Morgan City to Avery Island

Morgan City to Avery Island

On one of the last cool weekends before summer, we jumped in the car to visit Avery Island, home to Tabasco as well as the beautiful oasis, Jungle Gardens. On previous trips, we always took I-10 from New Orleans to Breaux Bridge and then headed south. This time, however, we made our way along the southern route, traveling Highway 90 through Morgan City, Patterson and Franklin before reaching our destination.

Atchafalaya River as seen from Morgan City

The drive brought us through scenic vistas of classic Louisiana swamps. While the kids watched “Ice Age” in the back of the car, we immersed ourselves in the abundant cypress trees basking in the dark waters prolific in this part of the state. Our first destination was Morgan City, sporting a slogan “Right in the Middle of Everywhere” and famous for its annual Shrimp and Petroleum Festival (the name says it all). On a map, Morgan City makes up half of an island surrounded by countless lakes, rivers, bayous and various other bodies of water twisting and turning around the floating land.

Southwest Reef Lighthouse

We headed straight for the historic downtown toward Front Street and the towering floodwall protecting the city from the Atchafalaya River. The road led us to an opening in the floodwall, and we parked at the edge of the river beside a handful of people fishing. The kids were elated to finally stretch their legs and set off at a sprint along the dock. We raced behind, taking in the muddy river and the boats tied up at its side. Before long, we ascended the stairs to the floodwall and looked down at the city below. Traffic was light on this Saturday morning, yet shops appeared to be opening in the historic buildings.

The floodwall gave us a great view of the river, and the three bridges spanning across it–one for trains and the other two for cars. One of them, the Long-Allen Bridge, boasted a pier resting on one of the deepest foundations in the world (176 feet below low water stage) when it was built in 1933. Across the river, a bright red lighthouse stared back at us. Known as Southwest Reef, the lighthouse was built in 1858 and relocated in 1987 from the Atchafalaya Bay to a park in Berwick.

Wedell-Williams Aviation and Cypress Sawmill Museum

After our walk, we drove the streets admiring the buildings, churches and parks. It was a brief stay, though, as we had several other destinations for the day including the Louisiana State Museum in Patterson. The Wedell-Williams Aviation and Cypress Sawmill Museum showcases two very different occupations that were both integral to this small town.

On one side of the museum, brightly colored airplanes are scattered about both the floor and ceiling. In 1928, pilot Jimmie Wedell and oilman and timber baron Harry Williams joined forces to design aircrafts in Patterson that were faster than the competition. At the announcement of the movie, we all grabbed a seat and waited for the multiple screens to lower across the room. The kids were wide-eyed as planes raced from screen to screen and simulated wind blew in our faces. Wedell and Williams were daredevils of their time who used their fearless talents to revolutionize the aviation industry.

The fascinating crawfish home in front of the museum

Across the lobby, the cypress sawmill museum tells the industry’s story through pictures, giant logs and, if possible, even larger saws. Louisiana played a critical role in the country’s logging industry, and at one time, Patterson was home to the largest sawmill in the world. It was both amazing and eye-opening, and exactly the right size for the attention spans of our kiddos. We had just wrapped up our tour when they scooted out the front door to investigate the crawfish homes on the front lawn, oblivious to the jet mounted just above their heads.

Franklin’s Historic District

Down the road in Franklin, we took a whirlwind tour of the downtown, which boasts over 400 historic structures. I have to say I have never seen so many historic signs all standing in one place. We immensely enjoyed the scenic main street, filled with shops and picturesque light poles. Spanning out on either side were pristine white mansions, shrouded in a canopy of moss-covered live oaks. One block away, the much-talked-about Bayou Teche flows past the homes, adding to the laid back, Southern feel already emanating from the town.

