Cape Cod MA or Fernandina Beach FL?
April 24, 2017 7:52 AM   Subscribe

We plan to retire to a single-family house in either Cape Cod MA or Fernandina Beach FL. How to decide? Especially looking for input from people who live or have lived in either place.

My spouse and I (I'm in my mid-50s, he's 62) want to move in the next year or two to an east coastal islandy-feeling place that has either useful biking/walking trails and/or public transportation, that's not too far from Amtrak, that's not too far from a city, and that's got enough progressive/environmentalist/permaculture people that I can make friends, to a single-family home that's 1/2 to 1 mile or so from the sandy beach.

We currently live in central-western NH, about 1.5 hours from the coast. We love our small town but I really want saltwater, the beach, and an island feel. I previously asked this question. We have lived in southern coastal and mid-coast Maine (and house-hunted Portland, South Portland, Falmouth, Peaks Island, etc. about 15 yrs ago) and have ruled out that area, mainly for either lack of a defined town center or just the way it feels to us. We have also ruled out the Boothbay area (which we visit a lot) as being too far from things. Other places we have either lived near, have friends/family living near, have visited, or have otherwise considered and decided against are Lewes/Rehoboth/Wilmington DE, Myrtle Beach/Murrells Inlet SC, Savannah (though fun to visit!) and Charleston, St. Augustine FL, the Outer Banks of NC, any place in Virginia or MD (where spouse and I grew up), CT, and NJ. We don't know much about RI; though I have looked at housing on the coast there for a couple of years online, and watched every House Hunters or Beachfront Bargain Hunt set in a RI town, I can't get a sense of the place.

The two places we are most focused on now are Cape Cod, MA (the elbow area: Orleans, Eastham, or Wellfleet ... possibly parts of Harwich or Brewster) and Fernandina Beach (Amelia Island), FL.

Our pros for the Cape are: The "elbow" and beyond feel like being on an island to me; there is a protected National Seashore there; there are many walking trails on beaches and elsewhere; there is a useful and extensive bike path nearby; there is some public transportation and a regular bus to Boston; it's in New England, with the New England culture I like; there are 4 seasons, which we like; there is Mass. state health insurance that's affordable and about as good as it gets in the U.S. (and I will need it for 10 yrs or so); there are hospitals, stores, restaurants, and other amenities on the island.

Our cons of the Cape are: Mainly, that the prices are almost unaffordable for us -- we would need a small fixer, which is doable for us but limits our house search hugely (and it has to be a house, not a condo, for spouse's reasons); there is way too much traffic getting onto/off the island and still quite a bit of traffic even at the "elbow;" winter tends to be more icy than snowy; the beach, while sandy, is not quite as nice as Fernandina's beach.

The pros for Fernandina Beach (Amelia Island) are: It's very affordable for us for a single-family home with a good yard; there is a greenway walking/bike trail near where we want to live; the beach is great and extensive; there is a real downtown that's pretty nice; I could garden year-round; it's an hour from Jekyll Island, our favourite vacation spot (JI is not workable for full-time living for us now); it's not far from Jacksonville, where there's Amtrak; there are hospitals and other amenities nearby; it's got the Southern culture, some of which I like (the food, mainly, but more). And a friend lives there, in the area where we want to live (we have visited her twice).

The cons for FB: Florida health insurance is not as stable or good as Mass health insurance, IMO; I'm not sure it feels very islandy to me except right along the beach (it does to spouse, though) ... it feels too busy with cars; close-by military bases, major power plants, and the paper mills (which smell) are all off-putting to me; the tap water smells slightly and has to be treated; poisonous snakes and spiders? - I hike and walk in woods alone a lot and love being able to do so with no fear here in northern New England; no winter or snow; there are lots of bugs like mosquitoes (which are minimally or not at all bothersome 11 months of the year here in NH).

If you live or have lived on Cape Cod, especially beyond Yarmouth, or in or near Fernandina Beach, I'd love to know what pros/cons you see in either spot. For example, if either place struggles with good internet connection or providers (we have fiber optic now and love it). Or if the tax situation is absolutely dire for retirees (most places will be worse than NH tax-wise).

