Paronella Park, Queensland: How a Spanish immigrant built his own fairytale castle

"People come here to witness a beautiful place," says Jana, our guide at the incomparable Paronella Park in tropical North Queensland. "But they leave having witnessed the grand obsession of an extraordinary man."

That man was Jose Paronella, from Spain's north eastern region of Catalonia. A baker, Paronella read a story in his local newspaper saying there were fortunes to be made in Australia.

So he left his young fiancee Matilda, promising he would return to marry her once he could provide her and their expected family with a splendid future.

Jose arrived at the canefields around Innisfail in 1913, and spent the next 11 years labouring in the tropical sun, amassing a small fortune by buying, improving and selling cane farms.

During this time he discovered a picturesque swimming pool under the Mena Creek Falls, surrounded by rainforest. This was the perfect spot, Jose decided, to create something he'd dreamt of since childhood when his grandmother told him fairytales. He promised himself, that here he would build his own castle.

He returned to marry Matilda, only to find she'd grown tired of waiting and had married someone else. Undaunted, Paronella proposed to her younger sister, Margarita and the newlyweds spent their honeymoon travelling round Europe looking at castles and pleasure gardens before departing for Australia. By 1929, he'd bought the land of his dreams.

"The first thing he built was the Grand Staircase down to the base of the falls," says Jana. "There's 47 steps and they'd never pass building regulations now.

"He dug clay down below and carted load after load up those stairs to build the cottage where he, Margarita and their two children, Teresa and Joe, lived most of their lives."

The cottage is now a museum with photos of the Paronella family and the park in its prime.

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Over the next three years, Jose created his grand fantasy. His first "castle", on the top level, housed an ice-cream parlour and a huge ballroom which served as a movie theatre and a venue for swing bands.

"Jose paid £120 for the land, and spent £40 on a ball of mirrors which hung from the ballroom ceiling," Jana says. "It was handmade in America but Jose spared no expense on decorating his castle, knowing the more beautiful he made it, the more people would come."

Paronella also planted 7000 trees and shrubs on the 5.3 hectare site, including an avenue of rare kauris which, 80 years later, tower like cathedral walls in the forest.

On the lower level he created picnic grounds, two tennis courts made from crushed termite mounds, another castle, which doubled as refreshment rooms, and a bandstand, a bamboo forest, swimmers' changing rooms and a "tunnel of love" leading to a second, shady waterfall named after his daughter Teresa.

All this was powered by the first hydroelectric plant in north Queensland, which the former baker had planned as soon as he spotted the waterfall.

When the park opened to the public in 1935, it caused a sensation. Brisbane's Sunday Mail published an article headlined "Spaniard's Dream Realised". In it, Paronella is quoted as saying: "People smile and say Paronella, he is mad! Stupid! To work so hard and to spend so much money this way! Why does he not sit down and rest? That is not my way."

For decades, crowds were drawn from as far away as Brisbane and Cairns. Anyone travelling the old Bruce Highway, which ran along the top of the falls, would stop to peak at this pleasure ground, with its swimming hole, row boats and musical concerts.

Today, his park remains one of north Queensland's most popular and award-winning attractions, thanks to current owners Mark and Judy Evans who rediscovered the decaying site in 1993 and nursed it back to health.

Most of the castles Jose built, particularly the elegant ballroom, are ruins now, damaged by cyclones and floods. Some of it is Jose's fault. The river sand he used in the concrete is prone to water damage and concrete cancer, Jana explains, and the cane railway tracks he used as supports have rusted.

Because the site is heritage-listed, there's a limit to what restoration can be done. Yet it hardly matters. Visiting Paronella's magnificent folly today is like being transported to an Indiana Jones movie that is set among Mayan ruins in an exotic jungle.

The highly recommended free guided tour takes 45 minutes, but you could spend hours here exploring the various trails, eccentricities and wildlife. The entry ticket is valid for a year, and allows you to return for a night visit when the buildings are illuminated and bats are active.

Just a word of warning. I'd brought my swimmers and was just about to plunge into the sparkling waters beneath the falls when I saw a sign saying crocodiles have been spotted recently. Instead I cooled off with a perfect 1930s-style milkshake. I feel Paronella, who died in 1984, would have approved.

THE DETAILS

Steve Meacham travelled at his own expense.

VISIT

Paronella Park, 25 kilometres south of Innisfail, is open every day from 9am to 7.30pm. Entry costs $47 an adult, $26 children and includes a guided tour and self-guided botanical walks. See paronellapark.com.au

STAY

Six on-site cabins each accommodate two people; rates from $98 a night. The Paronella Camping and Caravan Park is also available to guests. See paronellapark.com.au

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