Paradise Found: Where to Retire Abroad

(FORTUNE Magazine) – ■Who can resist the fantasy? Instead of catching the early-bird special in Florida, wouldn't it be more fun to sip away your sunset years in Provence? Such thoughts often occur on vacations. During a pastis-induced haze, you think, Who needs Target or Oreo cookies or 100 cable channels to make life enjoyable? I could live here forever. You nurse the dream, lingering over real estate ads in a local café. But soon you realize that your nest egg isn't going to let you buy one of those overpriced villas and live like Peter Mayle for the rest of your life. Before you know it, the vacation is over, and so is your reverie. Don't fret. We found five idyllic places--from Patagonia to Phuket--where you can still live like a king on what you've saved. So dream on.

San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina

Paul Schutt 51 and Merry Tuten 50

Since they were married 27 years ago, Paul Schutt and Merry Tuten have been planning for retirement. "It was always our goal to retire by 50," says Paul. They were ahead of the game when it came to timing. But figuring out where was another matter. After living for six years in Chile, where both of them worked for an Australian company, they moved back to California in 2001. That retirement lasted all of six months. "They say you can't go home again if you've lived abroad," says Merry. So when Paul, an energy consultant, was tapped by the Bahamian government to evaluate liquid-natural-gas projects, the couple jumped at the chance to get back to work, and over the next three years got a taste of island life. It wasn't for them. While living in Chile, they had visited Argentina and liked the welcoming culture, which they see as a magnet for intellectuals, artists, and scientists. They first considered Buenos Aires, then settled on Patagonia because of the seasons and the outdoor activities. From their 3,300-square-foot home, which they moved into six months ago and which they describe as "Frank Lloyd Wright meets the Andes," they can see the fourth hole of a golf course and a ski area in the distance. "I've lived in pretty places, but this is magical," says Merry. "It's like being in the Alps, but bigger. The trees are bigger, the vistas are more grand."

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Bob Benmosche 61

For Bob Benmosche, chairman and CEO of MetLife, 1999 was a very good year. An avid wine collector, he visited Croatia that year to see for himself where the Zinfandel grape originated and to check on how well the country had fared since an earlier visit in 1986. While there, he heard about a 7,000-square-foot home for sale on the Adriatic Sea, two miles outside the walls of Dubrovnik, a city that George Bernard Shaw called "paradise on earth." Garbage lay all over the ground. Pieces of shrapnel--mementos of Croatia's recent wars--were embedded in the trees. The inside of the home, which had been used as military barracks, was wrecked. Though Benmosche had a vague idea that he'd like to retire abroad, he didn't want to purchase a house then and there. But when he stepped onto the second-floor balcony to take in the Adriatic, he says, it was "unbelievably beautiful ... I had this view of what it could look like fixed up." He bid about $1 million for the house and won, and over the past few years he has been making that vision a reality. Renovations on the home are expected to be finished by the end of this year, just in time for his retirement next spring.

Boquete, Panama

Janet 51 and Newton Osborne 68

The Osbornes had been thumbing through retirement community brochures from all over the U.S. when Newton, a professor of obstetrics at Howard University, considered the possibility of retiring in Panama--the country where he was born. "There are certain advantages to Panama," says Osborne, who has lived in the U.S. for 45 years and is planning to retire in the next few months. "I won't have to shovel snow, and I won't have to pay property tax for the next 20 years." So in 2001 he took a trip to visit both a coastal and a mountain community. He chose the latter and brought Janet to Boquete a few months later to look at property. They purchased a lot on a hill overlooking a golf course and have built a three-bedroom white-stucco house with a red-tile roof (total cost: about $250,000). "You can hear the sound of rivers here," says Janet. "It's very peaceful."

Mérida, Mexico

Sylvia 60 and Ron Jackson 62

The Jacksons had planned to make Houston their retirement haven and then buy a place somewhere else in the world. But during a weekend trip to the Yucatán two years ago that plan changed. "For some reason, we decided that's where we would buy a home," says Sylvia, who is now learning Spanish. "It's like we belong here." They made an offer within days and are now the proud owners of a 200-year-old, 8,000-square-foot hacienda, listed on the historical registry, which they recently finished restoring. The house cost $155,000, but they plowed another $500,000 into the property. "We have a nice lifestyle here," says Ron, president and CEO of Meadowbrook Golf in Florida. "It has one of the most unique cultures in Mexico." Jackson hasn't decided when he's going to make the move to Mérida, but the Houston house he has owned for 22 years is up for sale.

Phuket, Thailand

Janpen 43 and John Magee 66

John Magee had always worked in big cities. His banking career took him across the globe from New York to Copenhagen, Beirut, Cairo, and finally Hong Kong, where he spent the last 17 years of his career working for American Express Bank. On weekends, he would visit Phuket, an "indescribably beautiful" little fishing village in Thailand. The place was so remote he couldn't find a fax machine. Eventually he leased a piece of property on the beach and built a house, where he retired in 1992. He sold it four years ago, not long after meeting his wife, to build a four-bedroom, two-kitchen house (cost: $375,000). Soon after he retired, he started the island's first English-language newspaper, the Phuket Gazette, as a hobby. "I love writing," he says. "But I had never had the opportunity to do it." The fishing village has come a long way since Magee first visited. "There used to be a lot of backpackers here," he says. "Now there are a lot more retired lawyers, bankers, and businesspeople." And a lot more fax machines. ■