10 Great Boating Towns To Retire, Play And Thrive

By Art Pine

Here are 10 boat-friendly American communities — from sleepy to hopping — to get your imagination fired up.

Lake Michigan

Traverse City, MI

Traverse City Michigan Glen Lake Narrows

Lovely waterfront town, and a boater's paradise. Sheltered Grand Traverse Bay empties into northern Lake Michigan. Nearby access to Lake Huron, mountain lakes. Most marinas/boatyards shut down in winter.

Population: 14,674 (county: 88,249)

Waterfront: Neat, well-kept. Substantial publicly owned waterfront

Fishing: Salmon, trout, walleye, steelheads, yellow perch

Gunkholing: Bay has 100 miles of waterfront with coves, small islands

One-Day Boat Trips: Plenty of waterfront towns. Near Petoskey, Harbor Springs

Boating Season: Mid-May through Mid-October

Weather: Average temp. 22 degrees in winter to 78 in summer. Winters are cold, with medium to heavy snow

Boat Amenities: Three boatyards, five marinas (capacity range 50-180 slips). Basic slip fee for a 30-foot cruiser, $1,800-$3,500/season, plus winter storage. West Marine in Traverse City

Cost of Living: 6.2% below the national average

Taxes: 4.25% state income tax; 6% state sales tax; no state inheritance tax or estate tax; low property taxes

Median Home Price: $149,000

Nearest Major Hospital: Local: Munson Medical Center | Ann Arbor: Top-rated University of Michigan Hospitals and Health Centers | VA Medical Center, Detroit

Airports: Regional: Cherry Capital Airport, Traverse City | Major: Detroit International Airport (265 miles)

Cultural, Recreational Activities: Billed as 'The Cherry Capital of the World,' the area is world-famous for its sweet locally produced wines. It has sandy bayfront beaches, spas, summer and winter sports. Nearby Interlochen Center for the Arts provides year-round classes and summer camp for high-school-age kids to be dancers, actors, musicians. Festivals and concerts for visitors

BoatUS Services: TowBoatUS Charlevoix, north end of Grand Traverse Bay. Bayshore Marine Center is a Cooperating Marina offering members a transient slip discount (25%) and discounts on repairs (5%).

Lake Lanier

Gainesville, GA

Lake Lanier

Surrounded on three sides by Lake Lanier, a 38,000-acre reservoir 55 miles north of Atlanta. Gainesville offers year-round boating, great fishing, and property is very affordable. Downside: No access to rivers or ocean.

Population: 34,422

Waterfront: Waterfront property all around lake

Fishing: Striped bass, largemouth bass, spotted bass, crappie, catfish, perch, bluegill, sunfish

Gunkholing: Lake Lanier has 500 miles of shoreline, coves, and islands. Gainesville is a half-hour drive from several smaller lakes

One-Day Boat Trips: Lake Lanier is 42 miles long, 4 miles wide. Trips are short

Boating Season: March through November

Weather: Average winter temp. 50 degrees, 72 in summer. Precipitation 4 inches/month (summer) to 5.5 inches/month (winter)

Boat Amenities: Five full-service boatyards. Two marinas in Gainesville, six located on south side of the lake, many with repair facilities. Typical cost for a 32-foot cruiser $300-$350/month for covered slip, $180-$210+ uncovered. West Marine in Buford

Cost of Living: 1% below the national average

Taxes: 1%-6% state income tax; 6.84% combined state and local sales taxes; no state inheritance tax or estate tax

Median Home Price: $141,000

Nearest Major Hospital: Local: High-rated Northeast Georgia Medical Center | Atlanta: Top-rated Emory University Hospital | VA Medical Center, Decatur

Airports: Hartsfield-Jackson | Atlanta International Airport (55 miles)

Cultural, Recreational Activities: Take life easy in Gainesville. Visit the railway museum, farmers' market, beach, water parks, equestrian center, theaters. Miss big-city life? Atlanta, multiple museums, historic sites, parks, aquarium, zoo, and other attractions are only an hour away

BoatUS Services: TowBoatUS Lake Lanier, plus Lanier Harbor Marina and Restaurant offers a member fuel discount through our Cooperating Marina program.

