Orange Beach/Gulf Shores Life
When retired teacher Mary Wolf first saw Gulf Shores back in 1990, the Michigan native says she realized "the beaches here are a whole new level of beautiful -- it's not just the perfect sand and clear water, it's also the sense of calm you feel when you're near them."
Gulf Coast By The Numbers:
Population: 5,889 / 6,661
Median home cost: $294,600 / $254,800
Cost of living: 17.6% / 11.2% higher than average Unemployment: 8.4% Source: Sperling's Best Places
The beach towns of Orange Beach and its neighbor Gulf Shores offer 32 miles of white sugar-sand and emerald-green waters. But these Alabama beaches are far more affordable than some Florida retiree hotspots just to the south. The cost of living in Gulf Shores is just 11.2% higher than average, compared to 109% higher for Palm Beach and 36.4% higher for Boca Raton.
And life here is more laid back than in those places, residents say. "The vibe is casual -- you don't get dressed up to go anywhere," says Joanie Flynn, the vice president of marketing for Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism. (Just beware: The area can feel overrun with tourists in the warmer months.) There's also a lot to do outdoors in this area, especially for fisherman. The reason: Orange Beach has one of the largest recreational charter boat fleets on the northern Gulf Coast; one of the most expansive artificial reef programs in the country; and the Gulf State Park Pier, one of the longest fishing piers in the area. All of this makes the area popular with fisherman and excellent territory for catching red snapper, Spanish mackerel, grouper and marlin. Plus, there's inland fishing -- as well as kayaking -- in the bays and waterways that crisscross the area.
Retirees will also find nine golf courses, including the two Arnold Palmer courses that make up Craft Farms; and Kiva Dunes, which Golf Digest named the best course in Alabama.
Volunteerism is popular here, especially as it relates to nature, says Flynn. Popular initiatives include helping save the area's sea turtles by moving nests that are in danger away from the water and "bird banding," where volunteers work with researchers who put markers on local birds so they can help track the population. Retirees also like that there's a regional medical center in Foley, which is just north of Gulf Shores. There are also plenty of other retirees, especially in the winter, as the area attracts a lot of "snowbirds" who spend part of the winter in the South and summers elsewhere, says Flynn. For Wolf, the areas' snowbird status is a big plus: "We get to see our friends from Wisconsin and Michigan a lot because so many of them are snowbirds," says Wolf. "It helps us stay in touch."