Belles of the bush

These stunning retreats allow pleasure hunters to make the place their own, writes Leisa Tyler.

In 2006, on a promontory overlooking a magnificent stretch of east coast beach, Tasmania's limping tourism industry took a turn for the better. Avalon Coastal Retreat near Swansea, set behind a steel-grey wall of stone, opened its doors to offer a new type of travel experience. The property was palatial enough to compete with the five-star resorts and stunning enough to capture architecture awards. But there was a catch: services were limited and when you booked it, it was yours and yours alone.

Now there are dozens of similar self-contained luxury houses across Tasmania, including a few within a stone's throw of Avalon (although on the wrong side of the road). Each comes with a full kitchen, linen, towels and whatever else is needed for a self-sufficient getaway.

From Table Cape on the island's north-west coast to Dover in the south, each house offers a unique experience - be it living on a working sheep farm, by an uninhabited beach, in an old-growth forest or even at a winery. We take a look at the latest to open their doors.

Rocky Hills

The second take for Avalon Coastal Retreat owner Brett Torossi flanks the edge of the heavily forested hillside above Avalon. Designed by Craig Rosevear, the property first appears as a concrete-brick fence with nothing to suggest a house on the other side. Open the door and it's a world of plush comforts: thick shagpile carpets, two oversize cotton couches in burnt orange, a fireplace and a black dining table skirt a small kitchen area.

On the other side, a king-size bed leads to a timber deck with a Huon pine bath-tub designed and built by local craftsman Stuart Houghton. All around are floor-to-ceiling windows with views that tumble down to an uninhabited swath of white sand beach and the looming peak of Maria Island, washed in a dusky shade of blue.

I loved the little touches: the ready-to-go picnic basket, his-and-hers gumboots for rainy days ...

There's little to do but flip through books on Asian art and green architecture, or read Helmut Newton's Sumo, if you can lift it. (The signed, 480-page collector's item weighs 35 kilograms.) You can watch classics such as Out of Africa in a portable home theatre, perhaps while enjoying the ready-to-make soup left on the stove. Artistic types will appreciate the art studio, an old church that was going to be demolished before Torossi packed it up Ikea-style and moved it to Rocky Hills. It has everything an aspiring artist could dream of - from crayons to brushes, philosophy books and canvases, to a deck with red chair that overlooks the forest.

It's not just the surrounds that are green: off-the-grid Rocky Hills is run on a 15,000-watt solar power system, with double-glazed windows for insulation and rainwater tanks.

Like Avalon, however, it's the attention to detail that has guests coming back. Torossi has thought of everything, from hot-water bottles with cashmere wool covers, chenille bathrobes and rugs for the couch, to a fully stocked kitchen with complimentary dry pantry that includes pots of potatoes, onions, spices, oils, chutneys and mustards.

A tray of thick-cut bacon and gourmet snags is in the fridge, a dozen or more ready-made frozen meals from Hobart-based deli Wursthaus are in the freezer and a mini-cellar has Tassie wines and beers (for extra cost). There is even a welcome bottle of champagne in the fridge.

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While there Take a walk along Mayfield Beach, a kilometre-plus swath of snow-white sand tucked below Rocky Hills. While I was there, a pod of 50 or more dolphins frolicked in the bay's sky-blue waters.

Rocky Hills is $1000 a night Friday and Saturday and $900 for weeknights. No minimum stay. Breakfast items are included. rockyhillsretreat.com.au.

Craigie Knowe

This 1842 stone farmhouse takes its name from the five-hectare vineyard surrounding it. Craigie Knowe, which means craggy knoll in Gaelic, has rich volcanic soil that was first planted with vines by John Austwick in 1979. He picked his crop by hand and fermented the grapes in his garden shed. Austwick pioneered wine on Tasmania's east coast; now it's a thriving crop for the land between Swansea and the Freycinet Peninsula turnoff.

The house has three bedrooms. The two in the attic have en suites and the main bedroom downstairs has a separate bathroom. They are plushly furnished with Jim Thompson silk curtains and quilts from Mekong Quilts, a Cambodian-based non-profit organisation that helps underprivileged women earn a living. The house has a sunroom stocked with board games, including a replica of the original Monopoly, based on Atlantic City, and a television room with a big flat screen and open fire (albeit a rather ineffective one).

However, it's the antiques that really shine, including 19th-century Tasmanian furniture and Persian rugs covering the original floorboards and chromolithography flower prints by Louisa Anne Meredith, an artist born in Britain in 1812 who lived at Swansea and possibly Craigie Knowe. Empty bottles of medoc and cru classe bordeaux wines from 1982, one of the region's biggest years, seem part tease, part brag.

The house is big and rambling, with a frosty air - common for houses of this age - and more suited to parties than a romantic getaway for two. Most people gravitate to the beautiful big kitchen with central console and newly built second sunroom that overlooks the vineyard. The house could be better stocked; there is only one frying pan and the utensil drawers, tucked under the bench, are hard to access. A dry pantry has basic ingredients such as flour, sugar, tinned tomatoes and spices, and there is a small cellar of Craigie Knowe wines, which are produced by nearby Spring Vale Wines.

