Morgan City to Avery Island

Morgan City to Avery Island

Jungle Gardens at 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





Rip Van Winkle Gardens

Joseph Jefferson Mansion

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.

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

A Straight Drive Down Carrollton Ave.

Colorful, locally grown bell peppers at Hollygrove Market

Every Fall, I feel the urge to search the web for u-pick farms and local produce. I’m not much of a gardener myself, shying away from dirty fingernails and mosquito attacks, but the prospect of pumpkin patches and fairytale gourds draws me out to the country—normally. This time, though, we traveled less than a mile before pulling up at an urban farm.

The gardens at Hollygrove Market

Hollygrove Market & Farm on New Orleans’ Olive Street boasts rows of community gardens and a produce market with fresh fruits, vegetables, milk and even meats. We picked up our first satsumas of the season and inquired as to “What’s in the Box?”. For $25, every week you can get a box of seasonal produce all grown from the region. This week’s box included mustard greens, rice, sweet potatoes, squash, okra, green onions, arugula, satsumas, microgreens, corn, turnip greens and cornmeal—all from Louisiana and Mississippi communities. The only thing not at the market was a pumpkin patch, but we still managed to nab a couple for sale.

The Pitot House on Bayou St. John

Following Carrollton Ave. toward Lake Pontchartrain, our next stop was a walk along Bayou St. John to the Pitot House. Thanks to a friend’s Groupon purchase, we were card-carrying members of the Creole country house built in 1799. Once home to notable residents such as Edgar Degas’ great-grandmother, New Orleans’ first American mayor and Mother Cabrini (America’s first named saint), the Pitot House is now owned by the Louisiana Landmark Society and open for tours and special events.

Three-year-old Charles picked most of the flowers in the front yard before we strapped both kids in strollers and took a quick tour of the house and its period furnishings. The home takes you back in time to when living on Bayou St. John meant living in the countryside. Two rooms that particularly stood out were the dining room, with its warm brick floor and modest, but elegant, dining table, and the upstairs parlor with doors opened wide to a veranda overlooking the bayou.

Ruins of Fort St. John

By this point, the kids had become balls of energy, and we headed toward the lakefront and the ruins of Fort St. John where they could run—or crawl—until they passed out from exhaustion. The fort, built in the early 18th century, was the first erected in New Orleans, and it defended the city at the mouth of Bayou St. John. Today, all that is left are a few brick ramparts and some rock pillars, resting at the foot of a levee holding in the bayou.

Charles and I raced each other to the flood control structure dividing the bayou’s waters from those of Lake Pontchartrain. Younger brother August giggled with delight while he bounced on my hip with each step forward. We topped off the visit with a few pushes on the tree swing, and then made our way back home to renew our search for a pumpkin patch.

Summer in the French Quarter

Louis Armstrong Park

Back from a two week vacation along the coast of California, it was rough stepping off the plane in a fleece jacket into a wall of hot, sticky air. Everything instantly slowed to a crawl — breathing got harder, walking became an enormous task and carrying luggage farther than the luggage cart was out of the question. But inside the refrigerated car, I felt my senses slowly return. I found myself admiring the lush, green surroundings and, by the time the live oak alley along Carrollton greeted our return, I was happy to be back home.

Lights in Louis Armstrong Park

Summers in the South are best spent in wide, open spaces (where your chances of a breeze increase slightly), in a pool (where the water is nearly as hot as the air) or inside a wonderfully air-conditioned home. I usually wouldn’t count the Quarter as a top summer destination, but our family braved the heat in our excitement to see the partially reopened Louis Armstrong Park.

Technically on the outskirts of the Quarter in the Tremé, Louis Armstrong Park lies on the backside of Rampart Street. The park’s winding lake snakes beneath graceful bridges, leading us along tree-lined paths past buildings, statues and an open space marking the site of Congo Square, where slaves were once allowed to meet, sing and dance.

