PROVINCETOWN -- Ever since I moved to the Cape, 20-some years ago, people have been asking the same question: What do you do in winter?
Winter, in this case, doesn't mean the usual Dec. 21 to March 21. It's more shorthand for ''closed for the season" -- sometime after Halloween and before mid-May.
It's always seemed an odd question, one that provokes a slight, secret smile from many year-rounders. Just about everybody I know prefers the Cape this time of year, when you can resume normal life, get more work done, see friends, have the place to yourself.
''I love the winter in Provincetown," says Dorothy Antczak, educational coordinator at the Fine Arts Work Center. ''This is my favorite time of year because there's nobody around. You can take a walk on the beach and not see a soul. But if you don't want the solitude, you can go downtown and you know every person you pass on the street."
Paul Fanizzi, who owns Fanizzi's by the Sea restaurant, is happiest when it's busiest -- and that means summer.
''But I like it as a respite," he says of the off-season.
Fanizzi keeps the restaurant open year round, and though business is quieter, ''You can enjoy the time a little more, get to talk to people. A lot of people who are too busy working in the summer show up this time of year. You get to know a lot of people's names, and there are people who come in every day."
I spent my first 10 years here in Provincetown, and it's still the place I like best in winter. Even on the bleakest afternoon, you can find an ''open" sign, whether for a cup of coffee in one of a handful of restaurants, or overstocked goods at Marine Specialties. At night, you can wander the narrow, empty streets, pass the lighted windows of houses, and wonder what kinds of lives are unfolding inside. The town has always seemed more romantic this time of year, more open to the imagination, with the secrets of its existence just out of sight.
Something has changed in Provincetown the last few winters, though. It is at once both quieter and more alive. For example, many Provincetown year-rounders think the streets are emptier than they were even a few years ago.
''I think there are more coyotes than people now where we live," says Mike Wright, who has lived here 20 years. For several years, Wright ran a guesthouse in town; now she works for the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. ''It's much quieter, which I like because I'm an artist and my partner's a poet. But it's unnerving to take a walk down our street. There used to be a lot of year-rounders. Now people are just here in summer."
John Andert, a graphic designer and illustrator who moved here in 1986, says through-the-ceiling real estate values have been one of the biggest factors in driving out some longtime residents and artists who eked out a living in summer so they could do their work and enjoy the town in winter.
''It's more abandoned in the off-season in the last few years than I've ever seen it," Andert says. ''Nobody really lives here anymore. The year-round population has been decimated by the real estate situation. It's all second homes and investment properties. A lot of people buying places now are no longer renting their houses out for the winter; they let them sit empty."
Add to this an economic downturn after 9/11, and colder-than-usual winters in 2003 and 2004, and the change is palpable.
''I remember Valentine's Day in the late '90s, waiting to get in to a restaurant," says Andert. These days, even during holiday weekends and times that previously brought a rush of people, ''the town shuts down by 9 even on a Saturday night."
Maybe I haven't noticed this shift because I live 14 miles away now, and don't spend as much time on the streets of Provincetown. The irony is, whether for somebody like me or the occasional visitor from away, the town actually seems livelier than ever this winter, offering the kind of cultural life even the most resolute urbanite would like.
For example, you can actually see a first-run movie after Labor Day. For decades, the two-screen New Art Cinema closed by mid-September and didn't come back to life until May. Now under new ownership, it has expanded to three screens, including a small upstairs theater in the Whalers Wharf complex. The main theater is still closed until May, but Whalers Wharf is open with largely art house fare, courtesy of programmer Connie White, who also books films for Brookline's Coolidge Corner Theatre.
Provincetown also finally has a theater with a stage. It always seemed ironic that the town known as a birthplace of modern American theater hadn't had a theater since the Provincetown Playhouse burned down in 1977. Plays were mounted in borrowed spaces around town. Last year, however, local theater companies renovated a former garage into the new 200-seat Provincetown Theater, home to two resident companies. While the off-season has fewer offerings, you can still find a variety of events, including a production this month of ''Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" and a spring playwrights' festival.
