If you drive Route 4 through Northwood, you pass a cluster of colorful cabins by a small lake: the Cottages at Harvey Lake. Generations of travelers have gone there to relax, despite it being just a stone’s throw from one of the busiest roads in the state.
NHPR reporters Sarah Gibson and Annie Ropeik spent a night there to see what draws people to the cottages - and what brings them back.
The Harvey Cottages aren’t just near Route 4; they’re practically on it. With heavy traffic in both directions, turning off the main drag through Northwood can be treacherous. Then it’s down a short gravel driveway past a rambling two-story house, to six cottages, each a different bright color, each adorned with rainbow flags.
The cottages all have screened-in porches that face away from Route 4, toward Harvey Lake and the trees and homes that line its shores.
We stay in the one-room yellow cabin. It's complete with a bathroom and kitchenette. Next door, reading under the shade of a pine tree by the blue cabin, are husband and wife Russ Wagenfeld and Eva Klonowski, from Rhode Island.
Wagenfeld has been vacationing in Northwood since the 1950s, and he remembers his family driving by this place on the way to Johnson’s, a local ice cream spot.
“This place was called Ma-Ru’s,” he recalls. “Whenever we would drive by in a '50 Ford that looked like a tank, we would yell - all of us - ‘MA-RU!’ She would turn on the light and look around and see - but of course we were down the road to Johnson’s by that time.”
No one knows exactly how Ma-Ru got that nickname.
The history of this whole place is a bit murky, but we know the lake got its name from the Harvey family, which owned much of the land and houses here in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Before the cottages were built, in the early 1900s, the main house we drove in past was run by a Mrs. Kelley. The story goes that she let drifters walking along Route 4 eat and stay the night there, for free.
Today’s owners are Nancy and Lee Carver. We meet Nancy on her golf cart, checking on her cottages.
She says they bought the Harvey Cottages 13 years ago when they were looking for a vacation spot.
“We found this," she says. "I like to bring things back to life."
The Carvers renovated the cottage roofs and foundations, upgraded the septic systems, and painted the rainbow colors, inspired by where the Carvers vacation in Miami's South Beach.
“Now we’re kind of a destination,” Carver says. “People know the colorful cottages all the way to Maine and back.”
She says more than half their visitors are repeat customers.
“I think they like the peace and quiet,” she says. “They love that they have their own little space. Most of them have their favorite cottages.”
Jill and Ron Morazzini are some of those dedicated Harvey Cottage regulars.
We find them by the purple cottage, eating ice cream for dinner underneath a beach umbrella.
“What I’m looking at here is what I don't see at home,” Jill says, gesturing to the small beach that Nancy Carver created on the shore of the lake. “I mean, my feet are literally in sand and I have ten steps to go dive in the water.”
“It’s not the Taj Mahal,” Ron adds. “It is what it is - it’s a cottage. You can't expect a hotel room, but it's so relaxing.”
Each time they're here, Jill decorates their cottage with lights and flags she brings from home. Usually it’s Hawaiian-themed.
The Morazzinis have been coming up here from their home in central Massachusetts for four years. In their first year, they discovered the resident loon. Ron remembers one early morning when he was still in bed.
“I hear this thing going off and I'm like, ‘Jill, what the hell is that?’ It freaked me out. She says, ‘It’s the loon.’ That was the first time I heard a loon,” he says, “To hear that thing go off, it blew me away.”
Russ Wagenfeld, the Rhode Islander at the blue cottage, says it’s not all natural beauty.
“The only drawback to this place is the road out there," he says. "The traffic on that road is 24/7. Lots of commercial trucks and lots of noise."
So he and Eva have one big tip: turn on your cottage's window-unit air conditioner.
All this input from regulars makes us determined to relax like they do. We eat our dinner at the picnic table outside our cottage. We see fireflies in the trees around the lake. Then we head inside, crank up the A/C, and go to bed.
The next morning, it’s cool outside. Kids are in the water chasing dragonflies. Eva Klonowski is sitting in a chaise lounge on the beach. She’s already gone kayaking.
“Particularly these times are nice when the water is very, very peaceful,” she says. “You look out and it’s mirror-like, and you see the sky reflected and the trees.”
The resident loon is gliding in the middle of the lake when Jill and Ron appear driving down the gravel road. They pull up next to their cottage and explain: they’d planned to make a day trip to Hampton Beach - but they hit traffic on Route 4.
So they decided to leave it all behind and come back to Harvey Lake.