Paronella Park is well signposted. We approached from the north, passed the entrance, crossed Mena Creek and stopped just past the Mena Creek Hotel according to instructions Ian received on the phone. We had already bought tickets to Paronella Park on Wednesday, and these included one night camping in the grounds behind the hotel called the Paddock. We rang up while stopped at the gate, and were directed to powered site number 8, the last of the powered sites. We had an almost level, grassy spot. The Paddock campground is huge, with some areas set up with drive through sites, but most of the area was just grass. There are no facilities, so vehicles are expected to be self-contained. We understand that there is another caravan park adjacent to Paronella Park with more facilities, but this was full when we rang a few days earlier. We ended up getting the last of the eight powered sites at the Paddock.
As it was about noon, we quickly set up camp, left Dexter in his pen, and went to the hotel for lunch. Our Site 8 was next to the back gate to the hotel, which was very convenient.
For lunch, Ian had kransky, sauerkraut, mash and salad, which was a bit unusual, but OK. There were two beers on tap from the Red Dragon Brewery in Cairns. The Pale Ale was not a pale ale at all—it had no detectable hops. The Mena Premium Lager was better, even though Ian generally finds lager rather bland.
After lunch, all three of us walked down to the entrance of Paronella Park, about 250 m away from the hotel. There is an impressive suspension bridge over Mena Creek. This was built by the Army as an engineering exercise. Ian was very keen to walk across it, Katie was not quite as enthusiastic, and Dexter would not have a bar of it, so we crossed the road bridge instead.
We met Mark Evans, one of the owners of Paronella Park, on the front deck. The arrangement was that we could take Dexter and leave him to be looked after on the front deck while we toured the park. Mark was welcoming, and Dexter didn’t seem to mind as he nicely sat on a mat while we went inside to register.
We registered for the next daylight tour, and were also allocated to an evening tour which was part of the package. The receptionist even booked a table for us for dinner back at the hotel after the evening tour. Paronella Park and the Mena Creek Hotel are owned by the same people, so there is a lot of co-operation between the two businesses.
We had some time to fill before our 2:00 pm tour, so we had coffee ((an) and tea (Katie). Both were local products, and as the tea was particularly good, we bought some leaves to take away.
Our guide for the afternoon was Yana. She related the story of Paronella Park as we were taken around the site. We also learned that Mena Creek is named after someone called Philomena.
The story of Paronella Park in brief:
José Paronella left his homeland in Catalonia, Spain and arrived in the town of Innisfail in Queensland in 1913. He planned to create a splendid life for himself and his fiancée Matilda, who was back in Spain. He worked hard for 11 years in the sugar cane industry and prospered. While travelling he discovered a virgin forest alongside spectacular Mena Creek Falls and instantly believed this was a perfect place for his dream. On returning to Spain, he found that Matilda had already married someone else, so he sailed back to Australia with Matilda’s younger sister, Margarita, as his bride.
By 1929, José had purchased 13 acres (5 hectares) of beautiful forest near Mena Creek to start building his dream Spanish castle. Initially, a 47 step staircase was built to shift building materials between the lower and upper level. The staircase is still used to provide access between the two levels by visitors. A cottage to live in was hand built out of stone.
José Paronella’s main Castle was inspired by childhood memories of Catalonian castles. Over time, he constructed an entertainment area, a movie theatre that transformed into a ballroom, tennis courts, a picnic area by the falls, a pavilion with turret-topped balconies with views to the falls, refreshment rooms, changing facilities for swimmers, and the Tunnel of Love as a shortcut to Teresa Falls. More than 7,000 trees were planted including an avenue of Kauris surrounding the Paronella family’s home. A museum with a collection of coins, pistols, dolls, timbers and interesting keepsakes was also established.
José constructed North Queensland’s first hydro-electric generator to power the park in 1933, and the castle grounds were opened to the public in 1935.
Unfortunately, Paronella Park has suffered the effects of floods, storms and fires. In 1946, a flood brought a mass of logs through the park, destroying the refreshment rooms. The Paronellas repaired the damage, and the park re-opened six months later.
