AFTER two days on the east coast of Tasmania, we left the white sand beaches and protected bays and turned our banana-yellow rental car inland, towards the island's second largest city, Launceston. As we trundled along the Tasman Highway we wondered where we would stay the night. It was summer in Tasmania, the busiest time of the year. Accommodation was hard to come by - harder still because we hadn't made any reservations. As my friend scoured a tourist publication for our next lodgings, I had one eye on the road and the other on some of the most beautiful countryside I have seen. Despite its small size (on a par with Ireland and Sri Lanka), Tasmania has a rich and varied topography. No place on the island is more than 115 kilometres from the sea. One day's drive in almost any direction reveals uninhabited beaches, rolling plains, alpine heaths, trout-filled lakes, ancient rainforests and rugged mountains. Forest occupies more than 40 per cent of the land, and over one-fifth of the island is part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. Accommodation is as varied as the landscape. Hotels, holiday cabins and caravan parks are among the options. Our preference was colonial accommodation - beautifully restored cottages and estates, often of Georgian, Edwardian or Victorian style. It was thiskind of place that my friend was searching for. 'Here's one,' she said. 'Historic Hagley House, circa 1826. Stay in one of Tasmania's foremost historic mansions on a picturesque 30-acre estate. Bed and breakfast in the style of the landed gentry of yesteryear, just 20 minutes from Launceston on the BassHighway. Excellent restaurants close by.' At the next town we rang Hagley House and booked a room. It was past lunchtime and we still had much ground to cover, including a couple of stops on our sightseeing list. Driving through Tasmania is not only visually exciting, it is also pleasurable. The roads are generally good and well-marked and traffic is light. Distances between towns and tourist attractions are short. If you happen to stray down the wrong road there are plenty of friendly people happy to set you right. We had time to tour the historic town of Swansea and visit a mill-turned-museum where black wattle bark was once used for tanning hides. In Buckland we stopped at the Church of St John the Baptist, known for its 14th century stained glass window depicting the saint's life. A spontaneous detour took us down a dirt road to a dense rainforest, where we hiked to the precipitous St Columba Falls. And time after time we pulled the car over to photograph spectacular panoramas that stopped us in our tracks. One of our more picturesque detours, and certainly the most aromatic, was the Bridestowe Estate Lavender Farm. Founded in 1921 by a skilled London perfumer who planted lavender seeds brought from the European Alps, Bridestowe is the only source of true perfumery lavender outside Europe. Time was kind to us - the lavender blooms only six weeks of the year. During the flowering season, December and January, the estate is open seven days a week. A small admission charge covers a guided tour of the processing plant and the use of picnic areas. We parked our car under a huge Tasmanian oak tree and slapped together a few sandwiches made with King Island brie. The sun shone brightly on the acres of purple lavender and the afternoon breeze tickled every bush. If tranquility could be bottled, it would smell of lavender. Tasmania is full of such tranquility. With so much land and a human population of just 450,000 - there are more than five million sheep - there is little chance of claustrophobia. Like its big neighbour Australia, Tasmania has a criminal history. The first criminals from Britain arrived on board convict ships in 1803. Tasmania was then called Van Diemen's Land (named by Dutch explorer Abel Tasman who discovered it in 1642). Hobart was founded for the same purposes as Sydney 15 years earlier - as a convict settlement. Conditions were harsh and brutal, and in those dark days, Tasmania's original inhabitants, the Aboriginals, were nearly wiped out. History paints a grim picture of early Tasmania, but ironically it is the preservation of that history that is among Tasmania's charms. