and the theme parks.”
The neighborhood’s 3,000-square-foot clubhouse serves as a community hub. I swim every day at the pool,” says Janis, who works part time as a health-care consultant. “I also do Zumba and take tai chi. We’re part of a group that plays pickleball at a nearby park.”
For sun and surf, Janis and Roger drive to Anastasia State Park. “The beach is calm and beautiful,” Janis says. The park’s 1,600 acres feature 4 miles of sandy shores edged by dunes and tidal marshes, popular for paddling kayaks. The Ancient Dunes Nature Trail winds through a maritime hammock.
The couple enjoy eateries on St. Augustine Beach. “Mango Mango’s has the best coconut shrimp and sweet potato fries and Hurricane Grill and Wings has the best burgers,” Janis says.
Panama Hattie’s, another St. Augustine Beach restaurant, hosts trivia nights, which lured Kevin and Gwen Kincaid. The couple moved to St. Augustine from Clifton, VA, in 2015. “We wanted a small town near the water with good restaurants that we could walk to. There’s no traffic here. It’s very laid-back,” says Kevin, 57, a retired firefighter who works part time as a medical escort. Their house is on the so-called Golden Mile, referring to the section close to restaurants, the fishing pier and farmers market.
The area is vastly different from Virginia’s Fairfax County, says Gwen, 61, a former nurse. “This is a small community,” she says. “Here people are more relaxed. We walk our dog every morning and people stop and say hi. On Wednesdays, there are Music by the Sea concerts. A band plays and the restaurants serve small meals. That’s just one of the things that draws everybody together.”
The Kincaids have learned to play golf with guidance from a pro at the Royal St. Augustine Golf and Country Club. They also bike and kayak in an inlet of Matanzas Bay near the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum. The lighthouse, completed in 1874, has been restored to its 1888 appearance. Guests can climb the black-and-white tower’s 219 steps for a sweeping view, visit the Victorian-era Keeper’s House and hike nearby trails.
“St. Augustine Beach is a community-oriented place,” says Kevin, who volunteers with the St. Johns County Council on Aging and the planning and zoning board. An agency called St. Johns Volunteers matches people with positions. “We work with more than 30 organizations,” says CEO Carol Saviak.
Both Jacksonville’s University of North Florida and St. Augustine Flagler College offer adult-education programs. The University of North Florida’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute schedules about 350 classes annually, from single sessions to outings to 14-week programs. “Our field trips vary,” says Jeanette Toohey, OLLI director. “We had a civil rights tour of St. Augustine. We did an overnight in Cumberland Island. In the fall, we’re going to Brunswick, Georgia, to explore the shrimping industry. We’ll hear from scientists and go on a shrimp trawler to help sort the shrimp.”
Flagler College, which sponsors some 120 continuing-education courses each year, adds to the city’s “interesting mix of youth, culture and tourism,” O’Rourke says.
This was part of the attraction for Chip and Susan Caray, both 52, who relocated here from Orlando with their four children in 2016 as part of a pre-retirement move. The Carays frequently visited and enjoyed St. Augustine on getaways. Susan is a graduate of Flagler College.
“We wanted to downsize and get off the big-city treadmill,” says Chip, television broadcaster for the Atlanta Braves baseball team and grandson of famous Chicago Cubs sportscaster Harry Caray. “We wanted to move while we still have time to enjoy it. This will be our house for now and for the future.”
The Carays restored a house just outside the historic district within an easy walk of restaurants and shops. “St. Augustine is a combined college, beach and tourist town. Where else can you find a cocktail for $6 and fresh seafood at reasonable prices?” Chip says. “There’s a variety in dining. You can find funky, cigarette-smoking, rock ‘n’ roll bars as well as inexpensive beach eateries and fine dining at Cellar 6.”
The frequent tourists don’t bother Chip. “They are the reason I can enjoy all that St. Augustine has,” he says. “We get big-time musical acts at the amphitheater and we have a tremendous arts scene and terrific restaurants.”
The 4,000-seat St. Augustine Amphitheatre hosts concerts, as does the indoor, 450-seat Ponte Vedra Concert Hall. Some 30 galleries participate in the city’s monthly First Friday Art Walk. The Limelight Theatre stages community productions of musicals and plays. The volunteer St. Augustine Orchestra performs at various venues and the St. Augustine Ballet produces two classics annually.
Retirees have found ample medical care. “I had cataract surgery with the Eye Center of St. Augustine and it was a good experience,” Roger says. Flagler Hospital St. Augustine is here, and Jacksonville has the Mayo Clinic and the Baptist Medical Center Jacksonville.
Potential residents need to weigh the threat from hurricanes. “We had considered hurricanes, but the direct hits were about every 14 years or so. In 2016, it was the first time in many years that a major storm, Hurricane Matthew, hit St. Augustine. We had no damage,” Keven says.
Lana and Phil also lived here during Hurricane Matthew. “We were impressed with how the authorities dealt with the hurricane and preparedness,” Phil says. “There was no damage to the structure of our house. We are in a non-evacuation, non-flood zone.”
The Krisses’ friends in Springfield ask them all the time: “Are you coming back to Illinois?” “We aren’t,” Lana says. “We have no regrets. We like it here.”