Having lived in Cairns for roughly 4 years, I’ve felt a bit sheepish about the fact that I haven’t seen one of the most iconic places in Far North Queensland, Paronella Park. So with my mother visiting from Chicago and it being her first trip to the land down under, I had more than enough justification to make the 120km drive from Cairns to Mena Creek to see firsthand the symbol of FNQ’s romantic history.
Upon our arrival, we were warmly greeted by the front desk and shown where to start our 45 minute guided tour of the venue. We were met by our friendly and knowledgeable Canadian guide, Devin, who was clearly passionate about the remarkable story behind Paronella Park. Prior to this tour, I had only heard of a man with a dream to build a castle; however, I was astonished to realize the extent of José Paronella’s zeal to bring his many dreams to fruition.
Our tour began with the unexpected- one of the results of José’s vision: a hydroelectric plant! Ever the pioneer, in 1933, José channelled the power of the waterfall to supply the site with electricity, a plan first of its kind in Queensland. To this day, the park utilises the electricity generated to power the park since complete restoration of the system in 2009. It even produces enough electricity to feed surplus energy into the local grid.
The next part of our trip entailed a walk around the castle while Devin expertly recounted José’s extraordinary life. We learned his humble beginnings started in Spain as the son of a farmer; this background provided the foundation for his desire to seek his fortune, sailing to Innisfail in 1913 and subsequently spending 11 years buying and selling cane farms. This fortune allowed him to construct not only a castle with a ballroom containing a ball of 1270 tiny mirrors worth more than the property itself, but also a 47-step staircase, a tennis court, a pavilion, changing rooms for swimmers, a museum, and the renowned Refreshment Rooms.
Walking through the park you can’t help but imagine a magnificent past of elegant parties in the ballroom, tennis games on the termite mound-crushed court, midnight dips in Teresa Falls, Saturday night movies open to the community, and the luxury of eating ice-cream in the Lower Refreshment rooms. Yet, when viewing these relics of the past, there is much work to be done to bring Paronella Park back to its former glory. The present-day owners, Mark and Judy Evans, have made their best efforts to restore the property but have experienced an uphill battle in their endeavours with the park experiencing several decades of flooding, a cyclone and a fire. But despite these obstacles, knowing that the Evans have rescued this piece of paradise from ruin and have opened it to the public for everyone to enjoy is reassuring.
Our guided tour ended in the centre of the park, highlighting the park’s flora and fauna. With admission, guests are provided a 14-page Botanical Walk guide, which highlights 69 varieties of vegetation planted by José and his wife Margarita. My mom’s favourite fauna sighting was the Australian Brush Turkey, commonly found in forested areas in Queensland. As for me, while I didn’t have a preference among the wildlife, two forms of plant life stuck out in my mind: the bamboo and the Kauri. At the far end of the park on a self-guided tour, we walked along the bamboo trail, which evoked the feeling of being in a mystical Asian woodland. The last part of our guided tour ended with Devin presenting Kauri Avenue. We discovered that the double row of Kauri pines were given to José Paronella by the Australian government with the condition of never cutting them down as they were endangered due to massive logging. Also, one final note on the fauna- complimentary with an entry ticket, we received fish food which the turtles, eels and sooty grunter devoured at the “Turtle Nesting Area.” We aimed for the turtles’ mouths- the fish and eels were quite feisty and well-fed! You can also feed eels and fish (not turtles) near the picnic tables with a view of Teresa Falls.
Lastly, before leaving we crossed the bridge overlooking Teresa Falls for a memorable view. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the opportunity to do the “Darkness Falls Tour”, which is also included in the price of the entry ticket. During this unique viewing of the park, one can see the secret places of the park not shown during the day tours. However, with my return pass I have 2 years free admission and one night of free camping (good value for your money!) so I will be sure to return and catch a glimpse of the park under the night sky.
Reflecting on the experience, I found that I was truly inspired by what this one man accomplished in his lifetime and the legacy he left behind. If you want to find out more about José and Paronella Park, you can visit http://www.paronellapark.com.au/ and see CCEB Travel to book your trip!
Nina, CCEB Teacher