Bellingham, Wash.
The great outdoors and a sophisticated community all at your doorstep.

There are few places where you can walk out of a 20-story building, cast a line into a creek and catch a salmon. Bellingham is one. It sits on Bellingham Bay and has three freshwater lakes plus scads of streams.

"Where else do you have lakes and ocean in one place?" marvels Sita Amba-Rao, 67, a retired economics professor who arrived in 2000.

About midway between Seattle and Vancouver, Bellingham has metropolitan ambitions without big-city hassles. Western Washington University's drama department stages regular productions, and Village Books in the Fairhaven historic district is a nexus for smart discussions. Marinas and boat slips abound, and the Interurban Trail System goes through town to Larrabee State Park. Skiers head for Mount Baker, an hour east, or Canada's Mount Whistler, about two hours away.

Snow is rare in Bellingham itself. Rain is a different matter. The city has 93 days of rain a year. On the plus side, summer temperatures rarely top 80F.

Housing is affordable compared with the East and other West Coast areas. "Our house is bigger and cheaper than our old house in Seattle," says Ann Carr, 60, of the 3,000-square-foot home she shares with her husband Gene, 63. The Carrs paid $329,000 for a four-bedroom house just yards from a marina where they keep a boat; access to a golf course is included in their association fees.

One caveat: Prices rose 9.8 percent in 2002, according to the Whatcom County Association of Realtors, and are expected to go up another 10 percent this year. Property taxes are a tolerable 1.18 percent of assessed value.

Bellingham is well served by St. Joseph's Hospital, which has recently added a cardiac-care unit. However, seniors say the state's health maintenance organizations, touted as an alternative to Medicare, have not delivered care they promised, and physicians are dropping out of networks. Crossing into Canada to buy cheaper prescription drugs is common. The Carrs even pop over the border for dental care.

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