20 ultimate fantasy towns
Tired of the daily grind? Find a slower-paced, stress-free life in these dream towns
Median home price: $306,343
Moved: From Vail, Colorado, to Nelson, B.C., in 2007
Old life: Corporate architect in the fast-paced Aspen-Vail-Denver scene
New life: Owner of a small, green architecture firm (studio9architecture.com)
The aha moment: I was working 60 hours a week, but we were still living in a small condo among the mega-wealthy. My wife, Christy, knew Nelson and talked me into a ski trip. The powder was better than anything I’d ever skied. We went back that summer to sea kayak, and when we returned to our hectic lives, I thought, It can be better. It just takes courage. We put our condo on the market, it sold, and we rolled out of town.
What I gave up: Job security. I started my new architecture firm here from scratch. Also, shopping. When you need, say, a couch, there are just a few stores. And traveling in winter. Flights are canceled; snowplows just can’t keep up. So we hunker down, ski our brains out, and have potlucks with friends. We’re big on potlucks in Nelson.
What I gained: Epic skiing, mountain biking, canoeing, plus my dream house—which I designed and built. In Vail or Aspen, it would’ve cost millions—here we spent $686,200.
Take my advice: The immigration process is fairly straightforward: Have a solid background and a reliable prospect for employment, and it should take only about 12 months.
I knew I was a local when: I started curling. Curling is to Canada what golf is to the States. We get dressed up, drink cocktails, and curl.
Just over the hill from shmancy Woodside, absurdly rural Boulder Creek (and neighbor La Honda) has the open space to keep cyclists, hikers, and horses happy.
Population: 4,923; median single-family home: $379,618
Cowichan Bay, B.C.
A salty seaside village with a burgeoning artisanal food scene, it nabbed a "slow city" designation from Italy's Cittaslow. And with, okay, a somewhat rainy-dismal winter, it's still affordable.
Population: 2,575; median single-family home: $367,600
Vashon Island, WA
Just a 20-minute ferry ride from Seattle, this forested, farm-y land is studded with honor-bar fruit stands, and hosts professionals who are artist-hippies at heart.
Population: 11,000; median single-family home: $400,000
Only 25 miles separate this mountain hamlet from ritzy Jackson Hole, but the crowds (and prices) have stayed low-key. Outdoorsy newcomers mix with ranchers in a town with four organic farms, two microbreweries, and a bike shop run by the former mayor.
Population: 1,928; median single-family home: $189,000
Median home price: $170,000
Moved: From Vancouver, Washington, to McMinnville, Oregon, in 2006
Old life: Preschool teacher in the burbs
New life: Bakery owner (rubycakesbakeries.com)
The aha moment: My husband and I had never been to McMinnville before and went for lunch on the roof deck at McMenamins, the place every nonlocal knows. It was a cold winter day, but cozy, romantic. He was considering a job with a blueberry company here. One visit and, we thought, Yes, let's live here!
What I gave up: Having my family nearby.
What I gained: The ability to walk down the street and say hello to people by name. A house—with character and crown molding—that was cheaper than our new-construction subdivision in Vancouver. A weekly farmers' market that allowed me to try out my gluten-free cupcake and meet my business partner, Amy Israel. She came every week, and one day asked if I'd be interested in opening a storefront. I don't think that kind of repeat interaction would take place in a big city. Now the two of us own a full-on bakery, Ruby Cakes.
Take my advice: If you want to start a business here, finding a niche is important. I don't know if I would've succeeded with a regular bakery; it helped to be vegan and gluten-free. The Saturday market is a great place for people who have an idea and want to try it out before opening a full-fledged business.
I knew I was a local when: I started getting my weekly duck eggs from my neighbor.
Just 75 miles north of San Francisco, with a two-block-long, Wild West--esque main drag, this low-key Alexander Valley town shows no signs of Napafication.
Population: 2,100; median single-family home: $383,367
A handful of small wineries like Boccali Vineyards grow their own grapes here, and lately hobbyists have been buying up half-acres to give it a go too.
Population: 8,150; median single-family home: $595,000
Vineyards? At 6,400 feet? This pastoral town, 228 miles west of Denver and surrounded by peach orchards and huge peaks, cranks out quality Rieslings and Gewürztraminers.
Population: 1,451; median single-family home: $173,721
Twenty minutes north of Walla Walla, it has a tiny Main Street backed by golden hills. There's also a growing handful of new businesses, like the Jimgermanbar, a magnet for classic cocktails.
Population: 1,215; median single-family home: $147,500
Median home price: $250,000
Moved: From Los Angeles to the Big Island in 2007
Old life: Executive producer for a film post-production company
New life: Owner of Puakea guest ranch (puakearanch.com) in North Kohala; lives in Waimea
The aha moment: I was running a post-production company in L.A. and after months of negotiating a complex merger, I realized, Wait, do I really want to be doing this in five years? If not, what do I want ownership in? And then I thought: Hawaii. I've always loved Hawaii. We chose the Big Island because it's the most diverse and feels the least touristy to us. When we found the ranch—a 33-acre former sugarcane plantation with jacaranda and plum trees—we fell in love with it and wanted to share it. There is still magic here.
What I gave up: Friends I'd had since my 20s, amazing restaurants, museums, theaters. There aren't many occasions to get dressed up here, and there is still a part of me that wants to wear my fancy high heels.
What I gained: Motherhood. A 9 p.m. bedtime. An oceanside "commute. " And if you'd told me 10 years ago I'd be a horseback rider, I would've laughed.