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Launceston, the Garden City, second in size and importance to Hobart. Colonial buildings proudly display the dates in which they were built. Strolling through the city centre you can see many of them, including the famous Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, which features a joss house used by Chinese tin miners in northeast Tasmania a century ago. Launceston is at the head of the Tamar Valley, not far from Tasmania's premier wine-growing area. Although in its infancy compared to most wine producers in Australia, Tasmania is gaining favour and investment from overseas investors. Of the growing numberof vineyards, Morilla Estate, Pipers Brook, and Heemskerk (part-owned by Champagne Louis Roederer) are most well known. But there are other wine-makers with a bright future, like Freycinet, Elsewhere and Rochecombe. Wine and food were an integral feature of our trip. Tasmania has an almost endless list of home-grown delights: salmon, crab, abalone, trout, lamb, quail, apples, berries and cheese. Restaurants like Mures Fish House, in the historic Battery Point area of Hobart, the Shy Albatross in Swansea, and The Red Feather Inn in Hadspen, combine local ingredients with creative flair. Our eating frenzy wasn't confined to public establishments. Probably our best meal came when we bought freshly-cooked Tasmanian crayfish from a fisherman's roadside stand and polished it off picnic-style with a chilled bottle of Tasmanian wine. We had barely scratched the surface of Launceston, but the sun was waning and we had to hurry to Hagley House. A kilometre or so from the Bass Highway we found the pine-lined driveway of 'one of Tasmania's foremost historic mansions'. With high hopes of finding truth-in-advertising, we made the turn. We were not disappointed. Hagley House is impressive. The large white Georgian mansion sits as proudly and as elegantly as a Persian cat. Until Barbara and Errol Minahan bought the 30-acre estate at auction in 1989, the public had never set foot inside the house. Now it is a haven for travellers looking for peace and quiet, big country breakfasts and a remembrance of things past. Hagley House, classified by the National Trust as an historic building, dates from 1826. It was designed and built by Captain W.T. Lyttleton, who arrived in Tasmania in 1810 with the 73rd Foot Regiment of England. Upon his retirement 15 years later he was granted 560 acres at Hagley. In the 1830s, Hagley House was sold to Sir Richard Dry, the first Australia-born knight. The property changed hands several more times before the Minahans bought it. We were greeted by three barking dogs. Errol came to the door and invited us in. His genial, make-yourself-at-home welcome erased any apprehension we might have had about sharing a stranger's house for the night. He showed us to our large room and invited us for cocktails at 6:30pm. We changed for dinner and joined Errol, Barbara, and two other guests in the lush garden for a glass of wine. Flowers fringed the patio and camellia trees shipped from England by Captain Lyttleton filled the yard. Beyond them stood a large paddock and a pond stocked with trout. It was idyllic. Unfortunately, our tight schedule forced us to press on the next morning, but only after a hearty breakfast that included eggs laid by the resident chickens. Our next stop was Cradle Mountain Lake in the St Clair National Park, famous for its magnificent alpine scenery. What was far less magnificent was the Cradle Mountain Lodge where we stayed. Overrun with tourists, it was about as cosy as the New York subway. One consolation was seeing a Tasmanian Devil, a marsupial which is not as well known as its koala and kangaroo cousins. Staff at the lodge put out bait that attracted several of these small, squat creatures. The Devils lived up to their name, grimacing, baring teeth and making a demonic throaty noise. The other consolation was Cradle Mountain itself, a craggy dolomitic peak which rises 1,545 metres. We were lucky to see it on one of only 32 days during the year when the sky around it is clear and sunny. There are a number of hiking trails in the area, the most challenging being the 80-kilometre Overland Track. Bushwalkers and campers are warned about dramatic changes in weather - sleet and snow in summer - that have claimed a few lives. With its rugged terrain and gold-rush ghost towns, the west coast of Tasmania has a pioneer feeling about it. We stopped in Queenstown, a mining town surrounded by mountains stripped of foliage from decades of copper smelting. After a tour of the Mt Lyell mine we devoured an Aussie hamburger with 'the lot', an eating experience which will never be forgotten. We covered 1,600 kilometres in five days. If we had stayed twice as long it wouldn't have been enough. HOW TO GET THERE Cathay Pacific and Qantas fly daily to Sydney. Cost: $8,800. Domestic carrier Ansett flies regularly from Sydney to Hobart in Tasmania. Cost: A$466. Information supplied by Wallem Travel, phone 821-3861.