My husband Mike and I have been on the hunt — “Operation ReloSouth” — for the perfect retirement location. We want to live in a less-expensive, more relaxed area of the country near water. With better weather (no snow) than what we have here in Northern New Jersey. This is our story.
Our third and final stop during this Operation ReloSouth trip was at St. James Plantation near Southport, NC. By car, it’s about 45 minutes south of Landfall and Brunswick Forest, which we also toured. St. James is about 55 minutes south of the Wilmington International Airport (ILM) and 50 minutes from downtown Wilmington, the closest “major” city. Unlike Landfall and Brunswick Forest, St. James is just a 10-minute drive to the beach, an awesome beach on Oak Island, one of the barrier islands that help protect the historic town of Southport (and St. James) from bad weather. The private St. James Beach Club (the only private club on the island and the only one that will ever be allowed from what we learned of the local zoning laws!) is wonderful: private parking, a clubhouse with picnic tables, hot showers and flush toilets, a wheelchair accessible deck path to the beach and, get this, a POOL. You can bring your lunch and picnic on the breezy deck, meander to the beach and return, rinse off and hop into the pool! To me, this is a very good thing. Non-St. James day trippers can use the Oak Island beaches, which offer free parking for all, but the beach access doesn’t include toilet or shower facilities. Note: You should know what your required ”must have”/easily accessible amenities are before you start your ReloSouth adventures.
The community of St. James is 20 years old; it has established neighborhoods (with large homes) that wind around and through golf courses as well as neighborhoods established around the St. James marina (Harbor Walk), beach club (SeaSide), nature preserve (Woodlands Park), and lake (Regency Lakes). St. James has more than 3,800 property owners. That’s right, you could buy a resale in St. James or, if you prefer, you could pick one of the available lots in the neighborhood of your dreams and build a new home. Each neighborhood in St. James is built around a special feature (golf course, beach club, nature preserve, lake) and lot sizes are similar by neighborhood. To Mike and me, this means there’s a pleasing sameness of size, but uniqueness by home style that make the neighborhoods very pretty. In fact, St. James has a rule that says you can’t build the exact same façade as your next-door neighbor!
After walking through a few model homes (fun!) and driving through the existing St. James neighborhoods (more will open as current lots are sold) we were attracted to a neighborhood called Woodlands Park; many of the lots in this neighborhood have larger buffer zones in the rear so you don’t see your back-door neighbor quite so clearly (and sometimes not at all). The neighborhood, built around a nature preserve, has walking trails and sidewalks, which not every neighborhood within St. James has. We liked the centrally located lake with its outdoor amphitheater where concerts and other activities occur almost year-round. And this neighborhood is only a short car (or bike) ride to the neighborhood of SeaSide, which has an extremely nice outdoor pool with all the amenities, including a snack bar; we hung out at the SeaSide pool one afternoon and saw families and couples meet, greet and socialize with each other. Note: You should know what you want (resale or build). And make sure you read the association rules so you understand what you can/can’t build/design/do.
St. James is a gated community; in fact, it’s so large that it has 2 gated entries and 2 more planned. Only residents and invited guests who are cleared through security can drive down/walk through the neighborhoods. St. James is its own town; that means the residents pay to maintain all common areas, including the roads, sidewalks and sewers. As avid runners and walkers Mike and I didn’t care for the sidewalk-free almost 1.5-mile long approach road from the main gate; our salesperson explained that since the main entrance road cuts through a golf course sidewalks weren’t included because walkers/runners could be doused by the brown water used to water the course. Okay, I get that, but I noticed that a number of the neighborhoods were either sidewalk-free or the sidewalks jumped from one side of the road to the other, making it more dangerous to run or walk on them since you would be crossing back and forth over a very active roadway.
The community includes over 1,500 acres of land in nature preserves and more than 15 miles of walking and biking trails (I was surprised to read this since Mike and I came away from St. James feeling it is really a community where you have to drive to everything, particularly since food stores and other amenities are all located outside the community’s gates.) In addition, St. James offers the awesome Beach Club on Oak Island and 81 holes of golf on Audubon-certified courses; with four golf clubhouses (all with restaurants and other amenities) you can choose the kind of financial commitment you want to make to be a member of a golf club/course. Once living in St. James you can use any of the numerous neighborhood tennis courts, pool clubs, parks and gardens; you are not restricted to “just” the ones in your neighborhood. Note: Regarding amenities, you should know what you’re willing to pay for and approximately how much you’re willing to pay. Many communities have buy-in fees (some can run into the tens of thousands of dollars) for their golf clubs, then you pay an annual fee(s) to use the facilities.
The marina, which is the centerpiece of the Harbor Walk community, is a fun place to hang out and watch people and their boats; it has a bar & grill on site (and a small marine supply store) and deckside dining; we had drinks and a snack there. Mike and I also ate a good lunch at the Founder’s Club and had a tasty dinner at the Reserve Club. The only downside is that the Reserve Club bar called for last call at 10 p.m., mighty early when you’re talking with new acquaintances! Note: You should know what amenities float your boat; for example, a great fitness/wellness center, pool, and running and walking trails and boating/fishing are “must haves” for us. We’d also love to be very close to the ocean, although we’re not willing to live so close we get swept out to sea by a hurricane! And figure out how you feel about a gated versus non-gated community (and its implications) before you start your ReloSouth adventures.
The above suggestions are meant to help you get started thinking and dreaming about what you want/need in a new community prior to beginning your ReloSouth adventure.
The Good Things:
- Well-planned buffer zones and dedicated woodland spaces throughout the community with more than 15 miles of trails and sidewalks already built out.
- A short drive to the beach. And a private clubhouse with amenities when we get there!
- Easy access to the Intracoastal Waterway from the St. James Marina, which has a wonderful boat dock and storage facility.
- Neighborhoods that offer pools, tennis, nature trails and golf; plenty to do!
- Relaxed feel to the folks we met; we think most folks would fit right into this community.
- The joint amenities (pools, clubhouses, tennis, etc.), while well attended, were large enough to accommodate everyone.
- Also nearby in the town of Southport is a selection of non-chain restaurants that are fairly priced and have yummy food (and all the fast food joints you might secretly desire).
The Not-So-Good Things:
- From what we observed the over-65 crowd seems to make up the majority of residents.
- You have to get in your car and drive to all the must-haves (food store, drugstore, bank, etc.). And I heard you had to drive a significant distance to get to a good mall; I’m a Jersey woman and that’s important to me: a good mall!
- Is the size (huge) of the community the right size for us.
- Is a 50 minutes-or-so drive to Wilmington (the closest city of any size) and the airport acceptable.
- Yard care is an additional cost outside the community and neighborhood fees.
Bottom line? St. James has some very good amenities that align with our interests. It has more of the resort-like feel Mike and I are seeking. The Oak Island private Beach Club is wonderful! And the many on-site fitness and recreational amenities in the different St. James neighborhoods would really suit us. That said, I am concerned that the nearby historic town of Southport may not have the most progressive healthcare and medical facilities. And I didn’t find a shopping mall of any size that offered the clothing, shoes and other “necessities” that I’m used to shopping for within a short drive of my home. We can afford to live in St. James, which stays on our ReloSouth List!