Where The Snowbirds Fly

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January 31, 2013

by David & Ritsuko Robinson

Every autumn, instinct drives millions of birds south to wait out the winter. Think Mother Nature has the right idea?

Something more than instinct drives a different bird south to escape the cold—“snowbirds”, who pull up stakes and flee the snow, sleet, rain and cold up north to winter in a cozy RV at any warm roost they choose. Snowbirds can gaze at the stars, both celestial and celebrity, in Southern California. Or enjoy the character —and the characters—of far-south Florida or make friends with next-site neighbors down where Texas rubs broad shoulders with Mexico. In the dry and sunny Southwest they can explore deserts, hike mountains and watch the quirky roadrunner earn its name.

If the snowbird life appeals to you, make reservations months ahead and expect higher rates on islands and other places where land is limited. Try a new adventure each winter or settle on a spot you like and enjoy reuniting with friends year after year.

The choices are endless, so let’s look at four of the best, starting in the west.

Palm Springs, California
“We put perfect on the map,” says this desert gem. “The palm of God’s hand,” said the Agua Caliente Indians. Do they exaggerate? Let’s see. Agua Caliente means “hot water,” and here it bubbles out of the ground to create an oasis and a cluster of spas to refresh body and soul. To delight the eye, a mountain tramway wafts visitors 8,500 feet into the sky, from desert to alpine forest, in gondolas with rotating floors so everybody gets to gasp at the views. To erase the centuries, Jeeps and horses take visitors deep into Tahquitz Canyon, one of the famed Indian Canyons once closed to outsiders. To fatten—or flatten—the wallet, casinos offer gaming that rivals the best of Vegas. To please the pickiest snowbird, RV parks and resorts proffer a grab-bag of palm-shaded amenities and a dry, gentle climate. To curry the culture vulture, there are museums ranging from art to airplanes, world-class film festivals, modernist architecture, and a downtown atmosphere that evokes old Mexico with its tiled enclaves and mission-style shops. And to make graying seniors feel like college seniors again, the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies delights sellout crowds with big-name stars, rollicking hilarity, and leggy lovelies all over 55. To sum up, it doesn’t take a genius to see why Albert Einstein and a galaxy of movie stars, millionaires and celebrities from around the globe have come here to relax and renew. Perfect? Some say that’s an understatement. Visit palmsprings.com. for more information.

Mesa, Arizona
Some like it dry, and this Sonoran Desert oasis is for them. You may see a sifting of snow, but most days the sun will tan you—and bake you if you arrive before mid-October. After that, you can spot the snowbirds; they’re in shorts while heat-hardened locals are in sweatshirts. RV parks and resorts abound, and so do golf courses, tennis courts, Indian casinos, dude ranches, boat rides—yes, there are lakes in this desert, and maybe still some gold in the Superstition Mountains that loom like a dramatic backdrop to the east. Explore those mystical peaks on wheels, saddles or hiking boots, then tour a mine or ghost town to glimpse Mesa’s not-too-distant past. Step farther back and meet the Hohokam who lived here 2,000 years before you; their name means “those who are gone” but they live on in museum exhibits and archeological digs. Hook up and hunker down in one of the great RV roosts on Mesa’s eastern fringe and you’re in rockhound heaven. One lady tapped a desert rock and got a dull musical note, so she assembled a full octave and wowed her friends with rock concerts. But the west ain’t wild, podner, as you head through Mesa into the sprawling Phoenix cityscape to shop in trendy boutiques, take a college course, or to enjoy a Broadway show or a Beethoven symphony. Stay until March and you can cheer baseball’s Chicago Cubs in spring training. For things to do, Mesa is anything but a desert. Visit visitmesa.com. for more information

South Padre Island, Texas
Well named; much farther south and you’d be in Mexico. And you should be; it’s a side trip not to miss when you’re wintering on the southern tip of this long barrier island. To the north stretches a National Seashore with more than 80 miles of world-renowned beach almost as white as the snow you left behind. But you’re no snowbird here; the locals call you a “Winter Texan,” and they welcome you with a beach party, a chili cook-off, even a Winter Texan Appreciation Week. Fly south early and you can catch Sandcastle Days in October and the International Music Festival in November—plus summer’s leftover heat, with some days in the 80s. Later you’ll bask in the 70s with an occasional chilly day to remind you of what you escaped. Fishermen say those cold breezes make the great fishing even better, and many restaurants will cook your catch for you. Dolphins frolic near shore, so close and watchable that many have names—Can Opener, Nacho, Twister. Wild, free and protected by law, the dolphins of Laguna Madre Bay on the sheltered side of the island inspired the creation of the superb Dolphin Research and Sea Life Nature Center. Let it inspire you before you leave this nature lover’s Eden. That is, if you leave. Some snowbirds never do. So call 1-956-761-CLUB and join Club Padre to mix with locals and Winter Texans in myriad social and cultural events—and then try to leave. Visit sopadre.com. for more information.

The Florida Keys
Pick up U.S. Route 1 and hopscotch down the kite-tail of islands dangling off Florida’s tip. Stop anywhere; each Key is unique, from funky to fashionable. And when the road ends, you’re in the funkiest. Key West is Bogart and Bacall, Margaritaville and paradise, all packed into an eternally warm little sandbox. Packed indeed; reserve months in advance, or you’ll likely backtrack up the Keys to find a site. Finding things to do is easy. For openers, stroll around and people-watch. Harry Truman in an aloha shirt, on break from the White House? Ernest Hemingway munching a mushy conch fritter at Sloppy Joe’s? Treasure diver Mel Fisher, dripping wet with the gold of the galleon Atocha in his bag? Wide-eyed, loud-shirted snowbirds like yourself who just gaped at Mel’s gold in his marvelous museum? Ten minutes on Duval Street and you’ll believe anything—or anyone—is possible. With a winter to spend, you might even find yourself parasailing, deep-sea fishing, bird watching, snorkeling, partying, moonlight sailing, flightseeing, trying things you never thought you’d do. Anything’s possible here, including going broke; with space at a premium, rates run high. But see one sunset from Mallory Square—everybody does, every evening—and hey, who cares? It’s Key West, baby. Visit  fla-keys.com. for more information.

Where there’s four, there’s more. So do some homework. Talk with other snowbirds, get brochures, read reviews on RV websites. And have some fun: Go to Earth.com and get on Google Earth, then under “Fly to” type in a destination—say, Key West, Florida—and you’re there! Find RV parks under the Businesses tab, then zoom in and look ‘em over. Try other destinations. See one you like? Don’t stand there shivering; pack up and fly south, you lucky snowbird!

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