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Gainesville, Georgia

Picturesque Lake Lanier is one of the biggest draws of Gainesville, Georgia. — Jake Stangel

Gainesville, Georgia

Downtown Gainesville has the sleepy charm of a prosperous southern town, including brick sidewalks and a constantly humming square that attracts shoppers from throughout northern Georgia.

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But lovely Lake Lanier, completed by the Army Corps of Engineers back in 1956, is the area's biggest draw, creating an enormous boating playground that attracts about 8 million visitors a year and provides plenty of chances to powerboat, water-ski, and Jet Ski — not to mention sail, row, kayak and canoe.

It was the lake that lured Carolyn Palmer, 62, and her husband, Gary, 66, to Gainesville; they discovered it when they were briefly transferred there in the 1980s.

"When we started talking about retirement, we both knew we wanted to come back here," she says.

They built their dream house right on the water. "We couldn't believe how far we could make our housing dollars go here in Gainesville — we used to have half this much property, half this much house, and triple the taxes — so this is like heaven."

As avid golfers, the Palmers appreciate the area's 15 courses. Their main joy, though, is taking their boat out on Lake Lanier and tying up to neighbors' boats: "It's such a nice way to socialize and enjoy the scenery," says Carolyn.

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