The first thing you’ll probably notice when you walk into Paronella Park is owners Mark and Judy Evans standing out front.
They’ll either be on the deck of the visitors’ centre or on its steps, ready to greet guests. If they’re not there, there’s a good chance they’re inside, on the park grounds, asking guests how they’re finding it.
“Yesterday we had three girls come by from Germany who had travelled around Australia for two and a half months,” says Mark.
“They were sceptical and weren’t coming in until I dragged them – literally dragged them. I said ‘come on, you gotta see this place’.
“They said it was one of the best places they had been on their trip.”
So what is Paronella Park? Best described as a Gaudi meets secret garden meets the Taj Mahal, it’s a series of moss-covered stone buildings and canopied winding walkways spread across five hectares of lush rainforest in tropical North Queensland, 90 minutes’ drive from Cairns.
And while it’s a pleasant place to spend an afternoon, it’s the park’s history, not to mention present-day reinvention, that makes it so fascinating.
Barcelona-born Jose Paronella grew up hearing stories of castles. In the early 1930s, he decided to build his own: Paronella Park. His devoted wife Margarita stood by him as he realised his “crazy” idea.
It was a big task. Seven thousand trees were hand-planted. Buildings were constructed that, even today, engineers and architects still marvel at. And Queensland’s first river-driven hydro-electric system was engineered.
Once complete, the park became home to Jose and Margarita and their children, Teresa and Joe, as well as a public space. Visitors would stroll and picnic, watch movies in the theatre, and attend dances and functions in the community hall.
Eventually, however, after Jose – who’d made his money buying, selling and developing sugar cane farms – died. Teresa and Joe left home. Then Margarita died too, and the park was sold.
It was hit by cyclones and then left neglected. In December 1993, Mark and Judy stumbled on it.
“We worked for a big company, General Electric, but we both had enough of the corporate world and decided let’s go do our own thing,” says Mark. “We bought a caravan and lived on the road with our kids for two years. We had no idea where we’d finish up.”
Two years to the day after they left their home in Perth, they bought Paronella Park. So risky was their venture that the bank manager who gave them their loan had to be convinced by his wife.
“There were people in the area saying they were going to pull all the buildings down and create a water theme park – slides and so on,” says Mark. “We knew this was – and I hate the word – unique. There’s nothing else quite like it anywhere.”
It wasn’t long before they were visited by the Paronellas’ daughter, Teresa. Worried that the park had fallen into such decline and could easily disappear, she wanted to ensure her dad’s work would be properly looked after.
“What she saw in us was the opportunities for someone who didn’t know about cyclones or floods, were fit and well, and had a bit of a business background,” says Mark.
“She embraced us as potentially being the saviours of this place, and it’s worked. It’s gone from somewhere that people shunned to now getting over 100,000 visitors a year from all over the world.”
Today, descending the grand staircase to reach the base of the waterfall, it’s easy to picture men in suits and women with parasols from nearly a century ago doing the same. Closing your eyes, listening to the sound of thundering water and feeling the mist, you can imagine them on a hot summer’s day doing so too.
Park admission isn’t cheap at $47 a head, but it does include complimentary tours and an onsite campsite or caravan spot (cabins can be had for a bit extra) – not to mention unlimited return entry for the next two years.
Recently, the park also added an evening tour to its line-up: the Darkness Falls Tour. Kicking off at dusk, it showcases the buildings and pathways all beautifully lit in the dark, and finishes with a 20-minute performance by a string quartet.
“We do have a money-back guarantee,” says Judy. “We never have to give money back. Ever.”
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How to book?
Buy a $47 ticket on arrival, or over the phone on (07) 4065 0000.
Pre-bookings are required for the Darkness Falls Tour, or to stay overnight in the caravan park or a cabin.
Tours leave every half hour from 9.30am-4.30pm.
Paronella Park is a 90-minute drive from Cairns and three hours from Townsville.
If you don’t have a car, several coach tours that leave from Cairns include Paronella Park in their itineraries.