Take my advice: You will always be an outsider to folks who have been here for generations, and you may need to work a bit to make friends. I volunteer at my kids' schools, and most of my close friends are other parents or business owners. Respect the fact that you're a newcomer in a place with deep roots, and you'll be fine. Don't speak pidgin!
I knew I was a local when: We picked up our daughter one day after school with surfboards strapped on the car.
The Oahu town is where the Obamas vacation, but for the other 50 weeks, it goes back to being itself: a low-key cross between small town and suburb, with two of the best beaches on the planet.
Population: 50,000; median single-family home: $710,000
With picket fences, cedar-shake buildings, and a cute-as-a-button main drag, Summer-land is like a dose of New England charm ... albeit with palm trees, better surf, and the Bikini Factory.
Population: 1,448; median single-family home: $950,000
Todos Santos, Mexico
Just 50 miles north of Cabo, but worlds away from its sprawling resorts, is this blissful beachy village known for great surf, just-caught seafood, and postcard-perfect sunsets.
Population: 5,148; median single-family home: $195,000
Less than an hour north of Zihuatanejo is Troncones, a one-road fishing village with vacation-esque comforts (yoga, surf camps, even wood-fired pizza at Hacienda Eden). Expats meet at Café Sol.
Population: 700; median single-family home: $265,000
Median home price: $222,341
Moved: From Seattle to the Whitsunday Islands, Australia, in 2009
Old life: Senior design director for Starbucks
New life: Self-employed graphic designer, artist, and painter
The aha moment: When Bush was voted back in office, I said, I'm outta here. My husband and I were both surfers—all we wanted was warm water and waves. So we started plotting to move to Australia. What inspired me about Airlie Beach was the colors of the tropical plants and beautiful clear water. It lets me be more creative as an artist and a designer. There's no surf here, so we took up sailing and travel for waves.
What I gave up: Horrible rainy weather, but also Seattle's supportive design scene. Not to mention city culture in general. Museums. Graffiti!
What I gained: The ability to wear a bikini surfing instead of a wetsuit. Sunny weather. Snorkeling off of my backyard, fresh-caught crab and lobster for dinner, ocean views from my living room.
Take my advice: Have a financial plan. I'd run my own business before and was able to keep a lot of clients in the States while I found new locals to work with. Don't wing it.
I knew I was a local when: I competed in my first regatta. Suddenly I'm a sailor. But I'm not sure I'll ever really feel like a local—Aussies have their own language.
Just 7½ miles southwest of Perth in Western Australia, "Freo" is a bohotrendy, multicultural university port town where you can get fish 'n' chips fresh off the boat or an espresso from the cafes lining the "cappuccino strip," or just lie on the beach.
Population: 28,626; median single-family home: $658,422
The quiet star of the North Island is Hawke's Bay, a world-class wine country five hours from Auckland. Napier is its seaside center, rebuilt in art deco style after an earthquake in the '30s.
Population: 58,600; median single-family home: $225,230
In this coastal community at the top of the South Island, hikers, climbers, and kayakers have three national parks in their backyard, including the famed Abel Tasman.
Population: 42,891; median single-family home: $294,000
Word is finally getting out about the gorgeous little mountain town on the South Island's Lake Wanaka. Outdoorsy, progressive-type folks are moving here for the lake scenery and village vibe.
Population: 5,037; median single-family home: $362,045
2. Take your place for a trial run. Visit your place for at least two weeks, ideally split between winter and summer. '“It’s good to know the very hot and very cold of a place,” says Steven Kaup, who moved from Vail to Nelson, B.C. Before taking the plunge, Steven also checked out how many live performance venues there were (many) and fast-food chains (no McDonald’s, a plus). “This said a lot to me about the core values of the community.”
3. Craft a realistic budget based on your time there. Write down everything you spend while on a long-term stay. Dream towns can have hidden costs. While real estate might be cheap, groceries and gas that have to be flown or shipped in are not. When you visit, shop at local stores to get a sense of what staples cost.
5. Purge your belongings. If you’re moving to, say, Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, or coastal Mexico, chances are your belongings are arriving by sea in a giant shipping container. You don’t want to pay to send more than you need, also keeping in mind what’s right for the climate you’re moving to.
6. Research the job market. Ask locals how important it is to have a job lined up before you move. “Unless you’re starting your own business and following a passion, I wouldn’t come to Hawaii without a job,” says Christie Cash, who moved from L.A. to the Big Island to open Puakea guest ranch. “Most work here is in the tourism industry, though doctors are very welcome!” If you’re currently self-employed, feel out clients to see if they’d stick with you if you made a move.
7. If you’re starting a business, expect to have more than six months worth of savings. “Know how much money it’s going to take to pull it off,” says Christie. “On the Big Island, no VC firm is going to fund your boutique business. We put all our savings into the ranch, but my husband kept his job and commutes to L.A., which pays for our life here.” When Suzanne Haddon, an artist with her own graphic design business, moved from Seattle to the Whitsundays, Australia, she had a year’s worth of living expenses saved. “It took that long to get my design business going, and I didn’t want to have to take another job.”
9. Approach making friends like it’s a job. Join a community organization, whether it’s the local soccer team or the hospital volunteers. If you have kids, help out with school events. And print up cards with your email so it’s easy for new acquaintances to get in touch with you.
10. Give yourself time to settle. If you’re moving within the United States, it can take a year to really feel settled, and longer if you go outside the U.S. Expect to navigate fairly big cultural differences if you move to Hawaii, Australia, or New Zealand.