Puget Sound

Port Townsend, WA

Port Townsend Washington

Gateway to the Olympic Peninsula, this historic seaport has a picturesque waterfront, trendy shops, restaurants, and galleries. Puget Sound offers great boating. Neighboring Olympic National Park has spectacular views and hiking trails.

Population: 9,760 (with surrounding communities: 28,000)

Waterfront: Restored historic district with Victorian theme, nautical attractions such as the Northwest Maritime Center, Port Townsend Marine Science Center, and wooden boat center. Local instructors offer kayak tours and scuba-diving trips

Fishing: Salmon, halibut, lingcod, Dungeness crab, mussels, clams, oysters

Gunkholing: Close to San Juan Islands, nearby bays

One-Day Boat Trips: Include Fort Flagler, Whidbey Island, Bainbridge Island

Boating Season: May through September

Weather: Average temp. 45 degrees in winter to 60 in summer. Sunnier than nearby Seattle, good winds year-round

Boat Amenities: Two full-service boatyards (one with 300-ton Travelift), 3 marinas (one with 375 slips) in Port Townsend and neighboring Quilcene. Basic slip fees $6-$8/foot. Moorings available. Moderate-price winter storage. West Marine in Port Townsend

Cost of Living: 5.7% above the national average

Taxes: No state income tax; 8.8% combined state and local sales taxes; state estate tax on properties over $2M

Median Home Price: $282,100

Nearest Major Hospital: Local: Jefferson General Hospital | Portland: Top-rated Oregon Health and Science University | VA Medical Center, Portland

Airports: Local: William R. Fairchild International, Port Angeles, WA | Major: Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (60 miles)

Cultural, Recreational Activities: One of the world's largest wooden boat festivals and 44 other gatherings from classic cars and rhododendrons, to writing, American fiddle tunes, and acoustic blues. Even a chili cook-off. Active arts community, galleries, museums, theater. Whale-watching tours. Hiking for all ages at Olympic National Park, including Mount Olympus with 1 million acres of mountains, forests, waterfalls, and 600 miles of trails. Treks range from short walks to several-day trips, with overnight accommodations at rustic lodges, 60 miles from Seattle

BoatUS Services: Four TowBoatUS towboat operators including Port Townsend. Plus, Port Haddock Marina, which offers a 25% member discount on transient slips.

Chesapeake Bay, Rivers

Annapolis, MD

Fireworks over Annapolis Maryland waterfront

Mid-Atlantic sailing capital. Chesapeake Bay and tributaries are laden with history and scores of rivers, inlets, and waterside communities. Downside: Often windless and hot in late summer with fast-moving thunderstorms.

Population: 38,394 (area: 88,249)

Waterfront: Historic downtown area, plenty of slips

Fishing: Yellow perch, striped bass, bluefish, flounder, croakers, blue crab

Gunkholing: Bay is full of rivers, coves, anchorages

One-Day Boat Trips: Baltimore, St. Michaels, plenty of small waterfront towns

Boating Season: April through October

Weather: Average winter temp. 38 to 80 summer. Light winds in August

Boat Amenities: 12 full-service boatyards and 18 marinas in Annapolis area, dozens of chandleries and services, 5 West Marine stores nearby. Slips $2,000-$13,000/year, depending on size, location. Docking in/around Annapolis harbor is pricey

Cost of Living: 17.5% above the national average

Taxes: 2%-5.75% state income tax; 6% state sales tax; 10% state inheritance tax except within immediate family. 16% state estate tax on estates of more than $1 million

Median Home Price: $351,100

Nearest Major Hospital: Local: Anne Arundel County Hospital | Baltimore: Top-rated Johns Hopkins Hospital | VA Medical Centers in Baltimore, Washington

Airports: Thurgood Marshall Baltimore-Washington International (31 miles); Reagan National Airport (40 miles); Dulles International Airport (65 miles)

Cultural, Recreational Activities: Great boating, fishing on Chesapeake Bay. Home to the U.S. Naval Academy, St. John's College. Downtown of 18th-century buildings, many pre-Revolution. Charming Maryland State House briefly the meeting place for Congress. Naval Academy Museum, filled with models of warships through the years. Celebrated restaurants and crab houses. Near Baltimore, Washington, and St. Mary's City, home of English settlers who established England's first Catholic colony

BoatUS Services: Three towing ports including TowBoatUS Annapolis, and 10+ BoatUS Cooperating Marinas offering discounts on repairs, transient slips, fuel.

