Weathering Winter, Sunbird Style

There is no one right way to be a sunbird. The key is thinking about what you like to do, what you can afford, and what you need. Know these things, and you will find the right path to fly south in winter.

Let’s face it: It’s cold and wet here in the winter. Mother Nature’s chill is once again firmly entrenched in the Pacific Northwest. Those of us who wallow in our woolies are in our sweet spot. But for some of us, escaping the dark and damp for a drier, sunnier spot is a necessity.

Thinking about flying south for the season? Kathy Edris is a Seattle-area resident who, together with her husband, Jim, has been spending about six months in Oro Valley, Arizona, for the past few years. She recommends that people ask themselves some questions before deciding where and how to head south.

For example: Do I prefer an urban, suburban, or rural location? Do I want to make new friends, be part of a certain type of community, or am I looking for solitude? How do I want to spend my days and evenings? What is my budget? Do I need to be close to specialty medical care? For Jim, being able to ride his road bike every day is his top priority. And for Kathy, finding a group of friends with whom she could run is what she needed to feel at home.

The “where” debate can be a big one. Perhaps the usual destinations come to mind: Phoenix, Tucson, Palm Springs, or even Miami. All are well known for receiving Northerners with open, sunny arms. Each has a plethora of places where temporary dwellers can live and enjoy the outdoors. But maybe you are looking for a winter nest off the beaten path, somewhere less urban, or perhaps even near a little snow—as long as you don’t need to shovel it. Here are a few spots in the Southwest that might fit the bill for you. Climate information and average prices for a two-bedroom home or apartment are from weather.com and BestPlaces.net.

Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

Just the name Truth or Consequences elicits intrigue from potential visitors. The town of approximately 6,100 people changed its name in 1950 in response to a challenge from the game show called Truth or Consequences. Its host encouraged places in the U.S. to change their name in honor of the show’s 10th anniversary—and Hot Springs, New Mexico, rose to the occasion.

Truth or Consequences, or “T or C,” as locals call it, appeals to the quirky. This reputation may be based on its brightly painted architecture, or it could be from its focus on the healing arts, which include the town’s abundant and popular geothermal hot springs. The town’s vibe is a hybrid of retro and futuristic. David Pike, a writer who grew up in Truth or Consequences, describes it as a great place to slow down.

Number of sunny days per year: 290 (double that of Seattle)

Average January low/high temperatures: 57/28 degrees

Average rental: $672

Key activities: geothermal pools, fishing, hiking, exploring ghost towns, visiting historical Native American dwellings, geology.

Las Cruces, New Mexico

For sunbirds looking for a somewhat larger landing zone, Las Cruces may be just the ticket. A town of about 100,000, Las Cruces has a thriving arts scene and a robust seniors program, and it’s close to unique places to explore in nature.

One resident of Las Cruces describes it as “down to earth.” Unlike some of the more common sunbird sites, Las Cruces is not thought to be fancy or posh. Like Truth or Consequences, it is considered an affordable place to live and prides itself on its economic and ethnic diversity.

Number of sunny days per year: 294

Average January low/high temperatures: 59/29

Average rental: $732

Key activities: Bird watching, biking, semi-weekly farmers and craft market, White Sands National Monument, symphony, ballet, outstanding Mexican food.

Yuma, Arizona

With a true desert climate that’s the flip side of winter in the Puget Sound, Yuma is tucked into the southwestern corner of Arizona just across the Colorado River from California. The city’s population of just under 100,000 nearly doubles in winter as seasonal residents arrive.

Yuma’s historic Main Street has lots of restaurants, an active arts scene, and plenty of local shops. If you’re in the market for some bargain dental care or new eyeglasses, cross the border to San Luis Rio Colorado about 30 miles away, where medical tourism is big business. Mexico’s Sea of Cortez is just over an hour’s drive farther south, so you can enjoy beach days during a desert winter, too.

Number of sunny days per year: 308

Average January low/high temperatures: 70/46

Average rental: $885

Key activities: Birdwatching, bicycling, off-roading, fishing, golf, RV living, medical tourism to Mexico, historic sites, Arizona Winter League baseball.

Desert Hot Springs, California

More affordable and working-class than nearby towns like Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs has lovely winter weather (though it can get windy) and views to match. There really are hot springs, too, with day spas galore and a growing influx of winter visitors—especially from Canada—who want to enjoy the waters.

Desert Hot Springs’ year-round population is about 26,000, but it’s part of the Coachella Valley, with about 350,000 people. The region is a good choice if you like plenty of restaurants, shopping, and entertainment options. But it’s not hard to leave the hubbub behind for natural wonders like Joshua Tree National Monument and Mount San Jacinto State Park, where you can go snowshoeing if you miss winter too much.

Number of sunny days per year: 271

Average January low/high temperatures: 71/45

Average rental: $880

Key activities: Mineral spas, golf, hiking, RV living, birdwatching, bicycling, trail rides, Native American heritage, Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to Mount San Jacinto.

If one of these domestic destinations doesn’t sound like the right fit, you might keep heading south. Mexico is easy to navigate and has myriad opportunities to enjoy a multicultural community. Many Americans flock to the artistic Pacific Ocean town of Todos Santos on the Baja peninsula in winter. Others seeking a genuinely Mexican town enjoy San Miguel De Allende, a historic and creative enclave in the mountains of Central Mexico.

There is no one right way to be a sunbird. The key is thinking about what you like to do, what you can afford, and what you need. Know these things, and you will find the right path to fly south in winter.

Susan Brandzel is a freelance writer from Bainbridge Island. In high school, she was voted “Most Likely to Be a Talk Show Host.” She subsequently translated her curious compunctions into a vocation that gives voice to the human experience. In addition to writing, Susan is a public health professional and mother to two daughters and a rescue dog from Guatemala. Julie Fanselow provided additional reporting for this article.

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