By CATEY HILL
With its many festivals and rich cuisine, Louisiana is well-known around the world for its high times -- a big reason some 24.1 million tourists visit the state each year. But for residents, the Pelican State offers so much more, including year-round warm weather and plenty of things to do outdoors. Indeed, short-time visitors may not be aware of Louisiana's reputation for great bird-watching, its fishing trips on the bayou or its 20 state parks.
Retire Here, Not There: State-by-State
Forget your parents' retirement destinations. These less-known gems offer lower prices and peppy economies.
For retirees, the state has an added perk: It's cheap. The median home in the state runs just over $127,000, while the cost of living is 11% lower than the national average, according to Sperling's Best Places. Even Louisiana's pricier cities like New Orleans and Lafayette fall below the average -- making it a great place for seniors who want to relocate, but are on a tight budget, says Lauren Lindsay, the director of financial planning at Personal Financial Advisors in Covington.
Louisiana is not without its troubles, however. The coast is hurricane-prone, and is still recovering from Katrina some five years after the storm struck. In addition, only five states have higher obesity rates and nearly 15% of people over 65 live below the poverty line.
Still, residents and retirement pros say there's plenty to love about Louisiana. The state's Cajun and Creole influences inspire everything from signature dishes like crawfish etoufee to homegrown music styles like zydeco and jazz. The state also hosts dozens of festivals from the largest Mardi Gras celebration in the U.S. to the Natchitoches Meat Pie Festival, which celebrates that town's famous spicy meat pie. Here are three cities that natives say embody the best of Louisiana, at an affordable price for retirees.
Lafayette: For the ragin' Cajun
By the numbers
- Population: 111,048
- Median home cost: $159,500
- Cost of living: 6.5% lower than average
- Unemployment: 6.5%
- Source: Sperling's Best Places
This town's tag-line is "Genuine Cajun. Uniquely Creole" and residents say they take the slogan seriously. (Cajun refers to French-speaking people from Acadia, and Creole refers to people who live in Louisiana and are descended from people of French or Spanish descent.) This can be best seen in its food, music and celebration. The city is filled with Cajun and Creole restaurants and made its mark as a culinary destination spot by being named the "Best City for Food" by Rand McNally last year. Lafayette also hosts a series of events including the Festivals Acadiens et Creoles, which celebrates Cajun and Creole life and impromtu fais-do-dos, or Cajun dance parties. In effect: This is a good town for the foodie retiree who wants to dive into a different cultural experience.
One major drawback is Lafayette's high crime rate. Even though experts say the town is generally safe for retirees, and that criminal activity is concentrated in just a few rough neighborhoods, Lafayette ranked 8 on a scale of 1 to 10 for crime, according to Sperling's Best Places. (the average in the U.S. is four). On the plus side, it's both inexpensive to live there -- the cost of living is 6.5% lower than average and the median home costs just above $159,000 -- and easy to get involved in the community, especially if you share a passion for all things Cajun. The frequent festivals and events are popular things for retirees to volunteer with and get involved in, says Kelly Strenge, the public relations manager for the Lafayette Convention and Visitor's Commission. Retirees also like the continuing education classes in gardening (an art form in Louisiana), foreign language and many other subjects offered by the nearby university, she adds. And birdwatchers, prepare for heaven. This town is home to one of the largest wading-bird rookeries in the nation where tens of thousands of birds, including spoonbills and herons, nest each spring.
Natchitoches: For the preservationist who loves the charm of the old South
Julia Roberts fans can instantly picture this town, the setting of the 1989 movie "Steel Magnolias." If you missed the film, think stately Southern mansions nestled along a meandering river. In other words, historic Old South.