Gulf of Mexico

Tarpon Springs, FL

Sponge docks in Tarpon Springs Florida

Tarpon Springs' Compact Harbor is nestled along the Anclote River on Florida's west coast north of Clearwater. Easy access to Gulf of Mexico, good fishing. Close to Tampa.

Population : 26,000

Waterfront: Historic downtown along Dodecanese Boulevard and Tarpon Ave

Fishing: Grouper, cobia, snook, tarpon, redfish, Spanish mackerel, kingfish, spotted sea trout

Gunkholing: Area laden with bayous

One-Day Boat Trips : Plenty of nearby harbors, coves

Boating Season: Year-round

Weather: Average temp. 60 degrees in winter to 80 degrees in summer. Hurricane season August-September

Boat Amenities: Six full-service boatyards, a dozen marinas, plus anchorages. Basic slip fees $10-$15/foot/month; some priced by the slip $225-$350/month. Four West Marine stores nearby

Cost of Living: 7.7% below the national average

Taxes : No state income tax; 6.62% combined state and local sales taxes; no state inheritance tax or estate tax

Median Home Price: $141,400

Nearest Major Hospital: Local: Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital | Tampa: Top-rated Tampa General Hospital | VA Medical Center, Tampa

Airports: St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport (20 miles); Tampa International Airport (24 miles)

Cultural, Recreational Activities: Performing arts center, fine-arts museum, cultural museum. Authentic Greek cuisine (area settled by Greek immigrants). Cultural classes, workshops in Greek dancing, songs, cooking, dolphin-watching, sponge-diving. Living-reef aquarium. Mecca for antique dealers

BoatUS Services: TowBoatUS Tarpon Springs, TowBoatUS Hudson, and eight BoatUS Cooperating Marinas offering member discounts on slips, repairs, fuel.

Neuse River, Pamlico Sound

New Bern, NC

New Bern North Carolina

Pictuesque New Bern is filled with historic homes and good restaurants. Good boating opportunities on the Neuse River, Trent River, and Pamlico Sound. A real gem.

Population: 29,524 (metro area: 95,000)

Waterfront: Historic waterfront, bordered by two rivers

Fishing: Shad, herring, catfish, bass, flounder, croaker, pickerel, sunfish, perch, pumpkinseed, bluefish, blue crab, oysters

Gunkholing: Area dotted with coves, small islands

One-Day Boat Trips: Includes sailing town of Oriental, Morehead City, Ocracoke Island

Boating Season: March through November

Weather: Average temp. 44 degrees in winter to 82 in summer

Boat Amenities: One boatyard, seven marinas, most with fewer than 100 slips. Basic slip fees $5.50-$6.80/foot/month. Two West Marine stores nearby

Cost of Living: 4.6% below the national average

Taxes: 6%-7.75% state income tax; 6.85% combined state/local sales taxes; state estate taxes on properties above $5.25 million

Median Home Price: $111,900

Nearest Major Hospital: Local: CarolinaEast Medical Center | Durham: Top-rated Duke University Medical Center | VA Medical Center, Durham

Airports: Regional: Coastal Carolina Regional Airport, New Bern | Raleigh-Durham International Airport (135 miles)

Cultural, Recreational Activities: Downtown filled with 18th-century homes. Tryon Palace, home of Royal (Colonial) Gov. William Tryon, has been restored. Pharmacy where Pepsi-Cola was invented. New Bern's a convenient jumping-off place for trips to the Outer Banks and coastal NC

BoatUS Services: TowBoatUS Oriental is nearest towing port. Five Cooperating Marinas offer member discounts on fuel, slips, repairs.

