Flee frigid north and head to Florida

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For six years my parents debated fleeing the frigid Mid-Atlantic winters to become southern snowbirds.

One year, they rented a pet-friendly beachfront condo in Gulf Shores, Alabama. Their month-long stay in Gulf Shores was a learning experience that helped them define what kind of snowbird nest they were—and were not—looking for.

They quickly discovered that pet-friendly rental options were few and far between, and that, like the temperatures, the further south they searched, the higher the rental rates climbed. Which is how they found themselves on a beautiful beach in ‘Bama in the quiet town of Gulf Shores. But, when I visited that February, the area was experiencing one of the coldest winters it had ever had, and they only way to sit comfortably on the beach was to bundle up in layers and huddle beneath a blanket.

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Also, in Gulf Shores, my parents were not staying in a community designated for seniors and, as renters, they found their transient status made it difficult to connect with other people and form meaningful relationships with their neighbors, many of whom were also short-term renters.

Enter The Villages: a booming retirement development in north-central Florida that is widely acknowledged as the fastest-growing small city in the U.S. According to toughnickel.com, in the decade between the 2000 and 2010 United States Census, The Villages experienced a population increase of 43,109, reflecting a whopping 517.33% growth. By 2017, The Villages had grown to just over 60,000 households and 115,000 residents; the place even has its own zip code!


To entice potential new residents to The Villages, a “lifestyle preview” is available. For $99-$199 per night based on season and availability, the curious are invited for a 4-7 night stay to “experience what life could be like living in The Villages.” During this stay, visitors have full access to all village amenities and activities including swimming, golf and pickleball while staying in a “private, fully furnished cabana complete with golf cart and bikes.”


Considering it a mini-vacation as well as research, my parents took advantage of this preview on several occasions. Twice they put a contract on a house, and twice they backed out; mainly due to the deeply ingrained feeling that “Maryland is home” and not wanting to leave their kids and grandkids.

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But as the grandkids became teenagers and started to head off to college, the allure of sunny skies, warm temperatures, a social senior community and a more active lifestyle continued to grow. This year, the timing finally seemed right.


In October, my parents officially headed to The Villages as “trial” snowbirds. Though the cost of living in The Villages is above average for the USA—mainly due to the cost of housing, with $268,600 being the median home price in The Villages—careful financial planning and the benefit of a lifetime of disciplined saving and sacrificing enabled my parents to make this leap while still keeping their Maryland home. For now. This key safety net—the fact that they can still return to their home if they decide Florida is not for them—helped to give my parents the courage and peace of mind they needed to go for it.

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Earlier this month, my oldest daughter and I traveled to The Villages to spend three days with these newly minted snowbirds. Located in Sumter County, The Villages—which covers 32 square miles and includes approximately 90 miles of golf cart paths—is located approximately 20 miles south of Ocala and 45 miles northwest of Orlando. Though still growing, there are currently about 78 different villages within The Villages that range in size from about 100 to 1550 homes.

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As an age-restricted community, the general rule is that there must be at least one person aged 55 or older living in a household. But, overall, The Villages simply requires that 80% of their residents be over 55. People under the age of 19 are not permitted to live in The Villages unless a special exemption has been granted, however there are a few subdivisions that have been designated as “family units” in which the age minimum does not apply.

From what I saw and experienced in The Villages, the residents definitely seemed to skew toward the younger side of the senior spectrum. Or perhaps it’s simply indicative of what healthy living and abundant sunshine can do for a person.


Editor’s Note: This column is the first in a two-part series on The Villages, Florida



There’s no such thing as bad weather


Several years ago, when I was training for a late November triathlon, I was out for a long run on a cold fall day. Temperatures had dipped into the thirties and the smell of wood smoke filled the air as nearly every chimney had belched to life beneath the damp, gray sky.

As I ran, sweating, down a residential road, a man dressed for a blizzard—in a thick down coat and a wool hat, gloves and a scarf—wheeled his trash and recycling bins to the curb and asked, “A little cold for that today, isn’t it?”

I remember smiling and offering some sort of neutral reply along the lines of “it’s not so bad,” or, “it actually feels good,” while recalling a key phrase from one of my running or triathlon training guides: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear.” Truer words may never have been spoken.

Recently, I stumbled upon a book of a similar title: There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather: A Scandinavian Mom’s Secrets for Raising Healthy, Resilient, and Confident Kids (from Friluftsliv to Hygge). Upon moving to America, Swedish author Linda Åkeson McGurk was shocked to learn that the nature-centric parenting philosophies she’d been raised on were not the norm in the U.S.

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According to an article in treehugger.com, the phrase, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes,” hails from Scandinavia where it’s a common mantra repeated by parents who insist that their children spend time outdoors every day. Even Swedish schools consider time spent in nature and ‘free-range’-type independence to be top priorities.

“Sadly, it’s the opposite in the United States, where the slightest sign of inclement weather is an excuse to stay inside and even good weather fails to lure children out to play,” the site notes.

Treehugger.com adds that McGurk’s book includes the latest research on the importance of outdoor play and the ability of nature to foster overall child development academically, emotionally and physically.

In fact, McGurk writes about “the value of dirt in boosting children’s health and combating the high rates of asthma and allergies that now affect 40 percent of U.S. kids.” She also asserts that letting kids move freely outdoors makes them better at assessing risk, allowing them to learn that “the world isn’t eternally cushioned for every fall, which in turn builds the grit and resilience known to be key to professional success.”


So, as winter descends on the Mid-Atlantic, remember that frigid temperatures does not necessitate a retreat to a sedentary lifestyle in the climate-controlled indoors. For me, the only thing that changes when the mercury dips is that I no longer ride my bike outside; I draw the line on outdoor road cycling when temperatures drop below forty or when there is ice and snow on the ground. To get my cycling fix during the winter, I hop on my trainer, take a spin class, or hit the trails on my mountain bike. Otherwise, I am outside running, walking or hiking as usual.

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The key to winter workouts is to dress for the weather. Invest in a warm pair of fleece-lined running pants or tights to keep your legs warm. For the upper half of your body, think layers: a wicking base layer under a long-sleeve shirt or fleece, topped with a water and wind-resistant jacket. Add a hat, sunglasses, lightweight gloves and slightly thicker socks and you’re good to go. In extremely cold conditions a neck gaiter that can be pulled up over your cheeks and nose is helpful, and don’t forget to wear lip balm and sunscreen: getting a sunburn is something else you can do year round, too!

If there’s snow on the ground, scrap your usual workout routine and pull on a pair of snow shoes or go sledding with your kids; after the thrill of the ride the climb back up the hill, sled in tow, is sure to get your heart pumping. Hiking or walking in the snow is also a great workout, as is shoveling the white stuff from your driveway and walkways.


And if you’re looking for a fun, fresh way to spend time outdoors and stay fit in the winter, head for the mountains and swap your running shoes for a snowboard or a pair of skis. In Carroll County we are fortunate to be less than an hour away from Liberty Mountain Resort, less than two hours from Whitetail Ski Resort and Roundtop Mountain Resort, and within three hours of Wisp Ski Resort, Massanutten Ski Resort and Seven Springs Mountain Resort.