a rural retreat
The first time Catriona Rowntree clapped eyes on the bluestone building that would become her family home, it was deserted, all but derelict, and littered with the odd dead bird.
That was more than 15 years ago, when Catriona visited her new boyfriend’s historic family property south-west of Melbourne in Australia. Just a short walk from his parents’ homestead, he showed her the old manager’s cottage – with sheep and emus grazing around it and barely a tree in sight. One day, he declared, he would do the place up. Catriona was smitten with the dashing young grazier, but she wasn’t stupid.
“I just looked at him and said, ‘Well, I hope your new girlfriend just loves it,’” she says, laughing.
Back then, Catriona was travelling 42 weeks a year as a presenter on Australian travel show Getaway – the dream job she landed in 1996 – and having a long-distance relationship with James Pettit, whom she had met through friends.
For years, the confirmed city girl and globetrotter resisted country life – but love eventually won out.
“I was sure it was just a fling,” recalls Catriona, now 45. “I was like, as if I’m going to be a farmer’s wife! But I found out the hard way that you have no say where Cupid’s arrow will strike.”
Catriona and James married in 2008, and sons Andrew and Charlie soon followed. Now she wishes she’d had six kids. “I spent so long fighting getting married,” says Catriona. “I was never clucky, but the moment I got married, I started to grow feathers.”
Which seems an appropriate segue into her splendid chook shed. Since Catriona’s move to the country, she has set about putting a distinctive, feminine stamp on her six-bedroom home, even commissioning a builder to design a “mini-Versailles” to house
her four hens. “I’ve painted stencils on the side,” she says, “I’ve made sure they’ve got pretty plants to look at out the window – all of which my husband thinks is completely ridiculous.”
The Araucana chickens, a Chilean breed, were a gift from a local friend after Andrew’s birth, and lay beautiful pale-blue eggs. “I only do pretty,” says Catriona. “I’m not interested in practical chooks.”
In fact, the renovations have been “a constant battle of the pretty versus the practical,” she says. Catriona’s first target was the guesthouse, and she told James to stand aside.
Decorating with pieces she’d found in French antique shops and local markets, Catriona created her fantasy hotel suite, with a clawfoot bathtub.
Back to bare bones
Over the past 150 years, the home has been through a number of incarnations, but Catriona and James have stripped it back to its original design. “It was a challenge initially to see the beauty, but now I’m completely in awe of what that original architect created,” says Catriona. “It’s got these thick bluestone walls, so it’s beautifully cool in the summer and it retains the heat in the winter.”
The sheep and grain property has thrived since the 1860s and, more recently, was used as a location for the films Ned Kelly and The Dressmaker. Catriona’s parents-in-law bought the property about 30 years ago and still live there, which means the boys have their grandparents – and the couple has babysitting – on tap.
With a soccer field in the front yard, Andrew, seven, and six-year-old Charlie spend most of their time outside. “Technology is a challenge in our lives, too,” says Catriona, “but I’ve got some pretty good diversions.”
As well as sheep, chooks, five adopted cats and two working dogs, the boys have had a series of pets, but haven’t had much luck with high-maintenance rabbits and guinea pigs. “I came back from one trip,” recalls Catriona, “and asked Charlie, ‘Where have the guinea pigs gone?’ He pointed to the sky and said, ‘They’ve gone to Kevin.’”
Catriona is still working on her rural credentials, but says she has adjusted to life in the country, buying most things online, investing in a breadmaker and slow cooker, and improving her skills in the kitchen.
She can whip up a cake at a moment’s notice, but admits that’s only because she has a pantry full of packet mixes.
“I’ve only been asked to cook for the shearers once,” says Catriona, “and I think ‘once’ is the operative word.”
The conversion to country girl, it seems, is not quite complete. “I do get a bit of cabin fever if I’m here for too long,” she says. “In one sense, I adore the peace, but I also crave conversation. So I’m fortunate with my job that – in the nicest way possible – I can escape.” With a regional airport a quick drive away, she says, “I dodge the ’roos on the way out the back gate and I’m in Sydney in an hour.” Catriona, who is an ambassador for Ziera shoes, still spends half the year travelling the world with Getaway and although it was tricky when the boys were younger, she has never tired of the job. “Every journey I enjoy and I learn something,” she says, and names Bhutan as her favourite destination. “I eat a meal that blows my mind or I meet someone, whether it’s a bus driver or a Bhutanese monk, that I’m humbled by. I think it’s very healthy for all of us to have something to look forward to, so that’s why I say, just book that trip, and when you go, take
“I am an obsessed shopper. If you can fit it in the overhead locker, just buy it.”
that cooking class, talk to the locals, expand your mind. The worst thing that can happen is that you’ll come home and be grateful for the fresh water you drink, the bed you sleep in. Without a doubt, we live in the best country in the world, but I can only say that because I travel.”
Souvenirs from Catriona’s travels are all over her home, from her collection of traditional hats to the pretty blue tiles she picked up in a romantic Portuguese village. “I’m an obsessed shopper,” she says.
“My attitude is, if you can fit it in the overhead locker, just buy it.”
After our photo shoot, the family is due to leave on the children’s first overseas holiday – a surprise trip to Disneyland and then to the Bahamas, where they will head out to The Exumas, a string of islands famed for their “swimming pigs”.
For more than two decades, Catriona has documented it all in a series of Moleskine journals, and these days she also shares stories on her travel website, Journeys to Come.
One day, as an old woman, she hopes to tell tales from her extraordinary life to a gaggle of little people on her lap. “I write with my unborn grandchildren in mind,” she says. “I want them to know that their grandmother absolutely lived it.”
TOP RIGHT: Catriona’s son Andrew playing outside the chook house with an Araucana chicken. RIGHT AND OPPOSITE: Pierre Frey fabrics, which Catriona spotted in Rouen, France, cover the sofa and cushions in the sun-soaked conservatory.
LEFT: Catriona with her sons, Charlie, left, and Andrew. OPPOSITE, CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Catriona’s walk-in robe room boasts full curtains, ornate carved furniture and a vintage chandelier. The romantic guest bedroom has the glamour and elegance of a Parisian boudoir, but the rough rendered walls also lend it a relaxed, rustic air. Original tongue-and-groove walls in the guest and main bathrooms have been painted white for freshness and light.
CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE: Catriona and her two sons, sharing cake and strawberries on the terrace. A little country garden corner. With timber, old-fashioned taps and bluestone walls, the kitchen is a modern take on rural style.