And anyone else, if you know of a place we've missed, I'm still open to suggestions. It's difficult to find an east- coastal place that feels isolated and "away" enough while still offering commercial amenities nearby (so that as we age we don't, e.g., have to drive "off island" to get things), and that has a trail system, near Amtrak. But we're determined to find it!
posted by mmw to Travel & Transportation (25 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Just realised I didn't even mention crime, which we essentially don't think about at all where we live now. That's another major consideration for us, feeling safe, not having to lock doors (though we would), not worrying about things being stolen or being mugged, etc.
posted by mmw at 7:54 AM on April 24, 2017

that's not too far from a city, and that's got enough progressive/environmentalist/permaculture people that I can make friends,

It's been my exp in all of Florida (spanning three decades) the further north you are the further south you are. The state is red red red. I'm in a nominally blue county and I can point out half a dozen vicious anti Hillary stickers or signs on my daily errand runs, never mind the Trump and 45 stickers and flags. I've had to report and clean up anti minority graffiti in my own neighborhood discovered walking my kids to school. .
posted by tilde at 8:01 AM on April 24, 2017 [3 favorites]

My inlaws grew up on the cape (more the armpit area rather than the elbow, but still close to the beach). The area is fairly heavily packed during the summer months, especially during the weekend. It's bad enough that my inlaws avoid leaving the cape on a Sunday or return to the cape on a Friday afternoon or Saturday morning. Plus they love the Cape Code Tunnel Permit stickers.

Other than that, the area is very nice.
posted by plinth at 8:11 AM on April 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think you're going to find the Cape a little remote for you and you might want to look at the other side of the bridge? My dad retired to Westport MA which is a little retirement town on the South Coast of MA. I'm not sure I'd suggest there specifically (it's spendy) but the South Coast will get you a lot more in terms of public transportation options and New England culture but also navigable roads and beaches in the summertime. Cape Cod in summer is a zoo. You might want to look at some of the other South Coast towns like Dartmouth, Fairhaven or Somerset or possibly even New Bedford. If crime's a thing I'd say stay away from Fall River even though I think it's a pretty interesting place.

Have you thought at all about coastal NH or that area? I have a friend who lived in Madbury and except for MA health insurance it seems to tick your boxes pretty well. Not ON the coast (so, cheaper) but near enough to it that you're in a coastal area and can bike there.

I understand the appeal of living in Florida and I think you can't underestimate having friends nearby but the state itself politically is actively hostile to left wing politics in many places so you've have to choose your area carefully and still have state-level reps you'd find loathsome.
posted by jessamyn at 8:13 AM on April 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

I have a friend who lives in Ponte Vedra (sp.?) and is not even the most left-wing person and is so utterly disgusted with the political climate in that area that she is seriously considering selling her home and getting out of the area.
posted by DMelanogaster at 8:14 AM on April 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

I lived in South Dennis for several years and my parents still live there. There is a lot to love about the Cape, and it sounds like you will enjoy it much more than Florida. It's true that in the summer, traffic can be miserable, but you get used to planning your schedules around the worst of it. I know a great real estate agent in Dennis who is very knowledgeable about finding properties at the lower end of the market. Let me know if you would like to be put in touch with her. She might not be able to help you directly out on the Outer Cape, but I bet she knows someone.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:29 AM on April 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm curious if you have ever been to the Cape in the winter (or, really, any time between September and May). If not, I would strongly advise you to take a trip there for a weekend (or longer!) before you decide to move there. My grandparents lived in Brewster for the last part of their lives and, while you're right that it can feel packed in the summer (we made a point of avoiding Rt. 6 and 6A during summer weekends), it's quite different in the winter. It's much quieter and, for some people, it's probably too quiet.

I really liked the winter Cape on the occasions that I would go out to visit my grandmother after my grandfather died (I was the only family member who lived on the East Coast), but I liked it in the sense of, "Wow; it's nice to get away to the 'country'" from the city in which I was living. It's a quiet, relaxed pace of life. But there's also not a lot going on. Your desire for Amtrak and a city near by make me wonder if it's going to be too quiet for you. Even in the winter, it takes 90 minutes to drive to Boston, with no Amtrak stations much closer than that.

The year round population of the Cape, while likely not as conservative as northern FL, is also likely to be more conservative that what you're used to (particularly if "central western NH" translates to "Hanover"). My impression is that they're not necessarily "rah rah Trump" conservative, but more like "voting for Republicans is what we do and we don't think about it too much" conservative.