José passed away in 1948, leaving Margarita, daughter Teresa and son Joe. José‘s wife and descendants ran the park until 1977, when it was sold outside the family. In 1979, a fire swept through the Castle, leaving only the walls and the turret. In 1986, Cyclone Winifred hit the park and caused further damage.
In 1993, Mark and Judy Evans bought the park with the view of reviving José’s dream. They did a lot of work to repair aspects of the park, but Cyclone Larry in 2006 set them back. The hydro generator was refurbished in 2009 and is still used to satisfy all the park’s power requirements. Cyclone Yasi hit in 2011, but the dream continues more strongly than ever under Mark and Judy’s ownership.
In 2017, Paronella Park won the People’s Choice and the Gold Tourist Attraction in the Queensland Tourism Awards. Paronella Park is also ECO certified for Advanced Ecotourism, it is a Green Travel Leader, and a Climate Action Business. Rather than trying to refurbish the old, crumbling buildings, which would ultimately be futile, the focus today is on conservation of the buildings and other features of José’s dream.
At the end of the tour, we were left to ourselves, and we went to all the water sites and fed the eels, black bream, jungle perch and turtles with fish food we were given. Ian couldn’t believe the amount of fish in Mena Creek.
We went back to the front deck and had a sneak peak of Dexter, who looked very relaxed. We greeted him, and spoke with a woman who had taken over from Mark. It might have been Mark’s wife, Judy. She said that Dexter was the best dog she has had on the deck for a long time. It is hard to resist bragging about our boy!
We walked back to our campsite and whiled away a couple of hours. We fed Dexter and settled him in Matilda, then caught the shuttle bus outside the hotel for the 250 m ride back to Paronella Park for our evening tour. Our tour guide this time was a Canadian called Lexus. He projected his voice particularly well. We were each given a small torch. There were a lot of people touring at night at the same time, but it was very well co-ordinated. We went around all the places that we had went on the daytime tour, but the lights provided a very different experience. The falls looked particularly spectacular. At a couple of places away from the lighting we were able to see fireflies in the treetops when all the torches were switched off.
The climax of the tour was a fabulous concert by three of the four members of the String Family in front of the Lower Refreshment Rooms. The family comprises Joel (Dad) on cello, Sarah (Mum) on violin and vocals, Heath on cello and Ashleigh on violin. They play a wide range of music, and on the night they played one of Sarah’s own compositions. Unfortunately, Joel had a fall and hit his head a little while ago. He came onsite for one musical piece with the aid of a walking stick. We were told later that he has just started playing music again. We bought a CD of the String Family playing Celtic music.
As we handed back our torches at the end of the night tour, Mark gave everyone a little pink bag with a small piece of José Paronella’s Castle. It is concrete that was hand mixed by José in 1930, and part of a wall that came down in Cyclone Larry in 2006. Quite unexpected, as was the whole Paronella Park experience.
We were also given a ticket for us to have free admission to Paronella Park for the next two years, and one night’s free camping in the next 12 months. We immediately had thoughts of dropping in next year if we head north for the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s landings in Queensland. We would definitely do the tour of the hydro-electric plant if we come back.
We took the shuttle bus back up the hill to the hotel, and checked on Dexter. We had a table booked, which is just as well because the pub was full on the Saturday night, especially with what appeared to be a hen’s party down one end. We were well looked after by Christie from Hong Kong. Ian had the Mena burger, while Katie had an Asian basket—both went down well after another big day of adventures. The party girls kept the jukebox going with classic rock music, so it was an enjoyable Saturday night at the pub.
On Sunday morning, we managed to get away after breakfast around 9:00 am. Our route took us back to the coast just south of Innisfail, then south to Townsville. We had stopped again at Cardwell beach for coffee, and Dexter had another brief paddle in the water. A guy came up and told Ian that a couple of Labradors had been swimming there recently, retrieving sticks thrown by their owner, but one dog was taken by a crocodile. The water was muddy anyway, so after Dexter had his feet wiped, we resumed our drive to Charters Towers.