Croissant D’or Patisserie

Home to the Mahalia Jackson Theatre, the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park’s Perseverance Hall (reopened June 18th) and the still shuttered, Katrina-damaged New Orleans Municipal Auditorium, the park and its buildings have had a somewhat unstable history since the 2005 hurricane. Today, however, it was putting on a show for us, delighting Charles and August with its colorful dragonflies and offering Paul and me a nearly secluded, peaceful walk through crepe myrtles, cypress trees and antique roses.

Unfortunately, no amount of shade could protect us completely from the sun’s intense heat, and we soon set off for Croissant D’or Patisserie on Ursulines Avenue. Minutes later we were sipping iced coffees and eating French pastries on the outdoor patio, while three-year-old Charles was chasing birds and playing in the fountain.

Rejuvenated, we stepped back on the street and paused to smile at baby August staring in wide-eyed wonder at a horse and its carriage steps in front of us. A short walk farther, and we decided to make one last stop inside the walled gardens of Old Ursuline Convent, touted as the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley.

St. Mary’s Church at Old Ursuline Convent

Since 1752, the building has served many functions — from convent to school to showcase for the Archdiocese’s archives. After a brief tour of the beautiful church and historical rooms, we allowed Charles a few more minutes of running through the formal gardens before conceding that our drenched clothes were a sign to turn in the day and relax in the coolness of our house. There was much more to see in the Quarter, but it would have to wait until another blog.

Longue Vue House and Gardens

Water-filled path to Longue Vue’s main house

It was a typical morning, only 7:30 a.m. and Charles’ three-foot, stuffed T-Rex had already tried to eat August and had succeeded in eating his yogurt snacks. I had my exercise in for the day after chasing the squealing 3-year-old around the house in my desperate attempt to get him dressed, and somehow my basket of folded, clean laundry was now scattered across the kitchen floor. As I put my head down on the table, I found myself staring at three tiny snails and a shriveled up millipede that Charles so eloquently described as “broken.”

I knew we needed a plan to leave the house and fast, but we were still tired from our previous weekend in Lafayette and weren’t willing to venture too far. Paul and I scanned our mental list of things we needed to see in New Orleans and came up with Longue Vue House and Gardens. Both of us had worked in Old Metairie at one time or another and thus had passed the entrance to the house hundreds of times. Yet, the small sign from the road never seemed to promise anything special, and we simply overlooked the place for years. Boy, were we mistaken.

Iris-lined path in the Wild Garden

Even the entrance, with its view down an oak alley to the main house, belied nothing more than a mansion with a great lawn. But we paid our entrance fee and carefully drove down a two-way, one-lane road to the parking lot. Taking my first glance at the map, I was surprised to see seven different gardens listed as well as a Spanish Court and the oak alley.

The herbs and vegetables of the Walled Garden

We started in the Wild Garden, where butterflies flitted from one native plant to the next. Camellias, azaleas, irises, wildflowers and dozens of other plants and trees filled the area, with walking paths snaking between them and around the pond leading to the Pigeonnier. A small entrance then led you from the whimsical garden inside the symmetrical walls of a kitchen garden lined with herbs, fruits and vegetables.

Water was a central component of both the Canal and Pond Gardens, which fittingly ended with a colorful, wooden sculpture of a wave. The boundary lines were blurred between Longue Vue’s East Lawn and the New Orleans Country Club, and I experienced a brief moment of confusion after emerging from meticulous gardens to see a man-made hill acting as a buffer to flying golf balls. Live oak trees with expansive spreads graced the edges of the property.

A majestic live oak on the edge of the golf course

The pebble and water marvel Spanish Court offered a stylish walk to the edge of the house, which we forewent touring with two small children. Thinking our tour was nearly over, we passed through a few smaller gardens to take a peak at the Discovery Garden before heading back to the car. Little did we know, this was to be the highlight of our trip.

Edible flowers in the Discovery Garden

One of the largest landscaped areas on the property, this was a child’s dream come true. Every corner revealed a new surprise, from child-sized binoculars, shovels, trowels and even wheelbarrows to secret pathways, planting areas and worm digs. Charles enjoyed every inch of the property, exploring its full potential not once but multiple times. Our quick and easy trip turned into hours of enjoyment, and we made sure to pick up the brochure about birthday parties on our way out.