Any city with a six-month rainy season that still draws high marks from happy residents must have a lot going for it. In Bellingham, the list of attributes is long and plays to the wants of many older Americans: world-class sailing, hiking and scenery, a manageably sized city, a cool arts scene and easy access to Canada if things get hairy in the U.S.
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First, the rain: Curtains of misty moisture can sock in for days during late fall and winter. But the average annual rainfall of 35 inches doesn't even come close to the top 10 rainiest cities in the U.S. Bellingham summers are sunny and temperate, with an average of fewer than six rainy days in July and August combined.
The metro area extends throughout Whatcom County (population 187,000), with Puget Sound to the west, the Canadian border to the north, and the Cascade Mountains to the east. Most of the area, including the 14 local golf courses, enjoys a clear view of Mount Baker (elevation 10,778), a popular ski resort.
Bellingham sits right on the sound, where killer whales compete for fish with commercial and sport boats. The town lies 80 miles north of Seattle and 55 miles south of Vancouver, British Columbia — both accessible by Amtrak — in an ideal location for retirees who want urban conveniences without the hassles of city life. Bellingham can feel like a mini Seattle or Portland, Ore., with active, eco-conscious locals and a downtown farmers market.
Unemployment is below the national average, but so are wages because most jobs are in education, government, retail and other low- to moderate-paying sectors. But the cost of living is in the top 10 percent of U.S. metro areas, mostly because of high housing prices.
Locals are highly educated — fed by the 13,800 students at Western Washington University — and opportunities do exist for skilled workers. WWU welcomes adult students, and runs an Academy for Lifelong Learning geared toward retirees.
WWU's College of Fine and Performing Arts keeps the cultural calendar packed. And Bellingham has an active theater scene. The glitziest venue is the Mount Baker Theatre, a restored Moorish movie palace built in 1927 — and the city draws a lot of high-profile touring acts.
Some caveats: Mount Baker is an active volcano, and when it finally blows a tsunami of mud might bury large sections of Whatcom County. Bellingham is also short of hospital beds, and the nearest big medical center is about 50 miles south of town in Everett.
But violent crime is low and life expectancy is high, in part because residents are unlikely to be obese. Nothing like a little extra peer pressure to stay healthy in retirement.