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Test-Drive Your Retirement

En español | Many people thinking about where they might retire use their vacation time to test-drive potential new hometowns — sometimes years before they're ready to make a move. It's a sort of getaway that requires a different, more focused mind-set than your average vacation.

Some tips:

1. Give it time. Plan on staying at least a week to get a good sense of the community.

2. Find a short-term rental. Rent a house or apartment (try sites such as, or so you can experience life in a residential area rather than through the eyes of a hotel guest.

3. Talk to anyone and everyone. Chat up store clerks, waiters and people standing next to you at the post office. Tell them about your interest in relocating, and ask what they like and — this is important — don't like about the area.

4. Visit places you might frequent as a resident. Go to your favorite kinds of spots — libraries, churches, coffee shops — as well as community events. See if you feel comfortable. Retirees often say there was a moment in their search when they suddenly knew a town was right for them.

5. Keep your mind open. You just might bring home the ultimate souvenir: a new place to call home.

Here are six very different places that you might consider for both vacation and, someday, retirement.

Boat Cruising Through Waters near Destin, Floirda, Destinations for Retirement

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Relax on Destin's white sand beaches.

Destin, Fla.

Head to Florida's Gulf Coast, and your golden years might really feel like vacation. The area has some of the best beaches on the continent, celebrated for white, sugar-soft sand and warm emerald waters. You'll also find golf galore, easy offshore diving and a flotilla of charter boats. (The city was founded by a fishing boat captain in the 19th century and still has the state's largest fleet.) Go inland for lakes and sheltered waters for sailing.

While first-time visitors are struck by the city's cluster of condo towers, residents quickly learn to look beyond the crowded spots. They find tranquility at the region's smaller beaches along U.S. Highway 98, and in oceanfront state parks like Grayton Beach and Topsail Hill Preserve.

The area is particularly popular with veterans, many of whom got to know the region while stationed at Eglin Air Force Base and vowed to return after they wrapped up their careers. Although prices aren't exorbitant by Florida standards, home costs do trend above national averages. Still, with no tax on retirement income, the state can feel like a bargain.

Visitors Hike Enchanted Rock State Natural Area near Fredericksburg, Texas, Destinations for Retirement

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Fredericksburg has a small town vibe and is a short drive to San Antoinio.

Fredericksburg, Texas

Tiny Fredericksburg could be the sweet spot of the Lone Star State. Located in the heart of Texas' rugged Hill Country, the town, developed by German settlers in the 19th century and named for the King of Prussia, plays up its European roots. Bakeries serve Old World pastries, restaurants offer bratwurst and sausages, and charming bed-and-breakfast inns line Main Street.

Many visitors also come for the city's extensive National Museum of the Pacific War. Although far from the ocean, Fredericksburg was the hometown of World War II Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz. Nearby, dude ranches offer opportunities to trot through canyon country, and hikers can wander parks like the aptly named Enchanted Rock, where a giant granite dome is ringed by trails.

While retirees must learn to dodge tourist crowds, they choose to stay because of the friendly small-town environment, mild weather and growing foodie culture, with gourmet shops, high-profile chefs and wineries. Big-city services can be found an hour away in San Antonio, and although housing prices are above national averages, Texas prides itself on having no income tax.

Morning Traffic near State Capitol in Boise, Idaho, Destinations for Retirement

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Boise is known for its low-cost and abundance of outdoor activities.

Boise, Idaho

With hiking, rafting and fly-fishing in a downtown greenbelt park, a lively dining scene and rich cultural offerings, it would seem Idaho's state capital has everything a vacationer (or a retiree) could desire. Another bonus: Boise State University, which offers NCAA Division I sports, low-cost adult classes through a chapter of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and a theater department producing high-quality student performances.

The city's high-desert location brings mild summers and winters, so you'll find pedestrians on city streets year round. Outdoor lovers enjoy skiing and easy access to the stunning Sawtooth Mountain Range, while foodies can discover nearby wineries and farmers markets.

For years now, the city has attracted high-tech businesses and relocating Californians, drawn by a laid-back quality of life and a lower cost of living. And potential residents will be glad to know the city's hospitals and medical specialists enjoy a national reputation for service and quality.

Kayaker at Granite Dells near Prescott, Arizona, Destinations for Retirement

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The abundance of outdoor adventures, like kayaking, attract visitors and retirees.

Prescott, Ariz.

This former frontier Gold Rush town continues to thrive more than 150 years after its founding, thanks to a combination of retirees and vacationers — both groups attracted to the town's history, art and scenery. Once capital of the Arizona Territory, Prescott boasts some 800 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, including a few on Whiskey Row, a colorful collection of frontier saloons.

For residents, the main draw may be the city's 5,400-foot elevation, which protects against the usual searing-hot desert summers and yields four moderate seasons. It's easy for golfers, hikers and kayakers to head outdoors most the year, and the city maintains more than 50 miles of trails, with hundreds more in surrounding national forests that are thick with Ponderosa pines. Back in town, museums devoted to Western and Native American art not only attract tourists, but provide rewarding volunteer opportunities for retirees.

Although housing costs exceed national averages, Arizona offers property tax breaks for older people, helping ease the sting. And residents have access to Yavapai Regional Medical Center, one of the nation's top-ranked hospitals.

Bellamy Mansion Museum in Wilmington, North Carolina, Destinations for Retirement

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If you are a history buff or nature lover, you'll enjoy visiting or living in Wilmington.

Wilmington, N.C.

Whether you'd rather stroll the cobblestone streets of a colonial city or wiggle your toes in the sand on a quiet Atlantic beach, this city in the southeast corner of the Tar Heel State could be for you. And the heritage and oceanfront are just a few of the many draws here.

A sizable University of North Carolina campus adds a youthful, creative energy to the city, as does the area's flourishing film industry. Indeed, culture thrives here with a local symphony, a jazz society and dozens of galleries. Since winter is barely a noticeable event, golfers can choose from scores of local courses for most the year, while boaters explore the Intracoastal Waterway. Nature lovers head out to preserves where they'll find scenery and surprises, such as the carnivorous Venus flytrap, which grows in the wild only in this area.

City life thrives on the mile-long Cape Fear waterfront, frequent home to festivals, food trucks and buskers. Even the permanently docked USS North Carolina, a World War II battleship, gets in on the act, hosting evening films and theatrical performances on its deck. And the community is served by one of the state's top-rated hospitals, the New Hanover Regional Medical Center.

Portland Head Light near Cape Elizabeth, Maine overlooking Atlantic Ociean, Destinations for Retirement

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This New England destination is known for its famous lighthouse and amazing seafood.

Portland, Maine

Not everyone heads south to retire. New Englanders and others enchanted by maritime scenery have begun making their way to this handsome Atlantic seaport, a small city with an old-fashioned downtown and homey neighborhoods.

New residents are drawn by the same things that attract tourists and cruise ship passengers. The city is known for such sites as the iconic Portland Head Light, a lighthouse completed in 1791, and the Portland Museum of Art, with works by American and European masters from Andrew Wyeth to Pablo Picasso. Another enticement: plenty of fresh lobster. The University of Southern Maine and other local colleges add to civic life with programming and events open to the community.

As for the weather, there's no denying January and February are chilly (and spring takes its time arriving). But the long winter means plenty of snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, or just enjoying the coziness and quiet of the season. (Locals say the ocean moderates temperatures, keeping the city a few degrees warmer than inland towns.)

And although the Northeast tends to be expensive, Maine is an exception, with prices lower than surrounding New England states.

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