Ho-hum. Another gated golf community with matching mailboxes.

First impressions can be deceiving, though. A summer visit to Lake Manassas in western Prince William County brings numerous descriptions to mind -- peaceful, eclectic, friendly, even a bit quirky -- but ho-hum isn't one of them.

The community of custom homes on the edge of suburbia, named after the 1,100-acre lake it borders, provides resort-style living with views of the Bull Run Mountains. Just outside the gates, to the west along Route 29, the area remains largely rural; it's easy to buy homegrown fruits and vegetables or homemade bread and butter, as well as ice cream from old-fashioned stands.

Within the community, children ride bikes to swim practice and make milkshakes with blackberries picked along the meandering paved paths.

From her deck, Joan Matthews overlooks the public-access par-72 Stonewall Golf Club. But it's not the course that animates her -- she doesn't play. Rather, it's her encounters with wildlife in the buffer zone between her house and the area around the 10th green. Once, after she found a turtle that was laying eggs, Matthews put a trellis over the area so golfers wouldn't step on the nest. Three months later, she rejoiced when she found exit holes and leathery remnants of turtle eggs, letting her know the hatchlings had made their getaway.

Another time, while she was cleaning out one of her bluebird boxes a few days after a successful fledging of four baby birds, Matthews got another surprise. Tucked underneath the nest were four little flying squirrels, newborns with their eyes still closed. She and her neighbors kept vigil until the mother squirrel moved the babies.

Lake Manassas, a planned community of 550 homes developed by the SouthStar Development Co., with home sites ranging from one-fourth acre to one acre, is three-quarters complete. It is on the edge of the Rural Crescent, a designated wide swath in the southern and western part of Prince William County where a delicate balancing act is taking place to preserve its rural character.

Commuters driving home from the District frequently face horrendous traffic on Interstate 66, but resident Mary Radhi said that once they hit the almost half-mile drive into the Lake Manassas community, "You can almost peel off the layers of congestion."

The community's uniform forest-green mailboxes on sturdy white posts stand in stark contrast to the variety of custom-built houses. While the overall appearance is one of elegant individuality, occasionally the contrasting styles elicit raised eyebrows.

Many of the houses are based on Southern Living Homes designs, but there is little coordination in their placement. A homey Cape Cod with a wide welcoming porch is right next to a striking stone house reminiscent of a mini-castle.

To Barbara Diebus, who moved to Lake Manassas a year ago and recently opened a home decor and gift shop called Details in nearby Haymarket, the eclectic mix of housing styles is part of the community's charm. "When you pull into the neighborhood, you get a sense of coziness and quaintness you don't find in other places," she said. "It's very different."

In addition to the Stonewall golf course, the community borders the private Robert Trent Jones Golf Course, frequent host to the Presidents Cup.

Elene Bakatsias and her husband bought a one-acre parcel overlooking the Jones course and the lake seven years ago, but they didn't start construction on their home until 2002. "RTJ is a big plus," she said, explaining the leap of faith needed to invest in a community that was still in the early stages of construction. "You have to go through the community to get there, so you know this area isn't going to fall by the wayside."

The community's aquatic feature, Lake Manassas itself, is primarily a visual rather than recreational amenity. Owned by the city of Manassas, it has restrictions on boating and swimming, although there are recurring talks about installing a public boat ramp if a suitable spot can be agreed upon. Residents fish from the banks of the lake or at one of three stocked ponds in the community. Water-oriented gatherings take place at the community pool and often are laced with humor. The greased watermelon toss and iron-men boogie board relay are popular pool events. A late-afternoon time for conversation and snacks among poolside moms has evolved into a friendly competition over presentation. Leigh Bravo grinned widely as she brought along her Blue Willow china when it was her turn to play host recently to the informal gathering.

Local artists, many of whom are residents of Lake Manassas, will be showing their wares at a fall bazaar in the community. Bravo makes custom pet beds; other residents make jewelry, personalized baby gifts, painted furniture and such. "It will be open to the public," Bravo said. "There's a wealth of talent out here."

When asked where Lake Manassas residents go for vacation, Marisa Owens, who chairs the community's social committee, said without hesitating, "You find you spend less and less time away from here because there's so much to do."

For residents, the eclectic mix of housing styles is part of the charm of the community of custom-built homes on the edge of Northern Virginia's suburbs.Joan Matthews, right, says she enjoys her encounters with wildlife, including bluebirds and turtles, in the buffer zone between her house and the Stonewall golf course. At left is Karen Deloney.Residents can fish from the banks of Lake Manassas or at one of three stocked ponds in the community. From front to back: Caileigh Bravo, Hannah Radhi, Sara Radhi and Noura Radhi try their luck at one of the stocked ponds. There are talks of installing a public boat ramp on Lake Manassas.The community borders public Stonewall Golf Club and private Robert Trent Jones Golf Course.