(You'll also find plenty of literary and artistic offerings around town. The Fine Arts Work Center gives seven-month fellowships to 20 artists and writers each year, many of whom leave town to find artistic fame soon thereafter, among them, for example, writers Michael Cunningham and Jhumpa Lahiri. On Saturday nights there are often free readings by current fellows and visiting writers. One to watch for: Toronto-based novelist (and one-time Work Center fellow) Catherine Bush on March 26.
During the off-season, the Provincetown Art Association and Museum turns over some of its curating to local students. They choose work from the museum's permanent collection, including works by many of the artists who have earned Provincetown its reputation as one of the premiere art colonies in the world. The student-curated shows offer some of the most consistently satisfying exhibits you will see. Teachers from the town's elementary school choose one show for March; April's exhibit is curated by students from Nauset Regional High School in nearby Eastham.
One benefit to hitting town in the off-season, of course, is prices. Doing Provincetown on a budget gets harder each year, as businesses upgrade their offerings -- and their prices. Come before the lilacs bloom, though, and you'll find the place decidedly more affordable.
A couple of great choices sit along Bradford Street on one of the highest spots in town, overlooking rooftops and the harbor. The Aerie House and Beach Club has a sophisticated look in sage green, gold, and warm rich wood, but at small-town prices. When was the last time you could find a room in Provincetown for $25? Granted, said room has a shared bath and lacks a water view and breakfast, and the price is limited to weekdays through March. Still, there's a hot tub, free high-speed wireless Internet service, and your dog is welcome. For a little more, the main house offers more luxurious rooms with gas fireplaces and whirlpool tubs. You can also stay right on the water in one of the one-bedroom apartments at the Beach Club for as little as $75 weekdays.
James Mack, owner of the Snug Cottage guesthouse, agrees the town is emptier in winter, especially during the week, but in terms of business, he's not feeling it.
''There aren't as many businesses open in the winter as there were," Mack says. ''But we have a really good year-round business that continues to get better. Most people we see this time of year stay away from town in the crazy part of summer. They like to come here when it's nice and peaceful and relaxing. We see them in March and then they say, 'I'll see you in the fall.' "
Room rates at Snug Cottage drop about 45 percent this time of year, to $90-$135. There's free Wi-Fi, a pickup from the airport, ferry, or bus, and snacks, hot cider, and wine in the afternoon. The biggest draw, though, is the fact that most of the rooms and suites have actual wood-burning fireplaces, an increasing rarity in this age of skyrocketing insurance.
''We're a dying breed," Mack says, ''but having fireplaces makes a big difference. People are looking for something like that." Just as he says this, the phone rings. It's someone calling to reserve a room this month.
The year-round community may be shrinking, but it still provides my single favorite thing in town: the spring musical at Provincetown High School. This year, they're doing ''Damn Yankees" March 31-April 3. Lots of high schools have good productions. What's unusual about Provincetown's is that it manages to be good drawing from the talents of one of the smallest schools in the state. There are about 160 students in grades 7-12, and more than 40 of them will be in this year's show. What's the secret? In part, it's the consistency and excellence of staff, who promote a can-do atmosphere and sense of camaraderie.
Music teacher Linda Weissenberger coaches the students from elementary through high school. Director Jim Brizzi has been coaxing great performances out of them for 35 years; choreographer Marie Boxer has been there even longer.
Just about everybody in town shows up in the audience -- old and young, straight and gay, longtime families and newcomers to town -- and winds up screaming for curtain calls. This year sounds like the final encore for Brizzi, who is retiring.
Janet Whelan, a physician at Outer Cape Health Services, attended school in Provincetown.
''It's a very small town and I don't think that's changed," she says. ''There are more restaurants, movies, plays, more things to do. But January into March is still a pretty dead time."
For Whelan, what marks the unofficial end of winter is the coming of seasonal workers, often from faraway places.
''When the Jamaicans come back to town," Whelan says, ''it's like the swallows returning. We know spring has arrived."
Kathy Shorr is a freelance writer living in Wellfleet. She is the author of ''Provincetown: Stories from Land's End" (Commonwealth Editions Press, 2002). She can be reached at email@example.com.