Tabasco Factory at Avery Island

It was nearly 3 o’clock by the time we arrived at Avery Island, paying our dollar toll to cross the bridge to enter Tabasco territory. Home to the McIlhenny hot sauce empire, Avery Island sits on one of five salt domes found in this part of Louisiana. They say that the salt here is “as deep as Mount Everest is tall,” a mind boggling thought. The factory was closed the day we visited, but we were still able to tour the facility that strongly smelled of the spicy sauce. The kids were thrilled when the tour guide gave them samples of miniature Tabasco bottles, which have now taken a spot of fame in their own collections at home.

Snowy Egrets at Jungle Gardens

Aside from Tabasco, Avery Island is home to the wild and beautiful Jungle Gardens. A driving tour through the 170-acre gardens brought us past alligator-filled ponds, an 800-year-old Buddha and countless live oaks, azaleas, camellias and bamboo. Thankfully, the unseasonably cool weather kept the mosquitoes at bay so we could enjoy exploring every inch of the property. It was also the perfect time of year for the nesting snowy egrets, which came in droves to the elevated platforms known as “Bird City.”

Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge

All in all, it was probably one of our most successful adventures already, but we added one final stop to complete the tour. On the return drive, we veered off south of Centerville to enter the Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge, established in part to protect Louisiana’s black bear population. While we weren’t looking for bears, we were intrigued by the Garden City boardwalk trail, which we never would have found without this map. We parked by the levee and walked the short distance to an even shorter boardwalk through the swamp. The water underneath was eerily still, clogged with vegetation in this thriving forest; yet the trees overhead were alive with songbirds, each twilling a different tune and flitting about from branch to branch in a blur of colors. We paused a moment to admire them all before climbing back in the car for the return trip home.

Live oaks at Avery Island’s Jungle Gardens

 

Life in the Swamp

Life in the Swamp

More times than I can count, we’ve driven the I-10 between Baton Rouge and Lafayette as a straight-shot, watching the Atchafalaya swamps through our windshield tour. This weekend, though, we ventured off the Grosse Tete exit for what I thought was a small swamp exhibit at the Visitor’s Center. Instead, we discovered an amazing gem of a festival, with more free food and live music than we could ever imagine.

Live music at the Iberville Swamp Life Expo

 

Animals on display at the Iberville Swamp Life Expo

We knew something was up when every road in the small town was lined with parked cars. The sounds of Cajun music filled the air as we walked the short distance from our car to the Iberville Swamp Life Expo. Shaded by live oaks and set alongside the peaceful Bayou Grosse Tete, the bustling event was in sharp contrast to the tranquil scenery.

A path of booths circled the property, and we began by browsing the largely functional art on display. Talented John James Clark’s rare display of hand-carved cypress boats looked too pristine for actual use, and artist Charlene Hebert’s oil paintings depicted life in the Atchafalaya. Naturally, the kids were drawn to animal skins and turtle shells on display, and my youngest even set up residence in an exhibitor’s folding chair – determined to just sit and people watch.

A big pot of jambalaya at the Expo

And then came the food. We started off slow, with a piece of bread dipped in the wild flavor of homemade cane syrup. As we rounded the corner, I discovered the Cajun-made Bread Pudding and couldn’t resist its perfect consistency. I kept telling myself, “Life is short, so eat dessert first.” The next half hour was a whirlwind of Crawfish Etouffee d’Atchafalaya, Big Cajun Wild Duck and Andouille Gumbo, Big Pete’s Cajun Cracklins and Bayou Land Mustard Greens and Pig Tails.

We were all walking a bit slower when my four-year-old, Charles, spotted a whole alligator being carved up before our eyes. The still-warm meat melted in our mouths, and Charles was thrilled to shovel it in while boasting to anyone who would listen that he was a “carnivore.” The cooks must have been won over by him because they sent us home with a pair of alligator feet (skin still on), which my husband strategically “forgot” in a friend’s freezer.

Plantation in northern Iberville Parish

After watching the crowd dance to the music for a bit, we continued on our journey, heading north toward Rosedale and Maringouin on a driving tour of historic homes. The Parish website offers a downloadable map marking the locations of several privately owned, but still exquisite plantations. We made the loop up 76 and down 77, passing fields of sugar cane and green pastures all lying on the outskirts of the Atchafalaya Basin levee.

