Snowbirds make themselves at home on the Texas coast
Fifteen hundred miles away in northern Minnesota, with temperatures below zero and a foot of snow on the ground, Ivy Hanson is dreaming of Galveston.
“I love the island’s warm temperatures and our family of friends,” Hanson said. “It’s the busiest place I live.”
Hanson, who is 72, and her husband, Herb, 75, are lifelong Minnesotans who have been married 50 years. Each had a long teaching career and now relish a rich retirement.
Minnesota is home, but in the dead of winter, around the first of every year, the Hansons pack up their Chrysler and head south to their other home and a wide circle of friends at Casa del Mar, 6102 Seawall Blvd., an island condominium that caters to Winter Texans.
“We thaw out on the drive down,” Ivy Hanson said.
The Hansons bought a condominium at Casa del Mar in 2005 after they took a cruise from Galveston. Ivy’s brother bought one, too.
The Hansons aren’t alone in their pilgrimage south. About this time each year, hundreds of retirees living in Canada, the Midwest, and chilly parts of Texas and Oklahoma, stream across the Galveston Causeway just as their hometowns are entering the deep freeze of winter. They buy condominiums, rent vacation properties or live in their RVs at various parks on or near the island. As a group, Winter Texans have the energy to play and the means to pay. They begin arriving in mass just after Christmas and continue all the way to spring.
“Galveston may have a few cold days, but there’s no snow and I can play golf once a week,” Ray Wybenga, 86, said. Wybenga is a former asparagus and peach farmer from New Era, Mich.
Like the Hansons, Wybenga is one of the informal leaders of the yearly gathering at Casa del Mar. He has called Galveston home for 19 winters.
“I tried Florida first, but it was all newlyweds and nearly deads, so I started looking around and found Galveston,” he said.
For Wybenga, the island was more appealing and more affordable than other places to which snowbirds flock.
The Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau doesn’t track the number of Winter Texans who come here. But the bureau estimates hundreds of Winter Texans travel to the island each year for an extended stay.
“Winter Texans significantly contribute to our yearly visitation and have a positive fiscal impact on the island’s economy,” Ivette Wilhelm, a spokeswoman for the visitors bureau, said.
Certain places, such as Casa del Mar and The Victorian Condo-Hotel Resort, 6300 Seawall Blvd., among others, have made it their mission to attract and entertain Winter Texans.
Anywhere from 50 to 60 couples and plenty of singles stay at Casa del Mar, Theresa Elliott, general manager of the property, said.
“They are ideal guests and community members,” Elliott said.
Casa del Mar staffers create a calendar of events for January, February and March for the guests.
“But they manage the nuts and bolts,” Elliott said.
The group selects the movies they want to see. They bring their own dishes to the potluck. In fact, Wybenga has directed the Tuesday night potluck dinners for seven years.
“The men come an hour early to set up the tables, which takes about two minutes,” he said. “Then somebody breaks out a six pack.”
Movies, yoga, crafts and attending shows at the The Grand 1894 Opera House, in the island’s downtown, are standard activities.
Some guests are avid bird watchers and many are golfers.
There is coffee every morning and cards every night. And they make their own fun.
“Each year we have a howling at the moon party on the night of the full moon out by the pool,” Ivy Hanson said. “One year, it was too cloudy to see the moon, so someone cut out a paper moon and attached it to the elevator, which you can see from the pool. Every time the elevator went up, we all howled.”
Many of the visitors connect with local churches and others volunteer for nonprofits on the island, Hanson said. The Empty Bowl event, which benefits The Jesse Tree, is a favorite project. Grant Varley from Ontario sings in the Moody Methodist choir.
Ivy Hanson helps to organize a “Beyond Crafts” class for the women each Tuesday, and they work with the Galveston Arts Center on special projects.
Some of the projects include making jewelry from sea glass and Mardi Gras masks.
Most of Galveston’s Winter Texans come from Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Canada. But there also are Texans who come to enjoy the camaraderie and society of the gregarious transplants.
Carol Berridge, 76, lives in Killeen and began visiting Galveston when her children were little. Her husband died some years ago, and in 2009, she came with friends to vacation on the island. When her vacation ended, she decided to return for a longer stay.
Berridge asked the desk clerk to suggest the best time to come, and he told her about the Winter Texans. That was four years ago. She returns every year.
“There’s always something to do and always someone to do it with,” she said.
It was at a Friday happy hour at the Holiday Inn when Berridge met Wybenga. She was sitting with a Canadian couple, also part of the Casa del Mar contingency, when he came to say hello.
Wybenga had lost his wife of 62 years, and was now wintering in Galveston solo.
In the company of dozens of friends, some who had made the winter pilgrimage for decades, their friendship slowly blossomed. Somewhere amid the putt-putt golf and movie nights, they found something unexpected — a new romance.
“We were sitting on a bench on the seawall. There was not a ripple in the water and the moon was perfectly reflected,” Berridge said. “Ray started telling me about his wife, and it touched my heart.”
Wybenga and Berridge visited earlier this year and plan to return to Casa del Mar in February.
“Coming to the island each year makes me feel alive, renewed, and truly among friends,” Berridge said.