A Back to Basics Getaway

Ossipee — January 26, 2007 — Few souls roamed the normally busy byways of Ossipee, N.H., earlier this month, as 65-degree temperatures and a complete lack of snow beset this mountainous, lake-rich territory near the Maine border.

A tiny group of young snowboarders in T-shirts rode the sole lift running at the King Pine Ski Area in nearby East Madison. But Main Street in Center Ossipee was empty, and Ossipee Lake itself seemed uncertain whether to keep its scrim of ice.

Winter has been gentle in Ossipee, but now the cold and snow have returned, bringing back the four-season ambience that attracts owners of second homes from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and beyond. Residents say that Ossipee, just east of the much larger and busier Lake Winnipesaukee, offers a quieter, less expensive alternative to nearby lakes, where $1 million waterfront homes are often the bottom of the market, not the top.

“It’s a different mentality from those people who want that ‘look at me’ approach over on the big lake,” said Clint Peterson, who in 2003 bought a house overlooking Ossipee Lake with his wife, Kim Avilez, after owning a town house on Lake Winnipesaukee for four years. The Petersons, who shuttle between a home in Palm Desert, Calif., and New Hampshire, found their new house, a renovated $220,000 cottage, in a community called the Bluffs. It is larger than their previous vacation home, which they sold for $210,000.

“I got far more than I ever bargained for,” Mr. Peterson said, “and I wouldn’t even go back to the big lake, not a chance.”

More people are joining him, many over 55 who stay in Ossipee for more than half the year, spending the rest in warmer climates. Few people rent out their second homes in Ossipee, preferring to use them year-round. They play down a rural area that lacks most of the candle shops and cheese emporiums of tonier vacation towns.

Then there is the lake, mostly quiet and tucked within a collection of low-rise, pine-covered mountains. “There’s a view there that reminds me of Switzerland, a smaller version,” said Tina Sylvia, a retired newspaper advertising sales representative who bought a new house on one of Ossipee Lake’s back bays in 2003 for $600,000. She, her husband and their two sons make the three-hour drive from South Dartmouth, Mass., most weekends.

“Within an hour’s drive, you have so many different things you can do or places you can go,” she said.

The Scene
Ossipee Lake is where pontoon boats drop anchor at sandbars in summer for daylong idylls, where the occasional wetsuited resident on a Wave Runner will navigate the narrow waterway that leads to the lake’s back bays and go exploring. Crowds gather occasionally at a small beach off Long Sands Road, where on the Fourth of July fireworks set off in nearby towns can be seen and heard. The population swells in the summer, with second-home owners making up more than half the stock of local property holders.

Ossipee is made up of a few different town centers, including West Ossipee, Ossipee, Ossipee Corners and Center Ossipee, generally regarded as the area’s downtown. There, on Main Street, a half-mile stretch holding a post office, an elementary school, the Town Hall and a grouping of proud but worn houses with front porches, local residents and vacationers alike say hello, pick up staples at the PB & J Village Store and stop in at the Iron Kettle for breakfast.

This is small-town New Hampshire, and there is nearly nothing that appears to cater to tourists. It has the classic attitude of a Granite State lake town: A place to get away to is just a place to get away to.

Few other businesses occupy the strip, though a revitalization movement is afoot. The Ossipee Main Street Program is working to improve the area; it recently bought three vacant lots in the middle of town, which will become a park, said Sarah Millette, the program’s director. A bandstand gazebo is planned, and in good weather dozens gather Sunday nights in front of the Town Hall to hear bluegrass music and fiddle tunes.

Hearty and inexpensive meals can be found up and down Route 16 at places like the Yankee Smokehouse, known for its ribs, and Lazy Susan’s, a breakfast joint. In winter, snowboarders, snowmobilers and downhill and cross-country skiers take over, navigating the slopes at King Pine or heading up to face off with the surplus of black-diamond routes at Cranmore in North Conway, about 30 miles north.

Pros
Despite Ossipee’s sleepy appearance, there is never a lack of things to do. There’s sailing and Jet-Skiing on the lake, hiking in the mountains, fishing in nearby ponds, shooting for par at Indian Mound Golf Club next to the lake and, in the case of Mr. Peterson, motorcycling along rolling two-lane highways.

“Motorcycling in New Hampshire is second to nowhere,” Mr. Peterson said. “There are a lot of beautiful two-lane blacktop roads that roll through the lakes and the forest.”

Refreshing for many, including those escaping what can be the arcade-like atmosphere of other nearby vacation towns, is Ossipee’s distinct lack of pretension. Even the antiques stores seem intended solely for local residents.

Cons
That same low-key feel, however, may turn off some visitors. In addition to local shopping, dining rarely veers toward the high end; at one of the region’s more expensive restaurants, the Pine River Steak House (11 miles down Route 16 in North Wakefield), the vinyl booths sport the occasional rip and the cheese at the salad bar is wrapped in plastic and set out in a block for customers to cut. (It was hard to find a meal exceeding $20 a person.)

Few supermarkets other than a Hannaford’s on Route 16 dot the map, though a Rite-Aid drugstore is nearby. Even so, driving up and down Route 16 for supplies becomes a normal ritual, even for those just stopping in for a weekend.

And despite claims to four-season splendor, not everyone is in love with the Ossipee spring.

“The spring is that mud season, just terrible,” Ms. Sylvia said. “It’s kind of bleak, and the trees drop this sort of greenish, dusty pollen that gets all over everything.”

The Real Estate Market
On Ossipee Lake, only about 30 properties are on the market at any given time, real estate agents say, which is not surprising given that there are only 800 lakefront properties.

On average, 20 properties there sell each year, though recently, prices have dropped by 15 to 20 percent; the peak sales numbers of 2004 and 2005 are a thing of the past, said Gerard Costantino, a managing broker at ReMax Presidential Realty in town.

“The general market conditions have slowed down,” he said. “It’s probably going to continue on a downward trend — probably not too much depreciation, but not a lot of appreciation.”

Average houses on Ossipee Lake start in the high $300,000 range and can exceed $1 million, though prices around $500,000 are the norm, said Chip Maxfield, a broker at Maxfield Real Estate, which specializes in the Lakes Region. Outside the waterfront area, said George Zavas, who owns Good Life Realty in West Ossipee, houses are much less, averaging $180,000. Mr. Zavas said houses stay on the market for an average of about 180 days.

Among current listings, Mr. Maxfield’s firm has a one-story waterfront house with two bedrooms and one bathroom, on a peninsula, for $485,900. And Mr. Costantino of ReMax is listing a house, on a channel that branches off from the lake, that has five bedrooms and a guest cottage for $789,000.

A Back to Basics Getaway