October 23, 2018 — For the longest time we have wanted to explore the western Carolinas and northern Georgia to get a better picture of this popular region for retirement. So for this year’s southern migration my wife and I decided to take the western route, starting out on Interstate 81. What a great trip it was. This reports on the towns we visited in western North Carolina (plus a list of the ones we didn’t to see). In a second installment we visited great places to retire in northwestern Georgia. Don’t forget to see links to our other site visit articles in the “Further Reading” section at bottom.
Even if you are not considering retiring to this area you might find this travelogue a source of good ideas. You could use it for either a short vacation, or as a diversion if you are a snowbird hurtling to and from your summer and winter haunts.
The Planning Begins
We started planning the trip by going through the Topretirements State Directories, looking for towns in the western parts of Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia. Our goal was to find towns that we know are popular retirement destinations but didn’t have much, if any, recent experience with. We wrote those names down and then tried to connect the dots – which ones were reasonable to hit on our drive without going too far out of the way? Which would be good towns to spend the night, and which places would have to wait for another visit.
The format for this article will be a description of the route travelled, and what the towns we visited were like. We include our opinions about what kind of person might like (or dislike) each one. Note this caution: Our opinions and impressions of these potential retirement towns were formed on the basis of short visits. My wife pointed out to me that is a lot like a visitor forming an impression of Key West from a 4 hour visit coming off a cruise ship, seeing only the bars and tee shirt shops on Duval Street. There is usually a lot more to a town that initially meets the eye, and we apologize in advance if we have missed the mark. The best advice is don’t take our word for it, go visit these places yourself and have some fun doing it!
Starting out on Interstate 81, we headed south, spending our first night on the road in Staunton, Virginia (pictured above, use link to find out more). We stayed at the Berkeley Bed & Breakfast, which we would recommend. Staunton was a town on the map that we knew nothing about, it had not been reviewed on Topretirements, and upon investigation seemed pretty interesting. Staunton (pronounced Stant’un) was the birthplace of President Woodrow Wilson. Today you can tour his childhood home, visit the Presidential Library, and see his magnificent Pierce-Arrow sedan. The city, long the economic center of the region, has a very interesting downtown with a great collection of stores. One store is devoted to bass and other stringed instruments, another has an extensive selection of olive oils, and one (seriously) seems to concentrate on rubber ducks. We had a very sophisticated and tasty dinner at Zynodoa, a farm to table restaurant. In the hills above the downtown is the extensive campus of Mary Baldwin University and the Staunton Military Institute. The American Shakespeare Center and Blackfriars Theatre is a huge cultural and economic force in town. The Village at Staunton is a former mental hospital at the edge of town now converted to a large complex of condos for retirees. Our innkeeper reported that retirees are coming to Staunton from all over the country. Some buy stunning old homes in the beautiful hills around town, while others head for places like the Village at Staunton or other 55+ communities in the region.
Who would like Staunton: History buffs, folks who want a small college town, and have a southern experience. If you like mountains, they are nearby.
Crossing over the border to North Carolina in the morning our first stop was Mt. Airy, NC. This was the model for the “Andy of Mayberry” TV series, and Andy Griffith’s imprint and influence are large. The downtown goes for a few blocks and includes fixtures like the Snappy Lunch, the old time Soda Shop, and rides in vintage police cars like the one Sheriff Andy drove. Check out the very friendly visitor center in the center of town for all kinds of info about the area. Mt. Airy has a theatre named after him, the Andy Griffith Playhouse, which features regular community productions. The Downtown Cinema Theatre broadcasts a weekly bluegrass radio concert.
Who would like to retire in Mount Airy. This is one of the more remote places we visited – the people are very friendly, but not much else is around. The streets were filled with working class tourists who are very interested in the TV show heritage. Our impression was that college educated suburbanites might find this a schmaltzy place to retire, as well as feeling out of place.
Boone, named for the frontiersman, was a lot bigger and more interesting than our preconceived notions. When entering it you got the feeling that this was a growing and vital place. Storefronts are occupied with all kinds of different shops and restaurants. Athletic, outdoorsy students from Appalachian State University, along with tourists, throng the streets. There is plenty of parking and most spots were filled. There’s a farmer market every Saturday, but the highlight of the year is a Daniel Boone Days yearly festival with music, food, and storytelling. The 3 mile Greenway Trail is a popular local attraction. The city is the economic hub of the High Country area. On the negative side, traffic was terrible during our visit. Boone has a few active communities in the area but our impression is that many retirees live in single family homes outside of town.
Who would like to retire here: It is a college town with a big college presence, so if you are looking for that you might like it. This is definitely in the Blue Ridge Mountains so it could be great if the outdoors is your thing.
Both Boone and Blowing Rock are on the edge of the mountains so the drive between them has stunning views. It is always surprising to see how tall and majestic these mountains are. Access to the even more spectacular Blue Ridge Parkway comes at regular intervals.
