Residents call living around Lake Anna, one of the biggest blue spots on Virginia's map, heavenly and healing. "You could not replace what I have here for $5 million in California," said Gary Harris, a retired automobile service technician.
Not bad for life near a nuclear power plant.
Ninety minutes south of the Capital Beltway and 19 miles from the traffic of Interstate 95, the 13,000-acre lake straddles Spotsylvania and Louisa counties.
Head west at Thornburg, then follow a series of winding country roads past farms, produce stands and houses with front-yard ponds. It takes a lot of poking around back roads to find the more than 160 neighborhoods included in the Lake Anna community.
Names such as Seclusion Shores or Peaceable Kingdom fit the area.
The nearest major hospital is an hour away; it's 30 minutes or more to a well-stocked grocery store. But unless you're stuck behind a tractor, navigating Lake Anna's rural roads is rather pleasant.
Karen Edenton, whose extended family has lived in the area since before the lake existed, said: "It's a time warp here. Don't have a crisis after 8:30 p.m. or you're out of luck."
There is no doubt that living at Lake Anna requires some adjusting for folks used to suburban life. "You don't just run out for milk," said Kathy Morris, an active grandmother who became a full-time resident two years ago. "You really have to plan ahead here."
Deciding to move to Lake Anna is the easy part. Choosing among the neighborhoods and options is more difficult. Main lake or cove? Wooded lot or open? Flat or sloping? Waterfront, water view or water access? Gated or open community? Boat dock or boat ramp? Cozy cottage or glass-fronted contemporary?
If you're a sailor, you probably want to live along the southern end of the lake to avoid bridges. The only restaurant on the lake is towards the north end.
Do homeowners associations and communities with covenants interest or repel you? Not all Lake Anna neighborhoods have associations; among those that do, dues range from $25 to more than $500 per year.
Looking to cut costs? Louisa County's tax rate is less than Spotsylvania County's.
Part-timers far outnumber full-timers in many Lake Anna neighborhoods, but a lot of full-timers started out as part-timers. They camped, then rented, then -- particularly as retirement neared -- dreamed of year-round recreational living.
Gary Harris chose two waterfront acres in the gated Winwood Coves neighborhood, where every lot has an assigned boat slip and residents have use of a large sandy beach, three parks and several pavilions. "I have my own boat ramp," he said.
Bob Mercier noted that his teenage son lost about 70 pounds after they moved to the laid-back Anna Coves community, where they keep a fishing boat in the front yard. "He's water-skiing, jet-skiing, exploring," said Mercier, a mechanic and bus driver for Louisa County schools. "We're always outside."
Chris and Barbara Mykrantz were attracted to the strict architectural covenants and lively social scene in non-gated Wyndemere. Both are very involved in civic activities throughout the Lake Anna area. Chris, who has transformed their waterfront lot into a serene park-like setting, said, "We don't do a lot of socializing outside of this community."
Across the lake, Judy and Wayne Decaires, retired caterers, are just the opposite, gallivanting around the lake, visiting friends, organizing pontoon boat raft-ups or hosting luaus in the tradition of Wayne's native Hawaii.
Their white frame cottage, in the quiet, gated Bluewater neighborhood, is a 20-minute walk from the water. Once, while walking the dogs, Judy spotted a black bear crossing a neighbor's yard. Her cell phone plea for Wayne -- "Come and get me!" -- still makes him chuckle.
The man-made lake stretches for 17 miles with more than 200 miles of shoreline. It was built in the early 1970s by Virginia Electric Power Co., now known as Dominion Resources Inc., the power company that owns the lake and controls shoreline development. The lake provides cooling waters for the North Anna Power Station.
Three dikes divide the lake into public and private portions. The smaller private side is at the southern end and lacks any commercial activity. Residents there must even bring in gas for their boats. On the much larger public side, there is low-key commercial activity, including marinas and several small country stores. The year-round population isn't at a level to support larger businesses.
With no single road circling the lake, traveling from one neighborhood to another can involve a roundabout drive. Sometimes it's much easier to go by boat, as Nell West does when she wants to visit friends in Wyndemere.
In 1989, West, a retired child-care worker, was one of the first to move into Tara Woods, a neighborhood near the power station. "I've always felt safe," she said of the plant. "I know they're going to protect it."
With an acre-wide view of the lake, West enjoys the peaceful weekday scene, but said weekend boat activity churns up the water "like a hurricane."
She said, "We park our boats on Friday and don't bring them out again until Monday."
Neighborhood interaction is fostered through the Lake Anna Civic Association, an umbrella group with representatives from several areas around the lake. Group members help educate residents about common issues such as water quality, shoreline management plans or proposals to put a third reactor at the power station.
"This lake is everybody's future," said Chris Mykrantz, a former officer of the group. "If you don't do things to protect it, your property values go down."
Bob Mercier confesses that sometimes he wishes stores were closer. "But if they were, there'd be more people and bigger roads," he said.
Gary Harris told his wife to bury him under the big tree in the back yard when the time comes. "I've found my little piece of heaven -- everything I ever dreamed of since I was a kid."