Riverhouse at Howqua Dale review: Chilling out

Read our writer's views on this property below

In a country house close to the mountains, Alice Russell gets fireside to relax and reminisce.

Remember The Big Chill, that movie about old friends who gather for a weekend and recall, regret or reinvent their youthful past? Well, bypass the funeral that was their catalyst and organise your own get-together, setting it against the desirable backdrop of the Riverhouse at Howqua Dale.

It has six bedrooms (all with ensuites), two living areas (both spacious) and a full-size kitchen.

You could imagine this was your very own expansive country house as you gathered around the long dining table or in front of a blaze in the whopping fireplace. With no television, you wouldn't have to tolerate those who might be tempted to watch whatever game might be on; just play some old favourites I Heard It Through The Grapevine comes mysteriously to mind or set up a few poker hands at the felt-covered table.

Should togetherness pall, diversionary outdoor activities abound. Guests are free to wander on the 20-hectare property and close at hand are gardens, carpeted in autumn with zingy colours, and the reputedly fish-filled Howqua River is just a scramble down a grassy slope away. The donkey's foghorn call may startle you but the kangaroos appear serenely untroubled.

Beyond are the hills and waterways, vineyards and bushy rises of the high, beautiful country that lies south of Mansfield. It invites walking along the Howqua River Road past farms and bushland but is also within striking distance of the more demanding terrain of the Australian Alps Walking Track. The ski fields of Mount Buller are less than an hour's drive and there is excellent territory hereabouts for horse riding.

Should your idea of country life veer more to cosy pub meals, sampling local wines or warming soups in lively cafes, you can find all within half an hour at, respectively, the friendly Kevington "Hilton" (with jukebox including AC/DC, the Angels and the Mamas And The Papas); the Delatite and Kinloch wineries; and the Regional Produce Store in Mansfield's main street.

But back to your Big Chill weekend. Riverhouse welcomes singles and couples but be warned you could find yourselves sharing with strangers. We meet two people the first night but then have the place to ourselves and it's a little airy Riverhouse is made for a crowd.

It also seems filled, in a non-spooky way, with a sense of good times now past. Not inappropriate for the reminiscent theme and not pure imagination: it was for nearly 30years part of the Howqua Dale Gourmet Retreat and Cooking School, an earlier house extended to provide guest accommodation. Sarah Stegley, who co-ran the school until it closed in 2007, operates it in its current B&B incarnation.

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Evidence of those earlier days is unavoidable. One wall is filled with photographs of chefs and foodies and multitudinous framed awards adorn the kitchen. You might, therefore, be forgiven for expecting something out of the ordinary in the cupboards. But the deal is that goods are provided for breakfast and you can self-cater at any time. Supplies of plates, cutlery and glasses are impressive but for large-scale entertaining you might think about packing a good-sized pan or three and tossing in a sharp knife.

And though generous bowls of fresh fruit and plenty of bacon, eggs and tomatoes wins points as does the Saturday morning delivery of the papers you could improve on the muesli, sliced bread, tub of marg and Vegemite. But these minor shortcomings barely dent our pleasure.

We retreat each night to our pleasant room, with lively coloured walls and a neat bathroom, where, between white cotton sheets (more bonus points), we sleep long and deep. Mountain air, of course, is famous for its sleep-inducing properties and presumably becomes more effective when, as it happens, a failed pilot light puts the central heating out of action for our entire stay.

Little wonder that, seated close to a rip-roaring log fire, we indulge in dreaming up a more convivial weekend. After all, aren't old friends the best way to banish the big chill?

VISITORS' BOOK

Riverhouse at Howqua Dale

Address 85 Howqua River Road, Howqua.

Bookings Phone 57773503; email howqua@mansfield.net.au; or see howquadale.com.au.

Getting there River House is on Howqua River Road, off the Jamieson Road from Mansfield.

How much $110 a person a night for bed and breakfast. The whole house can be booked for up to a dozen people for $2800 a week.

Summary A lovely and comfortable house in a beautiful setting, ideal for walking, skiing and horse riding. Or reunions. All it needs is a little more attention to detail.

Verdict 14.

The score: 19-20 excellent; 17-18 great; 15-16 good; 13-14 comfortable.

All weekends away are conducted anonymously and paid for by Traveller.