(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)
By Chris Taylor
NEW YORK May 22 (Reuters) - If you had to guess where a particular 78-year-old American retiree who plays bridge and has three great-grandchildren lives, what would you say?
Odds are you guessed Florida, or maybe Arizona - two sunny states that have long been popular with the senior set.
But you'd be wrong, at least in this case. Lois O'Grady lives in Vermillion, South Dakota.
"It's an easy and comfortable place to live, and very safe and friendly," says O'Grady, who moved from the relatively bustling metropolis of Omaha to be closer to her family.
"It reminds me of Mayberry, if you are old enough to remember the old Andy Griffith TV show," O'Grady says.
There's not a whole lot going on in the area, O'Grady admits. The population is a shade over 10,000, and there aren't too many stores apart from a Wal-Mart.
But the region has another thing going for it: South Dakota was recently named the best state to retire in the nation, handily defeating retiree hot spots like Florida.
Indeed, by crunching an array of figures like cost of living, quality of healthcare, crime stats and tax burden, the financial information site Bankrate.com came up with a number of state winners you might not otherwise have guessed.
Other top selections included Colorado, Utah, North Dakota and Wyoming.
"The results were a complete surprise to me," says Chris Kahn, a research analyst at Bankrate.com. "For most retirees, these states are probably not part of the conversation."
"We're looking at stuff they aren't really considering - but maybe they should be."
Fair enough. But it's one thing to pore over data points about a city or a state, and another to spend your days and nights there.
The key question: What's it like to actually retire in some of these places?
After all, Florida is popular for a reason. Most people's visions of retirement, if financial-services brochures are to be believed, involve a golf course or a beach chair, and invariably, sunshine or mild weather.
Indeed, living in the country's midsection or the mountainous west requires a steelier temperament when it comes to climate. There are no gentle breezes here, wafting off the Caribbean Sea.
"The day I moved into the house I had chosen, there was a blizzard here," O'Grady remembers of her South Dakota initiation. "During the next week, there were two more."
There can be cultural issues, too, for those coming from larger metropolitan areas.
Bettina Gebhard, 65, retired to St. George, Utah last summer after a career in Los Angeles as a registered nurse.
Gebhard loves the proximity to her kids who had moved there, the stunning high-desert landscape, the outdoor sports, and a relatively modest cost of living.
Other features required an adjustment, however, from the local book selection - plenty of religious history - to the strict liquor laws, to the fact that she sometimes has to drive across state borders to see a movie that's on her list.
"For someone coming from Manhattan, who is used to going out for a cocktail, it would be a real shock to come here," Gebhard says. "The place pretty much closes up in the early evening. There is not a whole lot to do."
To be sure, there is sometimes a disconnect between such 'Best Places' lists, and where retirees actually say they want to go. The magazine "Where to Retire" surveys its own readership about desired locales, and comes up with a very different - and more traditional - list of top destinations.
Its winners? Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Arizona, and Georgia.
"It's true that retirees are beginning to look for alternatives," says Annette Fuller, the magazine's editor. "It's not just Florida and Arizona anymore. But we're tending to see more movement towards the southeast: The Carolinas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee."
Brookings Institution demographer Bill Frey, who studies senior migration patterns, agrees that Florida isn't the only game in town anymore. A few other areas that are climbing the charts for those over 55 are Atlanta, Denver, and Austin.
But the current champion for drawing retirees is the Phoenix/Mesa/Scottsdale metro area, according to Frey's statistics. Bankrate.com's top picks, for instance, aren't attracting anywhere near those kinds of numbers.
Lois O'Grady, though, is happy with her retirement choice. She gets to hang out with her daughter, who teaches at the University of South Dakota, as well as her grandkids and great-grandkids.
But the sleepy local vibe gets to her sometimes.
"Have an exciting day," she quips. "I hope someone will." (Editing by Bernadette Baum)