With its Mellow Riverfront Charm and Rich History, Friendly St. Marys, Georgia Offers a Quiet Retirement in a Beautiful Coastal Setting
Cost of Living: Below the National Average
Along the St. Marys River on Georgia's southern coast, about six miles from the Atlantic Ocean, the charming coastal village of St. Marys (population 18,000) is one of the oldest communities in the country. It is between Savannah, Georgia and Jacksonville, Florida, and during its long history, it has been invaded by the British (American Revolution), captured by the British (War of 1812) and shelled by the Union army (Civil War). It has been a lumber processing hub, a paper mill town and a fishing center.
Today, while fishing is still important, the U.S. military and tourism anchor the economy. This is because Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, the Atlantic Fleet's home port for U.S. Navy Fleet ballistic missile nuclear submarines, is right next door, and the Cumberland Island National Seashore, accessible only by boat, is just across the Cumberland Sound.
St. Marys has grown by 5% in the last decade, and the cost of living is 15% below the national average. Thirty percent of residents are age 45 or better. Politics lean to the right, and 25% of locals hold at least a four year college degree. The city has some racial diversity, and the crime rate meets the national average. Military families are sprinkled throughout town.
The median home price is $165,000. Neighborhoods are leafy and tidy. Some areas have modest brick residences on small lots while others contain palatial estates along the water. Osprey Cove is a beautiful development with a championship golf course and access to the Intracoastal Waterway.
Georgia is a tax-friendly state for retirement. Social Security is tax-exempt, as is up to $35,000 in other retirement income for people age 62 to 64. For residents age 65 or better, up to $65,000 in retirement income is exempt. Real estate is assessed at 40% of fair market value, and homeowners age 62 or better who earn $10,000 or less per year may have $10,000 of their property's assessed value exempt from school taxes. Homeowners age 62 or older whose family income does not exceed $30,000 annually may qualify for a partial exemption from state and county property taxes. For those age 65 and better who earn $10,000 or less, $4,000 of their property's value is exempt from state and county taxes as well. In St. Marys, the annual taxes on a $165,000 home are approximately $1,650. The state sales tax is 4%, and the income tax rate ranges from 1% to 6%.
With a sleepy harbor and sweeping marsh views, St. Marys exudes tranquility. At the waterfront, shrimp boats are moored along the dock as they have been since the early days, and private pleasure vessels come and go in a leisurely fashion. Visitors wander in to catch the the ferry to Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia's largest barrier island, while other people shop at nautical trinket stores, check out the visitors' center and dine in seafood restaurants.
St Marys, Georgia
Still largely undiscovered by developers, St. Marys is a closely-knit community dotted with white picket fences, quaint B&Bs and live oaks draped in Spanish moss. The air smells of salt and seagulls fly over the river. The Historic District contains portions of the original town with 18th-century commercial and residential buildings. With eyes closed, it is easy to imagine previous generations of steadfast Georgians who called this friendly, mellow hamlet their home.
Shopping venues include specialty shops, boutiques and some major retailers, including Wal-Mart and Belk. The St. Marys Community Market, an open air farmers' market, takes place every Saturday year round. Restaurants include some national chains, as well as locally owned cafes and diners. Some are very good, if a little overpriced during tourist season. Nightlife and entertainment venues are limited, but Jacksonville is only 40 miles to the south along Interstate 95.
What St. Marys lacks in nightlife, it makes up in festivals, events, small museums and more. Every year, Mardi Gras is celebrated with gusto, and the Rock Shrimp Festival and Fourth of July events bring out sizeable crowds. Three museums, including the Greek Revival Orange House Hall Museum, a testament to antebellum life, and St. Marys Submarine Museum, which houses a wealth of submarine exhibits, are fun places to spend an afternoon.
The waterfront's pretty Howard Gilman Memorial Park is the place to picnic and watch shrimpers come in each day. St. Mary's public library is a nice spot to spend some time. It has an interlibrary loan program, talking books and a volunteer program. It also is a member of PINES, which gives Georgia residents access to 9 million books that can be home delivered. St. Marys Little Theater is a community theater with an engaging, year round schedule.
Jekyll Island and Fernandina Beach are both close by and have pretty, public beaches. Cumberland Island National Seashore, the reason many people come to St. Marys, has a federally-protected, unspoiled shoreline where wild hogs and feral horses roam freely. This is the place to hike, kayak, gather seashells or watch the stars. It is also home to Plum Orchard and the ruins of Dungeness, two mansions built by the Carnegie family in the late-19th century. Plum Orchard has public tours, but Dungeness has been lost to time and is now inhabited by wild animals.
The St. Marys Senior Center is managed by the city and offers noon congregate meals, planned activities, legal assistance, monthly blood pressure checks and more.
Southeast Georgia Health System - Camden is located in St. Marys and has 40 beds. It is accredited by the Joint Commission and accepts Medicare patients. Seven miles away in Fernandina Beach, Baptist Medical Center has 55 beds and is award-winning for excellence in patient experience. It, too, is accredited by the Joint Commission and accepts Medicare patients. For military retirees, St. Marys has a VA outpatient clinic, but the nearest VA hospital is in Lake City, Florida, 75 miles away.
Summer temperatures are in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Humidity is high, and the city ranks well below the national average on the comfort scale, a combination of temperature and humidity. Winter temperatures are usually in the 50s and 60s. On average, the area receives 50 inches of rain each year, and the sun shines 220 days of the year.
Retirement in St. Marys has some downsides. There is no public transportation, and road access is not as good as it could be with only a handful of roads in and out of town. Traffic congestion builds during tourist season. This is an old town, and parts of the infrastructure are outdated. Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Irma in 2017 both caused flooding, downed power lines, downed trees and waterfront damage.
Yet even with these issues, this gem of a town sparkles, offering a quieter life in a beautiful location. With its deep roots, historic waterfront and gentle soul, St. Marys is hard to resist. It is a great retirement spot.
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