You’re sitting in your little fishing boat on a lake. The sky is blue, the water calm, the fish are biting and life is good. Suddenly you notice that the boat has begun to move backward, it’s picking up speed, faster and faster toward the center of the lake. You turn around and can’t believe your eyes! A giant whirlpool is opening up in the middle of the lake! In horror you watch as a huge barge is sucked into the maelstrom and your boat is heading toward the same fate.
What would you do?
But I digress…every story must start at the beginning.
This morning, we are leaving Galveston and driving to Bayou Wilderness RV Resort in Carenco, Louisiana where we plan to stay for a couple of days. This stop was not in our original plans but friends insisted that we must stop to tour Avery Island and the Tabasco Factory. I’m not usually one to give in to peer pressure but it’s an area we’ve never explored so we caved.
As usual we’ve chosen a place off the beaten path to stay and the road we had to traverse to get to the park was beautiful with moss hung trees and a muddy creek running beside.
The park was neat and quiet.
The on-site swamp added a Louisiana flair.
In the morning we set out to explore.
First stop, Avery Island.
Avery Island is a unique place, not truly an island but a salt dome that rises slightly higher than the surrounding land. A salt dome forms when salt-rich seawater flows into a basin, evaporates over time, leaving behind large deposits of salt. Eventually the salt is covered over by layers of sediment and through a complex series of geologic process the land becomes a habitable place situated on top of salt rather than rock. It’s here, on this dome at the edge of Vermillion Bay that the Avery family settled and the land was named after them.
Over the years, the Avery family created a self sufficient community in this little corner of the world. This community owes its existence to the creation of one of the spiciest substances known to man.
In 1859, Edmund McIlhenny married into the Avery family. Edmund McIlhenny, inspired by an earlier sauce created by another entrepreneur, experimented with making a sauce from the peppers in the Avery family garden. In 1868, he developed the recipe for Tabasco sauce and the rest is history.
In 1872, Edmund’s son, Edward Avery “Ned” McIlhenny was born on Avery Island. As a young man, he studied the plants and animals in the area. He became a naturalist and in 1895 he founded a private bird sanctuary.
That original sanctuary eventually became Jungle Garden.
Today, Avery Island is the location of the Tabasco pepper sauce company. It’s been operating in the same place since 1868 and the factory is open for tours.
Jungle Garden bird sanctuary can also be found here.
Tickets for the self guided tours are purchased here at the museum. You can purchase tickets for both the factory and gardens or for one or the other singly.
We chose both attractions.
Numbered map in hand, our tour begins in this building.
The museum is small and the information regarding the creation, distribution and marketing of Tabasco is interesting. Avery family history and stories are also fascinating but today there is a problem, it’s a weekday morning and an elementary school field trip has just arrived. The noise and pushiness in the tiny museum quickly became overwhelming and the docent suggested we skip ahead to the other buildings and circle back here.
There are multiple buildings on the campus, all connected by lovely walkways.
First stop, the small greenhouse.
Inside are examples of different pepper plants with descriptions of their flavors and origin history.
The barrel storage building is intense!
After the Tabasco mash is cooked, it’s moved to these barrels, covered with salt and left to age for up to three years.
Each barrel has a date and it’s moved around the warehouse and stored according to age. We’re standing outside a fence, looking in. I cannot adequately describe the smell. Part pepper, part mold, part old vinegar with a touch of boys athletic socks mixed in. Not entirely unpleasant but not something I want to dive into either!
The back of the building has a small display and video which describes the coopering (barrel making) process. A lot goes into the making of a barrel which must withstand stacking and sitting for three years.
When the barrels can’t be re-used any more…It’s grill time!
On to the factory!
The mash cooking room is massive. This is the view of the kettles from below.
I love this artwork on the stairs.
Looking down into the mash room from above.
A videographer was filming the swirling mash.
There’s a button on the side of the observation platform that you can push to have the smell of the mash room piped in. We’ve been trying to outrun the elementary kids all day but they move faster than us. As they came thundering up the stairs we may or may not have dared them to push the button.
I might have laughed a little as their eyes watered and their noses ran!
Just kidding… but it is a pretty potent smell!
The next stop on the map is the administration building. It has an exhibit highlighting the history of the island community. As the Tabasco business grew, workers were needed. Avery Island was so isolated that the only solution was to create a sort of company town. The company itself, being family owned, is also very family oriented and the town became a real community.
During the civil war, a mine of pure rock salt was founded on Avery Island to benefit the Confederacy. It was eventually captured by Union forces. Later the Avery family put the salt mine to good use in their Tabasco manufacturing.
Eventually the mine collapsed and was no longer used.
It’s a short walk through the fake mine to the bottling floor, which is viewed through a series of windows.
Signs show the daily expiration codes. Other signs tell what flavor is being bottled and where the batch is being shipped to. Today’s batch was going to Canada.
The number keeps going up!
Every single bottle of Tabasco in the world comes from this one factory.
The exit lobby, with selfie bottles.
The first bottles Mcilhenny used when peddling his Tabasco sauce were cologne style bottles.
Everyone needs a Tabasco chandelier!