It was a nice reprieve before jumping back on the interstate and soaring past this area’s untamed wilderness. Although we researched hikes in the Atchafalaya, particularly in the Sherburne Wildlife Management Area, the notice of hunting season made us shy away, and the kids were still too small for a canoe trip. Determined though to introduce them to the region, we opted for the next best choice, stopping at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s cypress swamp.

Resident of the cypress swamp at ULL

Hidden behind a campus of buildings, the surprisingly large swamp presented more than we bargained for. Initially thrilled to spot a baby alligator among the abundant frogs and turtles, we became slightly nervous as a line of much larger alligators started following our movements around the lake. By the time we circled the entire area, we had seen more than a half dozen of the powerful animals. At one point, a student studying dropped his paper in the water, and I cringed as he reached over and lifted it out, half expecting a gator to get there first.

It was quite the experience, and of course, the kids were beyond excited by our day’s adventures. We finished strong with boudin grilled cheese sandwiches from Johnson’s Boucaniere in downtown Lafayette, before announcing that our diets started Monday.

Johnson’s Boucaniere in downtown Lafayette
Rip Van Winkle Gardens

Rip Van Winkle Gardens

The name “Rip Van Winkle Gardens” stuck in my head from the first time I heard it. It’s been on our to-do list for ages, and our recent visit proved the place to be as memorable as its name.

Joseph Jefferson Mansion

We made a weekend of the trip, not missing a chance to spend a Friday night with our friend in Baton Rouge. Of course, we made the obligatory visit to Mike the Tiger and brought our picnic dinner to the hill-top tables at the Manship School of Mass Communication. Then we tucked the kids in for the night, ready for their road-trip adventure the next morning.

Cypress Island Preserve at Lake Martin

Every time I cross the Baton Rouge bridge over the Mississippi River and begin heading west, I’m reminded of larger trips we’ve taken to the desert Southwest and beyond. Particularly the drive through Henderson Swamp and its scattered, water-logged cypress trees puts me in vacation mindset.

We didn’t quite make it to Lafayette, but instead veered south through Breaux Bridge and, as on a previous trip, stopped at Lake Martin for a stroll along the Nature Conservancy’s Cypress Island Preserve boardwalk. This time we were in for a double treat. Not only was the visitor’s center open, but the nesting birds were out in full force. We escaped the oppressive heat inside the quaint visitor’s center, where the kids poked and prodded the touchable animal shells and skins on display and we visited with the two helpful staff.

St. Martinville

Back outside, we sweated our way along the boardwalk, still managing to enjoy the scenery, before hopping in the car to drive the lake’s east side. This proved to be the best viewing spot for the thousands of egrets and herons flying around the trees. Flashes of pink signaled the presence of roseate spoonbills in the area as well.

From Lake Martin, we again dined at La Petite Paris Cafe in St. Martinville, where the waitress remembered us from our last rowdy, lunchtime visit. (I thought I saw fear in her eyes when we walked through the doors!) We relived our walk down to the Evangeline Oak on the banks of the Bayou Teche, and then set off on our final stretch of road to Jefferson Island.

We traveled the back roads through miles of Louisiana countryside to reach our destination. The land rises as you approach the gardens through a line of live oak trees. Like nearby Avery Island (of the Tabasco fame), Jefferson Island is one of five coastal salt domes emerging upwards of 100 feet above sea level. In 1870, Actor Joseph Jefferson built his mansion on top of one dome and spent 36 winters in his home alongside expansive Lake Peigneur. Future owner J. Lyle Bayless, Jr., surrounded the house with acres of gardens in the 1950s, naming them in honor of the actor who was best-known for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle.

Rip Van Winkle Gardens

Today, the house and gardens are open to the public, and the property also offers a visitor’s center/gift shop, conference center, cafe and a bed and breakfast. The location is a picturesque backdrop for weddings, but we came to explore the trees, plants and bugs that make up the fairytale gardens.