Fast cable internet seems readily available in Brewster.
posted by Betelgeuse at 8:46 AM on April 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

A few folks have already focused on the political climate here in Northeast Florida, and they're right to. I live in St. Augustine, having grown up here, moved to NYC for college in 2000, and moved back in 2015, so can speak with at least some authority on it. It's going to be a little tough if you opt to move here. Not impossible, but a little tough.

I don't really know New Hampshire or the Cape, so can't really speak to the difference between those two areas and here, but I think the thing that's been most difficult for my wife and I, having spent so much time previously in reliably-progressive NYC, is the fact that, in any day-to-day interaction with any white person you don't know, you have to assume that there's a good chance that their politics are backwards and awful and that they stand for things that you find utterly repellent. It sucks, and it's exhausting.

Now here's the thing: that's not everybody down here, and it may not even be the majority of people down here (depending on where you're at), but the fact that it's even something that you have to think about can make interacting with other people fraught and unpleasant, especially if that's not what you're used to. We've met plenty of wonderful people down here who share our political and cultural values, but if you want to find them it takes a little work. I've found that like-minded people will do a little dance around issues when they first meet to feel out whether or not it's okay for them to vent their frustrations or what have you.

I'm late for a meeting so I'll cut this short but my email is in my profile and I'd be happy to speak more specifically on this issue if you're interested.
posted by saladin at 8:58 AM on April 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

My friend's parents recently bought a retirement home in Orleans and their reasons for staying near the elbow seemed smart to me. While they like Wellfleet better and it has more of the political climate you/they enjoy, it's a long hospital ride in the winter from Wellfleet or further out to Hyannis, where the main medical facilities are. That said, Orleans is also a relatively short drive to places like Wellfleet, and if you've been able to handle the political diversity of NH, the year-round Cape population shouldn't be too much of a change for you.

I think one of the things that would give me greatest pause about retiring to the Cape would be the traffic - not just the bridges, but also on Route 6 beyond the rotary. It can be Tough to make a left off/on Route 6 in the Eastham and Wellfleet in the summer. But every place has its tradeoffs!
posted by ldthomps at 9:00 AM on April 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

There might be Amtrak service reductions to Florida, so be careful.

If the "island feel" is important, check out Flagler Beach and maybe the Space Coast (mostly barrier island). Also -- make sure you go there in August unless you plan to snowbird!

But yeah, politics.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:02 AM on April 24, 2017

What were your concerns about Charleston? I think Folly Beach could tick your boxes more than Florida would (weather concerns are similar). Charleston isn't the most progressive place, but there are plenty of liberals and the county is pretty purple.
posted by sandmanwv at 9:04 AM on April 24, 2017

no winter or snow

If this is a "con" for Florida, then I would say definitely stick with New England. The main pro for Florida is the lack of snow (although North Florida can sometimes get chilly in winter, but nothing like NH). If you'll miss the snow and winter, then stay up here in New England.

For the record, I grew up in North Florida, and now live in Massachusetts. I do sometimes miss the Florida beaches, although I prefer the beaches on the gulf side of Florida a lot more than the Atlantic.

But you couldn't pay me to move back down there. I lived down there in the Bush years (George W. as president, Jeb as FL governor), and it was pretty bad, but I'd take Jeb over the current governor, Rick Scott. There's a lot to be said for living in Massachusetts right now, given the national political climate. I visited my home town for the first time since Trump was elected, and it definitely felt different, even if some of that was in my head. Also, be prepared for the whole "It's totally fine and normal to conceal carry a hand gun." Because that's a thing. Also pickup trucks with confederate flags plastered on them, because "history" or whatever.

Also, don't underestimate just how hot it can get down there, and it can often feel like summer is never ending. And yes, the mosquitoes and other insects in Florida really suck. I know some people aren't bothered by this, but I have to say, I love being up in New England where I don't have to worry about a bunch of species of poisonous snakes and also alligators and a million different types of biting/stinging insects. If you stick to the beach, this is less of an issue, but if you want to go hiking or hang around lakes, it's something to keep in mind.*

(Sorry for the rant.)

With all that being said, if you still want to consider moving down to Florida, have you looked at the Destin/Panama City area? I'm not sure what the Amtrak situation is, but the beaches are beautiful there, and you've got some very cute little beach-y towns and shops, but Panama City has some neat things, and an airport.