After the tour, a trip to the gift shop is a must. The gift shop offers a Tabasco tasting bar if you’re brave enough! I’m not usually a fan of hot sauce and I had no idea there were so many flavors and varieties. It was an eye watering education! My daughter requested a bottle of the Tabasco Family Reserve Sauce, extra aged for eight years. A very powerful flavor!
Restaurant 1868, a special cajun restaurant featuring Tabasco sauce, is situated right next door but we have much to see today. Packing up our purchases, we head over to the Jungle Gardens portion of the island.
The ticket for the gardens can be purchased at the Tabasco museum, or here at the garden gift shop. If you purchase your ticket at the Tabasco museum, you must go into the garden gift shop to show your receipt before driving through the gate.
While you’re inside, say hello to Monsuart, the largest alligator ever taken on the island, eighteen feet, three inches long!
Jungle Gardens is a self-guided, driving tour over a hard packed dirt road. Large RV’s and buses are only allowed through part of it. It’s mostly one way, numbered, and easy to navigate and you are given a map when you buy your ticket.
A stunning old growth oak forest stands at the entrance.
It was one of the sunniest, brightest days of the year and it was difficult to capture the shaded majesty of these trees.
The road meanders through moss covered trees, next to a river, with little ponds scattered throughout. Beautiful scenery.
Can you spot the bird?
How about this one?
The Ward Boat House was built for Ed McIlhenny’s friend Charles Ward.
With McIlheeny’s permission, Ward set up a hunting and fishing camp within the gardens. The land was later donated to the state as a wildlife refuge.
Up to this point we’ve been following a bus. A sign here, at the boat house directed large vehicles to exit. We’ve only traveled through a very small part of the garden, they missed a lot of the best sights. I would recommend leaving the RV behind and taking a car if possible, even though it says RV friendly.
As we continued our drive, we spotted a turtle and a baby alligator in one of the many small ponds. You have to slow down and look closely to find the wildlife.
This tree is known as The Cleveland Oak, named for Grover Cleveland after a visit he made to Avery island. There is no way to capture the sheer magnificence of this tree in a photo. It is simply massive!
Jungle Gardens can be viewed in it’s entirety by driving and stopping at numbered stops. It’s not exactly a place to hike but there are small side paths which offer up hidden treasures and different views. Take time to do some exploring.
One of these paths is behind the Cleveland tree.
The path leads to this.
A survey tree.
One of the oldest surviving “corner” or “witness” tree in Louisiana. It was used as a land survey point.
How cool is that?
One of the most iconic sights in the Jungle Gardens is the Buddha statue and bridge. If you continue on this path, it will lead you the “back way” to the statue.
If want a shorter walk, there is a gate a little further up the road.
This is the far end of the pond, the bridge is barely visible in the distance.
Closer view of the bridge.
First view of the sanctuary.
The story of this ancient Buddha statue is detailed in these imbedded plaques.
After being looted from it’s original temple it was purchased in New York by friends of E.A. McIlhenny and brought here.
Two guardian elephants stand at the entrance.
Too much reflection for a good picture but it is huge.
This is the gate path we could have taken instead of walking the long way around.
As we continue driving, there are other sights along the tour such as a wisteria arch which was not blooming and a sunken palm garden which didn’t seem to be fairing well in the Louisiana moisture.
Our map indicated that Bird City was nearby but it was a little confusing to find. The parking area is on the opposite side of the road and down a little. It takes a bit of observation to find the sign on the other side since your attention is directed to the huge oaks by the parking spot.
Past the sign are stairs and a path to get to the lake observation deck.
Thousands and thousands of nesting snowy Egrets.
McIhenny began a crusade around 1895, to save and protect the Snowy Egret. The populations were being decimated due to the demand for their feathers as decorations for women’s hats.
Today the egrets return here every year to nest.
The birds cover the surrounding trees. The babies screech their displeasure as they wait for food. The noise echoes across the lake.
This mom was having a hard time with two demanding food at once.
Lots of turtles too.
It was a great experience watching the birds.
When leaving Bird City, the road goes a short distance further where it passes McIlhenny’s house on the hill. There is a sign which gives the history but the fence and foliage are too thick to see very much.
At this point, you must turn around and go back the way you came, take the opposite fork at the Y and follow the signs to the exit.
Another quick bit of travel advice before we move on.
If you, like us, enjoy taking time to see everything, be aware that doing both the factory and the gardens is a full day. When exploring we always bring lunch in an ice chest so we don’t have to stop. Do this, you will need it.
With a couple of hours of exploring time left, we decided to check out The Rip Van Winkle House and Gardens nearby. I knew I had added it to the list of things to see but couldn’t remember why. Suddenly it came to me.
The Lake Peigneur Disaster!
More on that in a minute.
The entrance to the drive.
This is the gift shop and ticket counter.
The Rip Van Winkle House was the home of Joseph Jefferson. Jefferson was a comedian and actor who was most famously known for playing the character of Rip Van Winkle on stage and in film. He built the house in 1870 and it is now listed in the National Historic Register.
You can purchase tickets for the garden alone or for both the house tour and garden. The house tours are scheduled by the hour.