Columbia, Willamette Rivers

Portland, OR

Portland Oregon skyline

Self-styled big small-town. Many opportunities for boating/fishing, lots to do ashore, and surrounding national parks. Home to a growing number of retirees.

Population: 583,776 (metro area: 2.2 million)

Waterfront: Protected harbor area concentrated on Hayden Island

Fishing: Flatfish, rockfish, skates, salmon, sockeye, sturgeon, trout, steelhead, whitefish, catfish, sunfish, bass, perch, walleye, warmouth, crappie, shad, lamprey, smelt

Gunkholing: Coves, towns, small islands on Columbia River

One-Day Boat Trips: Governor's Island (beaches)

Boating Season: May through Oct - Nov

Weather: Average temp. 40 degrees in winter to 63 in summer. Lots of rain and fog, almost no snow

Boat Amenities: Four full-service boatyards, 30+ marinas with 50 or more slips in Portland, plus more in neighboring cities. Typical slip fee $4-$9/foot/month. Year-round dockage. Two West Marine stores

Cost of Living: 15.8% above the national average

Taxes: 5%-9.9% state income tax; no state/local sales tax; state estate tax on properties over $1M. If you own a boat or other property in Oregon, your heirs may be liable for estate taxes

Median Home Price: $229,800

Nearest Major Hospital: Local: Oregon Health and Science University Hospital | VA Medical Center, Portland

Airports: Portland International

Cultural, Recreational Activities: Two universities, museums, zoo, arboretum, Japanese garden, good restaurants, 40+ small breweries. Oregon's premier wine region, 150+ vineyards. Jazz festival, seafood/wine festival, spring beer and wine fest. Local theaters, Portland Center Stage and Artists' Repertory Theater. Good bicycling. Nearby Mount Hood offers climbing, skiing, hiking.

BoatUS Services: Nearest towing port is TowBoatUS Portland. Seven Cooperating Marinas. Member discounts on slips, fuel, transient dockage.


Casco Bay, Atlantic Ocean

Portland, ME

Portland Maine coastline

Lively city on Casco Bay on Maine's south coast. Big-city feel. Diverse opportunities on water and ashore. Easy access to Sebago Lake and Atlantic. Downside: Short boating season.

Population: 66,000 (metropolitan area: 230,000)

Waterfront: Historic port area lined with 19th-century brick buildings and warehouses. Host to fishing boats, cruise ships, luxury yachts, oil tankers. Local fish market and fish exchange

Fishing: Striped bass, mackerel, bluefish, cod, haddock, pollock, cunner

Gunkholing: Coastal area, protected coves

One-Day Boat Trips: Casco Bay islands, Boothbay Harbor, Hartswell, others

Boating Season: Mid-May through mid-October

Weather: Average winter temp. 22 degrees (heavy snow) to 68 in summer

Boat Amenities: Nine marinas and West Marine, Hamilton Marine, and numerous other marine stores and outfitters in and around downtown Portland. Slip fees $127-$155/foot/season

Cost of Living: 11.7% above the national average

Taxes: 0%-8% state income tax; 5% state sales tax; up to 12% state estate tax on estates over $2 million

Median Home Price: $204,000

Nearest Major Hospital: Local: Maine Medical Center | Boston: Top-rated Massachusetts General Hospital | VA Maine Healthcare System, Augusta

Airports: Portland International Jetport | Major: Boston Logan International Airport (110 miles)

Cultural, Recreational Activities: Portland Museum of Art, good theater, railroad museum, Harbor Museum, observatory and planetarium, hot-air balloon rides, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's boyhood home. Shoreline park with promenade overlooking Casco Bay. Home to a thriving gastronomy scene with many award-winning chefs. Also a destination for over 60 large and small cruise liners every year.

BoatUS Services: TowBoatUS Portland, South Port Marina, and Dolphin Marina and Restaurant offer member discounts on repairs, transient slips.

