It’s a small family business off the beaten tourist path — without public transport, child-friendly facilities or wheelchair access. There’s been no TV hype, no celebrity owner, no huge advertising budget or big billboards, so why has Paronella Park been voted (by the public) the #1 Must-Do in Queensland? Now that we’ve been to Paronella Park, we know.

We followed a little sign from the highway, arrived in time to settle into a campsite before dark and then meet up with the tour group for the night tour. Those who pay for entry receive a night’s free camping, and we were happy to get that, but we did so without really knowing what we were parking next to.

Spanish castle ruins? In Queensland? Sure, why not?

We were issued with hand torches and followed the tour guide around to view some lights shining on a waterfall. Yes, that was nice. But no big deal.

Then we followed the guide around to the front of some building ruins. Then lights came on, and the girls recognised the recorded music as the theme from Laputa.

Paronella Park, November 2012
It's a gentle introduction, but our girls aren't impressed. They want to explore the castle, not just look at it.

We had to wait until the morning to have a good look around, so we returned to our housebus that was parked up in the camping ground. That evening, we saw interesting cicadas and a little bandicoot. It was lovely to be camping among others and sharing facilities with them. I like being part of a community, even if it’s only temporary.

Our girls at Paronella Park, November 2012
It's a rainy day when we browse through Paronella Park, but our girls enjoy getting out their umbrellas. The facility also provides complementary umbrellas to all its patrons.

Our girls at Paronella Park, November 2012
In the morning, we enjoy a frozen mango at the café before exploring the grounds.

Paronella Park, November 2012
Spaniard José Paronella built his castle in the 1930s as a home for his family and a reception centre for the public.

Paronella Park, November 2012
Using aqueducts, Paronella harnessed the water to power the first private hydro-electric plant in Queensland. It was operational in 1933.

Paronella Park, November 2012
The current park owners maintain and preserve the wondrous workmanship of Paronella so that we can continue to marvel at the imagination and strength of one man.

Our girls at Paronella Park, November 2012
After admiring the waterfall, we descend the grand staircase — one of the first constructions on the site — to the water below.

Paronella Park, November 2012
Markers along the stair-steps show how high the floods have reached in previous years.

Paronella Park, November 2012
Crocodiles have been sighted recently at Paronella Park, so we're warned off entering the water.

Our girls at Paronella Park, November 2012
Instead, we feed the fish with food provided by the facility.

Our girls at Paronella Park, November 2012
As we watch the fish collect, I can't help but think that they would provide a stable food source for a hungry crocodile!

Paronella Park, November 2012
In the daytime, the castle ruins are whimsical and glorious.

Paronella Park, November 2012
The courtyard fountain was originally gravity-fed and has been carefully restored to its original form.

Paronella Park, November 2012
The steps are very steep, but that must have been the fashion in the 1930s.

Our girls at Paronella Park, November 2012
Although a lot of the castle is chained off, some parts are still accessible for us to explore properly.

Paronella Park, November 2012
Floods and age have taken their toll on the place, and the current owners are simply trying to preserve what is left standing.

The castle ruins are magnificent enough, but the buildings are surrounded by grounds so delightful and surprising in their layout, features and plantings. It’s a pleasure to explore the labyrinthine garden paths and see where they all lead.

Paronella Park, November 2012
Two well-maintained paths take slightly different directions, and we have to choose which one to follow.

Paronella Park, November 2012
Magnificent Queensland kauri trees line a walkway. These were planted eighty years ago.

Paronella Park, November 2012
There are no dead-ends as the paths lead to features or back to each other, giving us the freedom to wander around without getting lost.

Paronella Park, November 2012
Many of the plants are labelled, and a guidebook is provided at the office so we can look up the species of the trees and flowers.

Paronella Park, November 2012
During our visit, the wild ginger is in bloom — startling us with its colour.

Paronella Park, November 2012
Graceful heliconia flowers hang to the side of a clearing. These tropical flowers remind me so much of the bouquets that were sold in the markets of West Africa.

Paronella Park, November 2012
Then the vegetation gives way to another collection of buildings.

Our girls at Paronella Park, November 2012
The Tunnel of Love leads to a spring-fed waterfall on the other side of a hill.

Paronella Park, November 2012
The tunnel was originally designed to hold aquariums in cavities in the sides of the walls, but that fantastic idea was abandoned because of leakage.

Paronella Park, November 2012
Upon exiting the tunnel, a short flight of steps leads us back into the garden and to Teresa Falls.

Paronella Park, November 2012
Because Teresa Falls is spring-fed, it is now the water supply for the establishment.

Spotted eel, Queensland, November 2012
A spotted eel travels between the falls and the river, foraging for food on the floor of the shallow ditch.

Paronella Park, November 2012
As we continue along the garden paths, the old landscaping and soft plantings make it a very pleasant outing.

Paronella Park, November 2012
At the far end of the property, a beautifully-crafted flight of stairs beckon us upward.

Paronella Park, November 2012
A circuit in a stand of bamboo is long enough to lead visitors around the corners without revealing what's in store.

Paronella Park, November 2012
Returning to the castle ruins by another path makes the journey surprising.

Paronella Park, November 2012
Adjacent to the ruins, a small building houses a museum that details Paronella Park's rich history.

Paronella Park, November 2012
When we exit the park, we do so to cross the suspension bridge and look at the castle from another angle.

Brioni and Calista on the suspension bridge at Paronella Park, November 2012
Our girls love running across the suspension bridge. As they cross it many times, my eyes rise up to the hillside behind them where I can see schoolchildren engaged in their physical education within a fenced yard.

When we leave Paronella Park, it’s after a full day of exploration and fun. Each park ticket permits admittance for a full twelve months, and I’m hoping we can get back to spend some more time in this wonderful place. I was able to spend some time talking with Judy and Mark who own the establishment, and their passion is infectious.

In thinking of Paronella and his huge vision for the castle, I am reminded of Clinton in New Zealand and Guy in northern NSW who have both built amazing houses. When José Paronella started his castle in 1930, he wouldn’t have known how it would be appreciated and valued in 2012. Although Paronella died and his life’s work was sold, others have taken up his initial vision to provide a wonderful place for people to visit in Far North Queensland!