Still, I would recommend settling down somewhere in New England, and then maybe renting a beach house or something down in Florida for occasional trips down South.

*As a kid, our school or summer camps would regularly take us on field trips to swim in lakes where you could see a bunch of alligators hanging out on the other shore. There was also a resident alligator that lived in the pond in the park a block from my house. I learned to live with that kind of thing, and the chances of being attacked by an alligator or bitten by a snake are still very low, but it is a big adjustment from what it's like up here in New England.
posted by litera scripta manet at 9:04 AM on April 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

On non preview:

I think the thing that's been most difficult for my wife and I, having spent so much time previously in reliably-progressive NYC, is the fact that, in any day-to-day interaction with any white person you don't know, you have to assume that there's a good chance that their politics are backwards and awful and that they stand for things that you find utterly repellent. It sucks, and it's exhausting.

This really captures what I was trying to explain above. This kind of thing may or may not be a deal breaker for you, but it's definitely something to consider.

Also, hurricanes. Not such a concern if you live inland, but if you live on the beach in Florida, then this is another thing to take into account.
posted by litera scripta manet at 9:07 AM on April 24, 2017

I find the binary choice offered to be odd because the difference in climate is so great. Be that as it may,...

As an alternative, I would suggest you might look at the area between Pt. Judith, R.I. and New London, CT. It's oriented to vacation, recreation, and consciousness of the sea. The RI parts have ocean beaches. The CT portion is on Long Island Sound. I think Stonington, CT or Westerly, RI would have most of the "advantages" of the Cape. Amtrak is at least as close, though maybe not with an Acela. The cultural level (meaning access to the arts) is not as good, so you might have to drive 45 minutes to Providence or New Haven depending. The CT nanny state is not as highly developed as the MA one, but then, what other state is? RI is a bit on the economically depressed side, I think.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:27 AM on April 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

Florida has persistent fires, severe storms, and will continue to be very strongly affected by climate change. Cape Cod is also susceptible to hurricanes, not as frequently. I'm not sure how Cape Cod will be affected by rising seas, but I would factor this into any real estate decisions.
posted by theora55 at 9:53 AM on April 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Massachusetts has significantly greater public debt per capita. I know people in Massachusetts quietly heading for the door for this reason.

Slightly OT, but, what the hell - I have friends on all parts of the political spectrum. It saddens me to see that some people find this concept inconceivable.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:01 AM on April 24, 2017

I grew up in Fernandina Beach, and if you're looking for progressive people ... well, look elsewhere. For a very recent and specific example: the annual Shrimp Festival is coming up in a couple of weekends, and a group of folks who had attended the local Womens March applied to march in the parade that kicks off the weekend. They were denied for being "too political" .... but the folks who march just about every year with Confederate flags? Nah, that's just culture/history.

It's a truly beautiful part of the world, and for me no beaches will ever compare. Visit there for sure, but I'd suggest laying your retirement roots down elsewhere.
posted by zebra at 11:14 AM on April 24, 2017

Thanks much for responses so far. They're very helpful.

A few responses: Charleston -- that was one we've visited a few times and I just don't get an island/beach vibe there. Also checked out James Island, Sullivan Island, and farther south, Beaufort, hoping for that feeling. Nope.

We were in Cape Cod in late October, early November, and will be there this weekend too. We also visited in early June (when motel pools weren't even open yet). So there weren't a lot of tourists there any of the times we've been there. And it still felt busy to spouse, not so bad to me out near Orleans etc.

I have friends and family of all political stripes, and actually my spouse and I are pretty far apart politically. But I want a chance to meet people in my routine, daily life who care about the environment and put that concern into action in their daily lives; are uncomfortable with their own racism, sexism, nationalism, prejudices against the South or the North, prejudices against "the other," etc.; are avid readers who enjoy intellectual conversation, the arts, talking about ideas, and who are curious about life. I don't want to feel ostracized or excluded in my (adopted) community. We don't have kids (or therefore grandkids), don't go to church, don't work out at a gym, and we won't be working at jobs, so I'll need a boost when it comes to meeting enough people to find friends.