By the numbers
- Population: 17,929
- Median home cost: $104,700
- Cost of living: 14.6% lower than average
- Unemployment: 8.3%
- Source: Sperling's Best Places
Founded in 1714, Natchitoches, the oldest permanent settlement in the state, began as a French trading post, then grew into a thriving cotton hub. Residents can see that legacy today as they walk through the 33-block historic district. The town was named one of the "Dozen Distinctive Destinations" for historic preservation in 2005 and given a Great American Main Street Award for the restoration of its historic district in 2006. And all this beauty and atmosphere doesn't come at a steep price. The cost of living in Natchitoches is very low -- 14.6% below average.
To be sure, like small towns everywhere, this place has its limitations: The nearest (somewhat) major city and airport is in Alexandria, roughly 45 minutes away. But residents say they like the isolation. Locals are kind and welcoming (like a beautiful, sweet-smelling magnolia), but also have a "steely" side, as they're protective of the people and place they love, Latisha McDaniel Dumars, spokesperson for the Natchitoches Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Everyone looks out for everyone else here," says Bill Cross, the co-founder of Cross Financial Group in town. "You notice if your neighbor didn't pick up the paper." But that doesn't mean you won't fit right in. Residents are a close-knit group who gather to chat and gossip at places like Papa's Bar & Grill on Front Street or the Pioneer Restaurant, the local pub on Washington Street and on each other's porches, says Latisha McDaniel Dumars, spokesperson for the Natchitoches Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. This makes it easy for retirees to meet new people, help with preservation efforts and adapt to life in this town.
New Orleans: Because, well, there's nowhere like New Orleans
New Orleans, with an unofficial motto of "laissez les bons temps rouler," French for "let the good times roll," is a town devoted to pleasure. The unique culinary delights in New Orleans, where there are more than 1,000 restaurants, range from inexpensive muffalattas (a meat and olive filled sandwich) and fried oyster po-boys sold at tiny corner stores to more elaborate five-course meals filled with the likes of duck confit and turtle soup at one of the town's many five-star restaurants. The city's festivals and celebrations, which seem to happen weekly, include the world-famous Mardi Gras, the Jazz & Heritage Festival -- which has featured musical greats from B.B. King to the Black Crowes-- and the unique "second lines," street parades celebrating just about anything. New Orleans music is known the world over: Not only is this town the birthplace of jazz, it's also legendary for its boisterous brass bands.
By the numbers
- Population: 357,982
- Median home cost: $178,500
- Cost of living: 3.1% lower than average
- Unemployment: 9.1%
- Source: Sperling's Best Places
True, New Orleans hasn't fully recovered from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. There are some remaining pockets of blighted properties, especially in the Lower Ninth Ward and many citizens are still displaced from their homes. The city is prone to frequent flooding (even an afternoon shower can leave currents in the street) and there is the risk of another large storm hitting this low lying region.
But today's New Orleans is far from what the TV news showed back in 2005. Work to rebuild the city goes on every day and there are more restaurants in town now than there were before the storm, says Mark Romig, the president and CEO of New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation. And New Orleans remains a beautiful city, even post Katrina. Aside from the instantly recognizable French-Creole architecture that lines the world-famous French Quarter, residents love the colorful cottages in the Irish Channel and the columned mansions of the Garden District just as much. Hauntingly massive live oaks dripping with Spanish moss line many of the city's roads and parks.
In addition to the food and vibrant culture, it's the spirit of the community that attracts retirees, says Romig. As journalist Paul Oswell says in his now-famous 2010 "A Love Letter to New Orleans: "I've known places with civic pride, but never one whose residents so ferociously love, breathe and embrace their city, eating and drinking its spirit with gusto at every opportunity, and letting it drip from their grinning chops." This introduces a big part of the NOLA appeal for retirees: Residents work together and bond over helping the city thrive. There are dozens of neighborhood associations and cultural volunteer opportunities at the city's museums and festivals, says Romig. "The sense of community here is even stronger since Katrina," he says. Plus, the cost of living is 3% below average for the U.S. and the median home costs just $178,500. It's hard to think of another city suited for cosmopolitan retirees at those prices.