Snaking out from behind the gift shop, the path branched off into a series of options. A peacock strutted by us, while a massive cat eyed us suspiciously from atop a statue. We took the high ground, skirting a Japanese Teahouse and desperately trying to catch a dragonfly at the garden pond. A plaque underneath one live oak tree marked the spot where Pirate Jean Lafitte’s treasure was found. We had to wonder whether this was true…

Joseph Jefferson Mansion

The house itself is a four-story, elegant mansion gazing down at the flowing green lawn below. Cottages behind the home beckoned as a bed and breakfast where overnight visitors could awaken to the crowing of the nearby rooster. Completing the circle, we found our way back to the visitor’s center with Lake Peigneur off to our right. Water skiers bounced across the serene waters that hid a tragic history. In 1980, a drilling rig struck a salt cavern, and a hole opened in the lake that turned into a tumultous waterfall draining the water and sucking in 65 acres of the gardens. The theater shows live video taken of the event.

It was a successful adventure for us, particularly as our four-year-old left with a bug catcher of tadpoles. On the ride home, he entertained us with stories of the frogs that would soon live in our house as his younger brother snoozed loudly beside him.

Garden Statues
Chance Encounter with River Road on the Way to Thibodaux

Chance Encounter with River Road on the Way to Thibodaux

We recently took to the road and set off on a decent hour (give or take) drive to Thibodaux. I came prepared with snacks, drinks and a movie for the allotted time, and the trip would have been perfect except for one small flaw. The Hale Boggs Bridge crossing the Mississippi River was closed. How we missed this crucial piece of information was beyond me, but here we were, stuck with a last minute decision to go downriver to the Huey P. Long Bridge or upriver toward the Veterans Memorial Bridge.

Much to our children’s chagrin, we chose the scenic River Road route upriver to Gramercy. It brought back memories of the road trips we took when we younger, fresh out of college, sans children and with lots of time to wander freely. Unfortunately, children scoff at nostalgia. But we made the most of it and discovered parts of the state we’d never seen before, and as with all memories, I’m sure to only remember the good parts of the trip!

The detour began with a sudden stop at the stunning St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church. Although not open, the expansive grounds and beautiful church and school begged to be photographed–if only it wasn’t raining. For years, the “Little Red Church” was a welcome sight to steamboat captains traveling the Mississippi River to New Orleans, alerting them to the end of their journey.

Bonnet Carre Spillway

Only a bit farther up the road, we encountered the first of several plantations we would see on this trip. Ormond Plantation, built around 1790, is brilliantly restored and open for tours detailing its storied past.

River Road takes a sharp right turn at the Bonnet Carre Spillway, a location made famous by the floodgates opened here whenever the Mississippi River comes dangerously close to topping its levees. I’d seen it on TV and in pictures hundreds of times, but never in person. The photos don’t do justice to the vast complex, and it was a startling sight to see just traveling along the road.

As River Road enters the Spillway, you descend into miles of open fields, giving the impression you’ve been transported to the country roads of Kansas. One man, who was throwing a stick to his dog, looked so out of place I had to check in the rearview mirror to make sure he was really there. It’s gone before you can shake the eerie feeling, and the road continues on as if nothing had changed.

Scheeler’s photo of Ford’s auto factory

Although only separated by a levee from the Mississippi River, you would never know the swiftly flowing water was right next to you. It’s largely hidden from view, yet strangely connected to the land via large tubes crossing over the road. These link to the countless refineries and factories lining much of River Road, creating a foreign, but oddly interesting, landscape.

I remember traveling River Road at night and seeing the factories ablaze with lights–tiny towns functioning independently from others around them. There was an artist by the name of Charles Sheeler hired to photograph and paint similar factories and show off their inner beauty. Through his eyes, the maze of pipes became exquisite pieces of architecture. If you squint really hard and bury the innate feeling of driving “Cancer Alley,” you begin to see his perspective.