I visited Destin FL for a week when my sister was there one Feb. and never saw the ocean or even a few feet ahead of me on the beach, it was so foggy. It didn't give me a good impression. Probably unfair.

I have been looking at real estate in Westerly RI. Haven't checked out Stonington CT. Thanks for that tip. Place names help when you're looking at the eastern seaboard.
posted by mmw at 11:38 AM on April 24, 2017

I grew up in Jacksonville, FL and lived most of my life in the south until moving to CT. I love visiting for the beaches, food and weather but I would never move back because of the politics. I loved growing up in the area and always thought I'd move back but now I know I never will. People that seem totally normal and nice will bust out with some crazy racist stuff and they really don't believe it's racist. People I'd grown up with and loved my entire life were posting scary stuff in the build up to the election and it definitely changed the way I felt about the whole area.

Oh yeah, the heat is getting worse. The last few summers we've visited, the temp has topped 95-100 degrees on multiple days with 100% humidity. Also, it gets hot in March and stays hot through September. My dad, who's over 80 and doesn't mind working in the yard in 95 degree heat, says it's even getting unbearable for him. If you love 4 seasons and don't mind the cold then I think you'll be unhappy in Florida.
posted by victoriab at 1:51 PM on April 24, 2017

I love cape cod and don't see any reason not to retire there. It's certainly not cheap but if you're willing to not be right next to a beach can be affordable but still rentable if you want to VRBO out of town for a spell.

You didn't mention Long Island so I will: the North Fork is delightful and has better access to a much cooler city.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 4:26 PM on April 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

I lived in Tampa and spent a fair amount of time on Jekyll and Amelia and they are both absolutely beautiful. However, I have to echo what the above posters say. Politically, it is just not liberal. I didn't find the racism to be as blatant as it was in, say Tallahassee (where I lived for one hellish year), but it is still simmering right under the surface. Also, global warming is making it even hotter (and more muggy and buggy), so if that's not a pro for you, I would consider it a strong con.

I currently live in CT and love it. I find the Cape too busy/touristy for me, but it is gorgeous. Have you considered the Outer Banks in NC? I think you'll find the same islandy feeling and a more temperate climate, though I can't speak to the local political climate. May be too far away from culture, though. I absolutely loved Cumberland island off the coast of Georgia (and the sister islands), though I imagine both the cost and the political climate may be challenging there.

Please come back and tell us what you chose!
posted by widdershins at 5:32 PM on April 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

I would definitely visit RI if I were you and get a feel for the coastal towns there. RI is *tiny* so everything is pretty close to Providence which has the train, and a ton of culture/food/entertainment etc. and also close to the airport in Warwick.

I lived in Providence for close to two decades and spent time in many of the towns in RI, and I think many of them might fit your bill. You can always take a side trip through on your way to CT or the Cape and hit a whole bunch in one day. (Did I mention RI is *tiny*?)
posted by stagewhisper at 6:20 PM on April 24, 2017 [3 favorites]

Yeah look at Narragansett, RI. You might get lucky there.
posted by vrakatar at 11:17 PM on April 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Cape is a wonderful place to spend time, but in the summer it's packed with people like me (i.e., tourists) who must make the place pretty un-liveable for locals. I know some people in Osterville and Eastham, and they like the sense of community among the year-rounders, but it does get quiet when the snow flies.

In addition, you are stuck out there on weekends when the road turns into a parking lot. And at the "elbow" you don't even have the ferries to Boston that, say, Provincetown has. If you like that peace, then the off season will be great for you -- just know that you buy it with five months of idiots like me. :7)

I don't know Florida well so all I can say is: no "palmetto bugs" in New England. *shudder*

I live in northeastern Rhode Island, and I would suggest you look at one of the south shore towns. They're very close to Providence, and just a few hours from Boston or New York City -- but many feel very local, and they just don't get swamped like the Cape does.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:44 AM on April 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thanks again. I meant earlier to also thank jessamyn for the names of south coast towns. Not sure they will be islandy feeling, and we both really do want something rather isolated and remote feeling, but I will at least check them out online.

You all have also inspired me to re-open the coastal RI search and maybe even to visit the tiny tiny state :-) Westerly and Narragansett have been on my search list previously. Are there other towns I should check out?

We're headed to Cape Cod tomorrow and that visit might make things clearer. Will report back.
posted by mmw at 1:21 PM on April 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

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