Blowing Rock. Small, but affluent, Blowing Rock offers a contrast from Boone. It has tourists and an active downtown, but is not nearly as jumping. The town and its shops indicate this is a very affluent community. Downtown is very small with restaurants, a nice park and gazebo. There are active adult communities in the area like The Coves Mountain River Club, while other retired boomers live in the beautiful big homes along the mountains above town.
Who would like to retire here: The town is very small and relatively inaccessible, you might find it confining because of it size. Affluent folks looking for small town living will feel at home here.
Just driving into Asheville we could see why this perfectly sized small city in the mountains was the #1 retirement town at Topretirements.com for so many years. Asheville has something for everyone. We confess that of all the towns on our trip, this is the one where we could live. Yet one day after writing this we stayed with friends who had just been to Asheville. On a quick visit they loved the area, but thought the town was dead during the day. They found Hendersonville to be more appealing. In matters of taste, there is no dispute!
Asheville has culture, restaurants, and people of all ages on the street. There is construction everywhere including at the temporarily closed Asheville Art Museum in the very center of downtown. There are many, many places for retired boomers to live. There are downtown apartments and condos with more under construction. There are some suburbs, plus almost 50 active adult or retirement communities. As you pass between the streets you get great views of the mountains. UNC has a campus here. We stayed at the Windsor Boutique Hotel which was very nice and in the heart of downtown.
Who would like to retire in Asheville: If you are looking for a small, walkable, and livable city that is full of positive energy, this is for you. Warning to those who don’t like it, Asheville is hip, and there are plenty of tattoos and tofu.
The next day we left with Hendersonville as our first stop. It has a very long Main Street for shopping that is unusually prosperous and busy. The city planners put in curves and seating areas along the street, including piped in music (not the only town we visited with that), both interesting touches. Hendersonville is a pretty good sized town with many resources and places to live. The former County Courthouse has been extensively restored and converted to a local history museum that is worth visiting.
Who would like to retire in Hendersonville. This area is ready for retirees and it is big enough that people coming from any area would probably feel at home. It is not as sophisticated as Asheville, but it is more manageable (downtown parking is free!)
Our next stop at, Brevard gave us some perspective on retirement there. Back in the day, it was the summer home for wealthy people from the cities and downstate, trying to get away from the heat. There are many beautiful homes from that era. Then it became an important manufacturing center with large companies like Olin having a big presence, although they have since left, leaving retirement and tourism as the economic engines. The town has a 3 block long downtown with nice shops and restaurants. Tom from the Visitors Center was very helpful in explaining the retirement situation; he observed that people retire here from all over the country because of its being named a top place to retire. Connestee Falls is a huge all-ages development outside of town, although most of its residents are retired. Deer Lake is an older development close to town where homes are snapped up quickly by folks looking for one story living and easy access to town. There are some condos in the area but most homes are single family. This area in the Pisgah National Forest is famous for the number of stunning waterfalls – some are easy to see and others require a hike. Hiking is a popular activity.
Who would like to retire in Brevard. The town is decidedly upscale and oriented mostly towards single family homes.It seems like a very pleasant place to live with a very low crime rate.
Highlands. One of the best parts about Highlands was the curvy drive here from Brevard through the Nantahala National Forest. At one point near Highlands there is an awesome lookout spot (marked on maps, be sure to stop) of the mountains in the distance. Highlands itself is a remarkably beautiful and upscale little town. The population swells from under a 1,000 to 20,000 on some fall weekends. The summer and fall are the peak seasons, although we talked with people who have moved here full time because they love it so much. Coming up from Brevard you would not think that there would be a flat spot where a town could exist, but here it is on a plateau. The famous golfer Bobby Jones and his friends created the elegant Highland Country Club. The downtown has a dazzling array of shops where you can buy women’s golf clothes, fancy mustards, and any other type of high end gear. We went to the amazing Mountain Fresh Foods market market on Friday night for their famous steaks. They give out table cloths, sell wine, and the place is mobbed with happy diners. There are also many very fancy restaurants; the Old Edwards Inn and Spa is a sprawling 4 star hotel complex. See the short Highlands video below.
Who would like to retire in Highlands. The town mainly seems aimed at affluent baby boomers who are interested in a cute and tiny town high in the mountains. Golf and other activities loom large, as does shopping and dining.
Towns in North Carolina we didn’t have time to visit
We would have loved to check out Sylva and Murphy, but they didn’t coincide with our route well, they and others will have to be for our next trip. The same goes for Toccoa and Clemson in nearby western South Carolina.
We will continue our travelogue next week with the towns we visited in northwestern Georgia. Hope you find it valuable!
More Retirement Travelogues
Michigan is a Great Place to Retire (2 parts)
Flo’s North Carolina Retirement Trip
Hop on the Jay Michael Retirement Bus (Virginia and more)
What Sandy Learned after 8 Years of Visiting Active Adult Communities
Comments? Have you visited the Carolinas looking for a place to retire, or do you live there already? Please share your thoughts in the Comments section below.