The first thing we saw as we entered the garden was this little fellow.
The courtyard is gorgeous, the aviary is full of chattering cockatiels.
There is a cafe to the left and a small movie theater on the right. The theater shows a film which describes the Lake Peigneur Disaster. You can click the link to watch that film. I saw it a long time ago on the internet and never forgot it but I did forget where it was and now we’re here!
Which brings us to…
What would you do if your boat was about to be swallowed by a giant whirlpool?
That was what Leonce Viator Jr. had to decide on November 20th 1980.
Lake Peigneur sits on top of a salt dome, just the same as Avery Island. In 1980, The Diamond Crystal Salt Company operated a huge salt mine under the lake. The same geologic forces that caused the salt to form also caused oil deposits to form. In order to drill into these oil deposits, an oil rig, contracted by Texaco was positioned on the lake. The rig had chosen a drilling location based on (unbeknownst to them) incorrect coordinates. The drill subsequently punctured into the third level of the mine. Water began to rush in, dissolving salt as it went. This in turn created a bigger hole which made the water roar into the mine even faster. As the lake drained into the mine it created a massive whirlpool. Fortunately, the miners, the drillers and everyone else made it out safely and no lives were lost. Luck was also on the side of Leonce Viator Jr. as the lake drained so fast that his boat became stuck in mud and he was able to walk out. The drilling platform, eleven barges, many trees and 65 acres didn’t fare as well and were sucked into the hole. So much water was drained into those caverns that the flow of the Delcambre Canal that usually empties the lake into the Vermillion Bay was reversed, making the canal a temporary inlet. This backflow created, for a few days the tallest waterfall ever in the state of Louisiana at 164 feet. Air displaced by water flowing into the cavern caused 400 foot geysers to spew forth. Days after the disaster, as the lake refilled with salt water from the bay, nine of the eleven barges popped back to the surface.
In 1980 John Lyle Bayliss (the developer of the gardens) was the owner of The Rip Van Winkle House. He had just created a foundation for the preservation of the property and built a lovely glass conservatory, welcome center and private home on the edge of the lake as a place to live out his retirement years, when the disaster struck. The new home, conservatory and welcome center were lost.
This is all that remains.
What was once a ten foot deep, freshwater lake is now a one thousand three hundred foot deep, salt water lake.
Thankfully the gardens remain and they are breathtaking with many Asian influences throughout.
The Lafitte Oak. In 1925 three pots of treasure were found buried here.
I couldn’t get a picture of it, but another oak has a plaque which names it as the second Cleveland oak. It is reported as being 550 years old and it’s claim to fame is that Grover Cleveland napped under it.
Fountains and peacocks in abundance.
This gentleman claimed this fountain pathway as his own and was well prepared to defend it. Many people were afraid to walk past him as he rattled his feathers. Having owned peacocks we’re used to their shenanigans so we just strolled on by.
Not so ferocious now eh?
It was nearly time for our scheduled house tour so we walked up the hill toward the back of the house.
This lovely outbuilding and rock garden had me swooning.
An aviary of doves on the path.
The back of the house is almost as spectacular as the front.
And the front is as spectacular as the back.
We were instructed to wait for the tour guide on the porch filled with rocking chairs. Okay!
This is the view toward the front drive.
The view to the side.
The view is incredible any way you turn.
It saddens me to no end that photography is not allowed inside the house. What I can tell you is that the house is one of the most beautiful, creative spaces I’ve ever toured. The docent we were fortunate enough to get for our tour, was a sweet, southern lady who was so passionate about Joseph Jefferson, his family, and the history of the house, that she had done research far and away beyond anything necessary to give a successful tour and was therefore the most funny, engaging and knowledgable guide we’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to. She knew the back story to every picture, piece of furniture, and knick knack in the place and told tales that made it all come alive. Now, if I could just remember her name…
After the tour, we went out to the back of the house again where we saw…
The darling garage which looked like a cottage in it’s own right.
The walkway toward the lake.
Wreckage of power poles and piers are visible at the lake but I don’t know if they are from the disaster. Seems to me, they probably are.
The weathered dock and gazebo pictured at the beginning of this post and also below has no way to access it and I don’t know what it’s story is but it makes a pretty picture!
It was almost time for the gardens to close and we were working our way to the entrance when we spotted the School House.
Someone wants to go to school!
His friend did not.
The building was closed and we were curious to see inside so we peeked through the windows. Someone peeked back!
Apparently it’s a school for birds! Maybe a nature center? Many bird cages inside.
I used to own a Goffin Cockatoo so it was a real treat to see this friendly face.
His friend was uncaged and was climbing around making faces at us.
We have a long drive to get back to the RV park but it’s still light out and we never like to drive the same way twice. For the return trip we’ve decided to follow the Bayou Teche Scenic Byway. It’s supposed to feature lovely draping trees and charming little towns. We’ll see.
One small section of majestic trees, check.
Lovely courthouse, check.
Quirky small towns, check.
Rusty old bridge, check.
Catholic church with historic graveyard, check.
I love this inscription, Teacher thou rest in peace. What is the story here?
A fitting end to a very busy day.