Family Road Trip Along Canecutter Way, Northern Queensland, Australia
Paronella Park is a cool place to hike! Photo by Maxime Coquard/Tourism Australia

Sugar plantations, historic sights and colorful vineyards along the Canecutter Way trail make a tour of Northern Queensland a delightful family road trip.

With apologies to Shelley: “My name is Paronella, King of the Cane Cutters. Look upon my works, ye travelers and rejoice.”

It’s easy to be overcome by one’s inner poet while walking through the rainforest near Innisfail in Australia’s Northern Queensland region. For there, almost hidden by vines and leaves, is the turret of a romantic Spanish castle; a little further are two vine-covered towers; over there a moss-covered bridge; oh, the crumbling ballroom….

What is a Spanish Castle Doing in the Tropics of Australia?

In the late 1800’s, Jose Paronella, a little boy in a poor village in the hills of northeastern Spain, sat at the feet of his grandmother. There, in their simple stone and mud hut, he heard stories about romantic Spanish castles and nobles who lived lives of excitement and chivalry. Jose eventually migrated to Australia and made his fortune in the sugar cane fields of North Queensland. His dream developed into the castle that he built by a river, south of the township of Innisfail.

Everything was built by hand — the grand staircase, the pavilion and ornamental pool, a magnificent castle tower, and grand ballroom complete with a chandelier. Based on the romantic Moorish garden designs of his native Spain, Jose carved out gardens from the wild rainforest, utilizing water, bridges and walls. Different sections were created — some were open and some contained, such as the ‘secret garden’ reached by a dark tunnel, a vine enclosed grotto and a tower reached by steep steps.

Visitors soon came from miles around and Paronella’s castle was famous for many years. Jose died in 1948 and it seemed his dream died with him, helped along by floods and fire which destroyed parts of the grounds and structures. The park was sold out of the family in 1979 and further ruined by more floods and a cyclone. Nature took over the grounds and reclaimed the park. The Spanish dream was buried along with it.

In the 1990’s, the Evans Family discovered a turret appearing in the wilderness and became inspired by Jose’s dream. They bought the park in 1993 and restored some of the walkways and gardens, however, left much of it as it was, simply preserving and maintaining the almost hidden effect of a ruin lost in the jungle. Mark and Judy Evans are carrying a dream also, to preserve not just a beautiful and unique place of wonder and history, but a monument to a passionate dreamer.

Canecutter is the Way to Go

Paronella Park is now the major tourist attraction on a scenic drive called The Canecutter Way. This is a land of sweeping sugar cane fields and farmers’ faces shaded by tattered Akubras (Australian wide-brimmed hats). Here you’ll find sugar trains huffing between plantations, tropical fruit orchards ripening under the hot sun and… an intriguing winery.

The trail echoes and pays tribute to the sugarcane cutters who created much of the current culture here. In the 1880’s, working in searing heat, European and South Sea Island laborers worked the land using horse-drawn ploughs and steam engines to plant, harvest and mill the sugar that met the world’s rising sweet cravings.

Along Canecutter Way are little villages, museums and entertaining spots to stop at and learn about history and local life. Aussie Farm Entertainment offers working farm dogs and other farm animals for children to meet, “mustering” demonstrations with brahman cattle, and humorous and entertaining Australian Bush poetry as parts of a genuine Australian farm experience.

After wandering through Paronella Park, we are met by Tony and LeeAnn Azzopardi and follow them to their luxurious bed & breakfast on the ‘Way’ near the village of Mena Creek. This is a great find! Settling into the luxurious house that is My Sanctuary B&B, we indulge in a meal brought in from Oliveris Deli, a local gourmet business, who delivers a feast worthy of a hungry family.

My Sanctuary was built to embrace its awesome surroundings and the main bedroom and timber deck hangs over the terraced gardens, looking out into rainforest canopy. The spa corner and main bedroom’s front wall is mostly glass, so we enjoyed the view and the wandering wildlife, from beds and baths.

At the very end of Canecutter Way is Murdering Point Winery, which uses the local sugar cane and tropical fruits, including mango, passionfruit, lychee, lemon aspen and Davidson plum as the main ingredients for their wines. Frankly, one taste of a certain Mulberry Port, and an addiction was born. I instantly ordered a case, thankful that this fortuitous find will keep me warm during the next winter.

The name Murdering Point is one of those creepy historical stories that bring up delightful goosebumps. “There is an indication that some local aboriginal tribes were cannibals,” said Melissa of the Berryman family who set up the winery. (I just love how the surname resonates with their produce).

An Unexpected Jaunt

On the way back, we stop to watch one of the train engines that hauls sugarcane from the plantations roll slowly into its garage near the side of a cane field. The driver, in typically-laid back Aussie fashion, takes one look at our 4-year-old’s expression of rapture at being so close to a train engine and, in a laconic drawl, invites us on a little excursion along the almost-toylike train tracks that criss-cross this region.

A short and simple, but unforgettable, spontaneous train trip follows, with son clutching Grandma in sheer excitement, and gazing at the controls with eyes wider than a sugarcane plantation.

All talk at My Sanctuary about Mena Creek that evening centered around the things we had experienced. Full of wonder and history, excitement and entertainment, nature and the unknown, the Canecutter Way is a magnificent trail to explore and absorb.

The next morning, a breakfast hamper spills out fresh goodies including the local succulent tropical fruits. They are full of juice and joy, just like we are feeling.

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