Lake of the Ozarks

Camdenton, MO

Point Randall Resort Lake of the Ozarks

Camdenton is in the right location on this 95-mile-long lake in hilly central Missouri. Town is away from heavy weekend boating traffic, yet close to marinas, boatyards. Downside: Lake is Camdenton's principal attraction.

Population: 3,800

Waterfront: Charming community with lakefront homes

Fishing: Largemouth bass, crappie, catfish, spoonbill

Gunkholing: 1,150 miles of shoreline with plenty of protected coves

One-Day Boat Trips: Far reaches of the lake

Boating Season: Mid-May through mid-October

Weather: Average temp. 33 degrees in winter to 79 in summer. Some rain in early spring, some snow in winter

Boat Amenities: 27 marinas on Lake of the Ozarks, some with repair facilities. Basic slip fees $70-$80/month for 20- to 25-foot boats. Plus a West Marine in Osage Beach

Cost of Living: 10.2% below the national average

Taxes: 1.5%-6% state income tax rate; 7.475% combined state and local sales taxes; no state inheritance tax or estate tax

Median Home Price: $177,500

Nearest Major Hospital: Local: Lake Regional Health System| Kansas City, Kansas: University of Kansas Hospital | VA Medical Center, Kansas City, MO

Airports: Regional: Springfield-Branson National Airport (90 miles) | Major: St. Louis International Airport (165 miles), Kansas City International Airport (198 miles)

Cultural, Recreational Activities: Dogwood festival, home and garden festival, air show, harbor hop, wine fest. Two-hour drive to Branson, MO, major country music and entertainment area. Scenic biking roads

BoatUS Services: Three different TowBoatUS ports, plus five Cooperating Marinas offer member discounts on fuel, repairs, transient slips, boat rentals.

San Diego, Pacific Ocean

San Diego, CA

San Diego California waterfront

Warm and sunny all year, plenty of good boating opportunities and services, good fishing, lots to do ashore, easy access to the Pacific. But pricey by any standard.

Population: 1,307,402 (metro area: 3,095,313)

Waterfront: Large, with many marinas and boatyards

Fishing: Barracuda, barred sand bass, bat ray, bonefish, bonito, calico bass, jacksmelt, halibut, Pacific mackerel, spotted bay bass, yellowfin croaker, shortfin corvina, guitarfish

Gunkholing: San Diego Bay, Coronado Island, 70 miles of pristine coast

One-Day Boat Trips: Include Oceanside, Mission Bay, Ensenada (Mexico)

Boating Season: Year-round

Weather: Gorgeous weather all year. Average temp. 50 degrees in winter to 83 in summer. Good wind

Boat Amenities: Six full-service boatyards in SD Bay area; 30 marinas, ranging from 8 to 634 slips accommodating more than 7,000 boats. More in surrounding communities. Basic slip fees range from $12 to $24/foot/month. Operational all year. Four West Marine stores

Cost of Living: 32.6% above the national average

Taxes: 1%-12.3% state income tax; 8.1% combined state and local sales taxes; no state inheritance tax or estate tax

Median Home Price: $477,100

Nearest Major Hospital: Top-rated University of California San Diego Medical Center | VA Healthcare System, San Diego

Airports: San Diego International

Cultural, Recreational Activities: California Center for the Arts, Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego Zoo, Maritime Museum, USS Midway Museum, San Diego Air and Space Museum, Palomar Observatory atop 6,000-foot Palomar Mountain, SeaWorld, Legoland. Tony Award-winning Old Globe Theater. Boutiques and good restaurants, especially in neighboring La Jolla and Del Mar. Home to 19 colleges and universities. Surfing. Dozens of beaches. UC San Diego offers plenty of courses for seniors. Mexico only 15 miles south.

BoatUS Services: TowBoatUS San Diego provides towing coverage, while 13+ Cooperating Marina locations, including a sail loft, offer discounts on fuel or transient slips. 

Note: Information in this article was checked for accuracy before publication. But readers should double-check all info, as taxes, home costs, amenities, and other descriptions of these destinations are subject to change.

Avid boater Art Pine is a freelance writer and former correspondent for several major newspapers.

— Published: June/July 2013

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