This is what I was contemplating when we came upon San Francisco Plantation, a lavishly ornate and boldly colorful mansion that inspired Francis Parkinson Keyes to write “Steamboat Gothic.” The house and grounds were amazingly pristine, yet out of place sandwiched beside another factory.

Godchaux-Reserve House

We saw other plantations and extremely old homes sitting neglected and slowly melting back into the dirt and trees on the side of the road. There’s no telling how many of these structures have been lost to time, and by the looks of it, many of the ones we recently saw won’t be around for much longer. Some though, like the Godchaux-Reserve House–marked by the locomotive standing on its property–has been taken on by the community in an effort to preserve its structure and importance in history.

So finally arriving in Gramercy, we’re treated to expansive views of the river as we crossed high above its waters. The remainder of our drive south to Thibodaux was fairly uneventful, spent munching on popcorn from the local convenience station while we drove through open fields and torrential rain. As we entered Thibodaux, the flooding stopped as if a faucet had been turned off.

Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center in Thibodaux

We drove the town, getting the lay of the land and counting the churches along Canal Boulevard. A sign for the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park directed us along Bayou Lafourche to the Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center. The kids sprinted through the exhibit area, showcasing the lives of the Cajuns, but then became engrossed in playing with the dozens of puppets and kid-sized palmetto hut in the kids’ “Gumbo Room.” Outside, a boardwalk overlooked scenic Bayou Lafourche.

Historic downtown Thibodaux is dominated by the Dansereau House Bed and Breakfast, the crown jewel of the city. The one-way streets through the city are lined with boutiques and restaurants, creating a vibrant yet intimate downtown.

We backtracked slightly out of town to eat at Boudreaux’s Restaurant, which came highly recommended by the Jean Lafitte park rangers. It was a good suggestion as we found plenty of tasty food to dine on, and the wait staff were very tolerable of two, umm, “active” children.

The route home took us along picturesque Highway 1, which parallels Bayou Lafourche, past Nicholls State College to Highway 90. We chose the quicker return route as the rain clouds rose high above us, threatening to let loose at any minute.

View of Bayou Lafourche
On the Hunt for Dinosaurs…and a Hike at Lake Martin

On the Hunt for Dinosaurs…and a Hike at Lake Martin

Louisiana is not known for dinosaurs – that much I have learned through my Internet searching. Now Wyoming, Colorado and the Dakotas, they’re a different story. Unfortunately the pleads of a three-year-old are not compelling enough to make me drive 26 hours to view a bunch of skeletons. Lucky for him, and the rest of our family, the Lafayette Science Museum is featuring the American Museum of Natural History’s traveling “Dinosaurs” exhibit.

T-Rex on display at the Lafayette Science Museum

The drive is still a bit much to make without stopping, so we planned a layover at a friend’s house in Baton Rouge. While in town, we couldn’t pass up a glimpse of LSU’s Mike the Tiger, and the trip to campus reminded us of old anthropology classes in the Howe Russell building and the fossils and rocks on display there.

LSU’s allosaurus skeleton

It promised to be a great “starting off” site for our dinosaur adventures, but when we entered the front doors, Charles nearly squealed with delight at the sight before us. Although the child can’t read, he instantly spouted out that this skeleton on display was “an allosaurus¬†– a carnivore that walked on two feet and had three fingers, not two like T-Rex.” (I must say, I will never understand his obsession with the fingers.) The discovery kept us occupied for quite some time, and Charles discussed the similarities and differences of dinosaurs in lengthy detail well into the night.

The next morning we moved on to Lafayette and headed into the heart of downtown. Our first stop was brunch at The French Press, where we gorged ourselves on the Cajun Benedict: toasted French bread, Hebert’s boudin and two poached-medium eggs topped with chicken and andouille gumbo and fresh scallions. Shortly after, we waddled across the Parc Sans Souci toward the Lafayette Science Museum.

