Paronella Park, a fantastical period Spanish castle in the rainforest, was a standout on my recent holiday in far north Queensland.
FNQ is better known for coral reefs, wildlife, etc, and I saw -- and enjoyed -- those things too. But Paronella Park is entirely different, managing to combine heritage, fantasy, beauty and nature in one place. Located between Innisfail and Mission Beach, it's a comfortable 120km drive from Cairns.
Built in the 1930s by Spanish immigrant Jose Paronella, the 'pleasure park' (as it was then known) sits on a glorious five hectare site next to Mena Creek Falls.
Deep in the rainforest, former canecutter Jose built a house, castle, theatre and ballroom with his own hands. Not to mention fountains, staircases, walkways, and around 500 planters that sit atop balustrades and steps throughout the park.
We arrived around 6 o'clock one evening, just in time for the guided night tour through the illuminated ruins of the buildings.
This was breathtaking, with everything from huge waterfalls to the crumbling castle lit up. The tour also included visits to fish and turtle colonies in the park's waterways, and lots of photo opportunities.
We slept overnight in the park's camping ground (camping is included in your admission fee), and woke up early to wander the park's paths in daylight.
This was another glorious experience, climbing moss-covered stairs, enjoying little grottoes, and marvelling at the work that went into constructing Jose's vision. Waterfalls large and small are scattered throughout the park, along with little streams and artfully constructed pools.
We happily spent a couple of hours exploring before having good coffee and fresh scones at the park café and heading off. (We also ate a good pub dinner at the nearby Mena Creek Hotel the night before.)
Paronella Park has suffered through cyclones, floods and years of neglect before being taken over by its current owners, so don't expect the buildings to be in perfect condition. In fact, most of them are out of bounds so can be looked at but not entered.
But the whole park brings together such great natural beauty and glorious human vision that it was enough for me. I was utterly charmed by the whole experience.