My husband used to proudly declare that we were “four-season people” as we suffered through yet another frosty Canadian winter. While we enjoy cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, we decided to take winter mostly out of the picture the year Tom retired by renting a condo in Mesa, Arizona for 10 weeks. Thus, we embarked on a journey that resulted in a surprising number of discoveries.
We had travelled to Arizona several times in the past, usually for a one-week winter escape. We knew the sunny, dry weather appealed to us and we had found a number of golf courses we liked. We also have several snowbird friends in that area, so choosing Arizona as the location for our first snowbird experience was an easy decision.
The weather in Arizona in the winter turned out to be even better than we expected. Yes, there were a few days of rain but, for the most part, it was sunny and warm with bright blue skies. We quickly distinguished ourselves as winter visitors by wearing short-sleeved shirts and shorts most days. One sunny morning, as we were heading out to the golf course, we saw two people walking their dogs. The first was an older man wearing long pants, a jacket and ear muffs, so we assumed that he was a local who found it chilly. A few minutes later, we saw a woman in capris and T-shirt who likely was a winter visitor marvelling at what a beautiful morning it was… even her dog looked happy!
Because we were in Arizona for a longer period this year, we were able to try a number of different golf courses. There are many golf courses to choose from and good deals can be found any day of the week; in fact, some of the best bargains are on the weekends, when the courses are often not busy. We golfed with three other couples on a sunny Sunday afternoon in January at Painted Mountain Golf Course for only $45 each, which included 18 holes of golf, cart, and a steak dinner. We also golfed with a group of friends regularly on Saturday mornings at a golf course in Gilbert for nine holes of golf and a breakfast special that was only $20 per person. It is still a novelty for us to be golfing in the winter, but being able to golf and find such reasonable rates was an added bonus.
This was the first year we had the opportunity to explore the excellent state park system in Arizona. We began by going on a First Day Hike on January 1st, an initiative promoted across the United States as a healthy way to begin the New Year. We met the Director of Arizona State Parks on this guided hike at Lost Dutchman State Park. We quickly found out what terrific programs they have at their state parks, including a full schedule of volunteer-run guided hikes during the winter months. We purchased an Arizona State Parks Annual Pass that gave us unlimited access to the state parks, including the outstanding Boyce Thompson Arboretum, which we visited a couple of times. We went on a variety of guided hikes and learned about Arizona birds, geology, and the fascinating history of the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine.
Our days were surprisingly full while we were in Arizona. In addition to golfing, hiking and visiting friends, we went to a variety of markets and swap meets and to a spring training baseball game. To get a better understanding of the local history, we went on two historic home tours in Mesa and Phoenix that were fascinating and gave us the opportunity of meeting some interesting local people. We also enjoyed going to concerts and dinner theatres, including the very popular Arizona Opry at Apache Junction. Another wonderful Arizona experience was volunteering at the Waste Management Phoenix Open Golf Tournament.
We found the cost of living in Arizona to be very reasonable. Even taking into account the Canadian-US exchange rate, we still found some excellent bargains on food, alcohol and gas. There happened to be a bumper crop of citrus fruit in Arizona when we were there. There are a few orchards in Mesa where you can buy reasonably-priced oranges, lemons and grapefruit, but the best deal we found were the free lemons that had been picked by a neighbour and left in a bin on her front lawn for people to help themselves.
The only thing about our first snowbird experience that did not work well was the accommodation we rented. The condo, owned by a Calgarian and managed by a local property manager/realtor, was a two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit in a large development in downtown Mesa. Several problems emerged throughout our 10-week stay.
While there are some good rental properties available, the short-term vacation rental market in the US is a buyer-beware market, and it is up to the renter to thoroughly investigate (and preferably check out the rental unit in person) before signing on the dotted line.
On previous trips to Arizona, we had looked at homes in a variety of communities, so we had a good sense of the real estate market for both new and used homes. We ultimately decided we liked the snowbird lifestyle and wanted to spend our winters in Arizona, but we were reluctant to book another rental. While our Canadian dollar was still on the downward spiral, there were definitely some bargains to be found, as US housing prices are still in recovery mode.
We are fortunate to have snowbird friends in different communities in Arizona; some have RVs they drive down from Canada every year, others own mobile homes in large RV parks, and others have purchased houses in newer, as well as more-established, areas. We visited several friends who were kind enough to tour us around their communities and tell us what they felt were the advantages and disadvantages of their areas.
We ended up buying a bungalow-style condo in Leisure World, a well-established gated community in Mesa. With two golf courses and two large recreation centres that offer dozens of activities, we felt it would more than adequately meet our needs, both now and in the future.
The community is in a central location near several of our friends and close to some excellent shopping areas. We took possession March 1 and had a busy but enjoyable month getting our new home in order before heading back to Canada. I admit it was an adjustment, but I am sure we will quickly settle into our snowbird nest when we return in the fall.
OCTOBER 2015 INSPIRED SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE
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