Lafayette Science Museum

While the planetarium is closed for a digital upgrade, the main attraction until March 11 is the “Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries” exhibit. The $5 tickets seemed like a bargain when we entered the far hall and came face to face with a giant T-Rex skeleton (complete with two fingers on each hand). He beckoned us inside to explore a life-sized steel and fiberglass apatosaurus, fossilized footprints and a diorama of eastern Asia as it looked 130 million years ago. After making two rounds through the displays, we grabbed some coloring sheets at the end and walked out the doors. I paused in confusion as we exited – what, no gift shop? Although a huge missed opportunity for the museum, it was a lifesaver for us, as gift shops almost always end in meltdowns.

Cypress trees at Lake Martin

The afternoon’s adventures winded down with a short drive out into the countryside and a leisurely stroll through the Nature Conservancy’s Cypress Island Preserve at Lake Martin. A loop boardwalk and levee trail offered prime glimpses into the moss-covered, cypress tupelo swamp that serves as a bird haven in late spring. Sunsets are reportedly divine at this picturesque spot, and the lake comes to life when thousands of herons, egrets and roseate spoonbills make this their home during nesting season. The area was scarcely occupied when we visited, though, and I left with the impression that we had found a jewel tucked away inside the state.

Cajun Country: St. Martinville and Lake Fausse Pointe State Park

Cajun Country: St. Martinville and Lake Fausse Pointe State Park

On the eastern edge of Lafayette, a circle of roads connects the historic town of St. Martinville with picturesque Lake Fausse Pointe. This was our weekend destination, and we launched the adventure from the Crawfish Capitol of the World – Breaux Bridge. As we passed under the bridge and over Bayou Teche, the kids jolted from their naps and began fidgeting with anticipation.

Evangeline Oak in St. Martinville

The sleepy downtown was filled with antique stores and the promise of amazing treasures, but one glance at the wild-eyed kiddos in back, and we continued south through the countryside to the equally charming town of St. Martinville. As Charles catapulted from the car, he was stopped in his tracks by our friend who had followed along on the trip. Shaking off his momentary confusion, he pulled her along in his quest for new discoveries in Louisiana’s third oldest town.

St. Martin de Tours Catholic Church in St. Martinville

The ample grounds of St. Martin de Tours Catholic Church was the perfect location for running off some energy and adding to our rapidly growing collection of twigs. A man removing Christmas decorations drew us to the church’s front doors, and we ducked under his ladder to enter “the Mother Church of the Acadians” – descendants of the French colonists forced out of Nova Scotia during the French and Indian War. The strong smell of incense lingered in the air inside, encircling us as we toured the gated pews and colorful patterns reflecting on the floor from the stained-glass windows.

Le Petit Paris Cafe

Before we could go any farther, we crossed the street for burgers and fries at Le Petit Paris Cafe. We were the only patrons in the quaint restaurant, which gave the kids free reign to squeal and play to their delight. The rest of the historic buildings are centered around the church, and we strolled past the Duchamp Opera House and La Maison Duchamp on our way to Bayou Teche and the Evangeline Oak. Immortalized by Longfellow’s poem “Evangeline,” the ancient oak is one of the most photographed spots in the state.

Cypress trees in Lake Fausse Pointe State Park

From St. Martinville, we headed out Catahoula Highway past an intriguing oak and pine alley to the levee road that leads to Lake Fausse Pointe State Park. It was here that, after reuniting with some good friends and tearing both their children and ours away from the playground, we set off to discover nature. At one time part of the Atchafalaya Basin, the 6,000-acre park features both boardwalk and canoe trails through the watery home of alligators and bald cypress trees. Although the sounds of our nine-person group tromping through the forest scared away any signs of life, we couldn’t help but enjoy the fresh air and lovely scenery.

On the way out, we traveled the levee road back to I-10, where in the tiny town of Henderson, we enjoyed a seafood-filled dinner at Pat’s Fisherman Wharf. It was dark when we drove away with full bellies and memories of another Louisiana adventure.

Playing on a natural see-saw at Lake Fausse Pointe