Lovely Ithaca, New York

It’s time for another vacation so I am on the road. This vacation though serves a dual purpose: some relaxing while checking out various likely areas we would like to live in retirement. During previous vacations my wife and I had sometimes surveyed areas and spoke about retiring there in the abstract. Now we are focusing on specific cities. We have a goal to relocate and semi-retire to one of them in about three years.

The northeast keeps calling us. It calls me because I grew up in New York State. I’m not quite sure why it calls my wife, a Midwestern gal, other than it shares a similar latitude and climate with the Midwest. Our first stop was a night and parts of two days in Ithaca, New York. The city is best known as the home of Cornell University. Ithaca sits at the southern tip of Lake Cayuga, the longest of the glacially-created Finger Lakes in central upstate New York. Cornell is not the only college here. There is also Ithaca College. Ithaca shares one unique distinction in this part of New York State: it is a healthy, thriving and growing community. In a bucolic area full of dying rust belt cities, this makes it stand apart. This is in part due to its educational influence. College towns often tend to attract startups, particularly if the colleges are full of scientists and engineers of premier quality, as is the case with Ithaca. Perhaps because of its liberal values in a generally red and rural area of the state, Ithaca also attracts liberals. The downtown is full of small and independent businesses, mostly boutiques and restaurants, with rarely a chain store in sight. Restaurants of all types can be found in its downtown but nothing that resembles a chain store except a Starbucks. Little Ithaca is now very much a happening place.

Ithaca has all this plus an undeniable charm. “Ithaca is gorges” goes its chamber of commerce bumper sticker, and that’s pretty much correct. There are more gorges and waterfalls in the area than you can shake a stick at. We saw one of them during a high water event caused by torrential rains we passed through.

High water on gorge in Ithaca, New York
High water on gorge in Ithaca, New York

Ithaca is not a city for the vertically challenged, as its hills are steep and challenging. If your intent is to get a good workout the natural way, then it is a natural fit. If you are vertically challenged, it has a convenient and highly available bus system that quickly gets you around not just Ithaca but all of Tompkins County. A car is not actually required to live here, although it certainly makes life more convenient. As we discovered, the bus system goes into apartment complexes out near Lansing and all the way out to Dryden, which is halfway to Cortland. During unseasonable weather many of Ithaca’s physically fit residents will prefer a bike, snowshoes or running shoes instead of a car.

For me, one of the most delightful things about Ithaca is simply that it is so closely connected to nature. Its scenery is spectacular as framed by its numerous waterfalls and anchored by its soothing and beautiful blue lake. It is also fifty miles from where I spent my formative years near Binghamton, so it feels home-like. It has largely the same climate and rolling green hills, just without the vacant buildings and houses with decades of deferred maintenance. It attracts educated people, some of whom live elsewhere but maintain residences out here for a bucolic escape. There are lakefront properties for those into boating but the scenery definitely improves with elevation, which is perhaps the attraction to the Lansing area northeast of the city. Out there you can find a small mall and strip mall retail that dominates the rest of America. Out there are also some surprises: a bird sanctuary that survives under the Cornell umbrella, free to the public with nature trails, an indoor viewing area and a library.

Bird sanctuary near Ithaca, NY
Bird sanctuary near Ithaca, NY

Since we are seriously considering it as a possible retirement location, we hooked up with a local realtor. My brother Tom suggested Ithaca because he graduated from Cornell and loved the area. For me it is largely unexplored territory, with memories of it distant at best. He spent many hours researching homes that met our retirement standards, which amounts to something simpler, smaller and easier to maintain than our current single family house, some place where we could age gracefully before age diminishes us. Ithaca is small enough where a high rise condominium was out of the question, but a townhouse was not. Unfortunately, with real estate so cheap townhouses were almost nonexistent. The few that he found were in newer development and were only townhouses in the sense that one single family house shared a wall with another single family house. In the case of Ithaca, this was a fine option. Mowing and snow removal services are a small fraction of what we pay in the Washington area.

Ithaca townhomes
Ithaca townhomes

The realtor listing a house in one of these areas was more than happy to meet us and show us houses around Ithaca that met our criteria, even though we were years away from relocation. We saw plenty of neighborhoods, as well as single-family house options, before she finally pulled us up to a “townhouse” near Lansing on Stone Creek Drive and took us inside. What we saw inside immediately made us jealous: a glorious, upscale townhouse that was actually bigger than what we currently own, and with a two car garage. It backed to woods. A path took you up to the local mall. There was a beautiful kitchen, a loft overlooking a large living room, a huge master bedroom and both bedrooms had enormous walk in closets. The only downside to the house that we could see was the downstairs. The basement was unfinished, but enormous. All this could be had for less than the value of our current house, and for a house only three years old. We left the place drooling and seriously considering Ithaca as a retirement community.

While the upside of Ithaca is its closeness to nature, its downside is that it makes it far away from culture. As a university city, it is hardly bereft of theater, classical music and the like, but it’s obviously not the same as the quality and quantity we take for granted around Washington D.C. How important this is to us has to be thought through before choosing a new community. Ithaca has so many pluses, including a substantially lower overall cost of living. For those few times a year when we do crave high arts, it would make sense to simply drive or fly to someplace that has it, and pocket the overall savings. Both New York City and Washington D.C. are one hop flights from Ithaca’s regional airport. Presumably in our semi-retired state we would have more flexibility for choosing these dates as well.

Retirement, if you can afford it, is about increasing freedoms and options. It appears that barring some unforeseen event, we will have the opportunity to find out within a few years.


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