Of the wines on offer, Craigie Knowe's estate riesling is the most interesting drop. It's rich in lime accents and has a nice mellow palate, but the pinot noir is too young to be drunk. If you're after a bottle of Tassie's famous red, head to the Spring Vale cellar door (130 Spring Vale Road, springvalewines.com) and pick up some of their Spring Vale Pinot Noir, a delicious and rounded wine that stands firmly on its own two feet.

While there Craigie Knowe is near several notable vineyards. Freycinet Vineyard (15919 Tasman Highway, freycinetvineyard.com.au) is a five- star Halliday winery with superb pinot noirs, including the earthy, peppery Louis Pinot Noir and creamy Burgundy-style Freycinet Pinot Noir. Sharing the same driveway, Coombend (coombend.com.au) produces lovely, soft cabernet sauvignons, olives and olive oil.

Craigie Knowe is $300 a night for the first two people and $65 for each additional adult. Prices vary according to the season. Breakfast items are included. craigieknowe.com.au.

Marion Bay House

Few rental properties evoke the kind of drama Marion Bay House does. Turning off the road to Marion Bay on Tasmania's south-east coast, within an hour's drive of Hobart, you head through farm gates and across cow grates to arrive at the angular macrocarpa- and cement sheet-clad house suspended on the edge of a grassy hill.

From the car park, the house appears as a grey timber wall. Hobart-based 1+2 Architecture says of its design: "A folded ribbon of timber which emerges from its site, then folds back on itself to form an enclosure in a manner which both 'grounds' the building and amplifies its presence in the broader landscape."

Inside, there are 180-degree views sweeping down across green paddocks to the sea. There is no doubt the design of the house is stunning, but it needs to be swivelled around to be north-south oriented rather than east-west. The three bedrooms, one with an en suite and the other two sharing a shoe box-sized bathroom, miss out on the views.

Open plan, with a central divide for the kitchen and a television area tucked behind it, the public living space has ample hidey-holes for a family or party of six. The kitchen has Smeg appliances - including a flash but perplexingly complicated espresso machine - and the house has designer furniture throughout: Eames moulded plastic chairs, a suspended French-made Focus fire, Eilersen black leather couches and an elegant Georg Jensen wall clock.

Design and furniture aside, the house needs care and attention before it becomes truly liveable. On my visit there were no tea towels, no dishcloths and only three tablets for the dishwasher. There were two bath towels and no shampoo, conditioner or dry-pantry items in the kitchen.

The windows were locked, forcing me to use the airconditioner, which had no instructions. I would have loved to have sparked up the stunning Focus fire suspended from the ceiling, especially with outside temperatures plummeting to 10 degrees at night, but there was no firewood, or even matches, for that matter.

While there Stroll around the 56-hectare farm, which is endowed with awe-inspiring views from every corner. Or take a drive to Marion Bay, which is popular with surfers and whales alike.

Marion Bay House is $600 a night for a minimum three-night stay. No breakfast provisions are included. marionbayhouse.com.au.

28 gates

Set on a 2000-hectare grazing property in Tasmania's southern midlands, an hour's drive west of Hobart, 28 gates doesn't have the awe-inspiring vistas of other retreats. Here the pitch is all about staying on a working farm.

The farm, Bloomfield, has been home to six generations of the Parsons family and dates back 150 years, just a few years before British troops left Australia. They were hard times; the original Parsons family cleared the land with a bullock and horse. The farm now has 28 paddocks, with the number giving the guesthouse its name.

Each paddock is named after people or historic events; Sputnik is named after the world's first man-made satellite, which the Russians sent into space in 1957; Simpson after Wallis Simpson, the twice-divorced American socialite who caused a constitutional crisis after King Edward VIII renounced the throne to marry her.

Bloomfield's owners, the amiable Susie and Mike Parsons, renovated a 1930s stables-turned-shearers' quarters on the property to create 28 gates. The two-storey stone building has three bedrooms with blackwood floors. The upstairs bathroom has a bath-tub and there is a spacious living room and open kitchen, big leather couches and a rustic dining table downstairs.

I loved the little touches: the ready-to-go picnic basket, his-and-hers gumboots for rainy days and a well-stocked tackle box and rods for fishing for rainbow trout in Bloomfield's four dams. A complimentary bottle of wine from nearby Derwent Valley, home-made bread and smoked trout (not from the property) are ready for guests on arrival. Eggs from the farm chickens and Susie's fruit compote are among the breakfast items.

You can spend your days fishing, trekking around the property on one of four well-marked tracks or, in winter, watching the shearing. Although the property has been mostly cleared, there are still pockets of dry sclerophyll forest, as well as 60 bird species, including wedge-tailed eagles, yellow wattlebirds and boobook owls.

While there Take a drive up to Bothwell, a small farming town on the River Clyde, which is half an hour's drive away from 28 gates. Bothwell was built in the early 1800s and has an amazing 52 buildings listed with the National Trust.

It's also home to Australia's oldest golf course and Nant Distillery, which produces a fine boutique whisky.

28 gates is $700 a night for two people and $900 for six, or less for longer stays. Breakfast provisions are included. 28gates.com.au.

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