Aug 29, 201708:00 AM
Let's Go, Louisiana
What to do, see, listen to, eat and enjoy in the Pelican State.
The Jungle Gardens at Avery Island is a sight to behold and will capture your senses with its hypnotic and bewitching display of exotic horticulture and abundant wildlife. This 170-acre historic oasis near New Iberia is draped in plants from around the world, all growing atop a huge salt dome rising above the earth. (Fact: The salt dome, a geological oddity, was formed more than 200 million years ago.)
Edward Avery ‘Ned’ McIhenny, a naturalist and conservationist, began planting this treasure trove of botanical species from around the globe back in the 1920s and opened it to the public in 1935.
There truly aren’t any words that could ever justly describe this unparalleled botanical treasure on top of a rolling landscape. The fact that this paradise inconspicuously sits in south Louisiana and on a salt dome – which extends at least eight miles below the earth – is an astonishment. It’s no wonder you will find visitors from all over the world getting lost in its majesty.
There are several ways you can experience Jungle Gardens. In fact, there’s a three-mile meandering loop from which you can drive, walk, hike or bike. This is a very tranquil place, and drivers snail by to look at the magnificent flora and fauna.
The whimsical journey begins with a grove of live oak trees draped in moss that, because of the salt dome, slope down the hilly landscape. Every awe-inspiring section of this garden seamlessly bleeds into another, and there’s a new fascinating and mysterious discovery at every corner. (Tip: there are signs throughout the gardens that each site and its history.) An easy-to-read map can be picked up at the visitor’s center, and for an enhanced experience, tour Jungle Gardens via your cell phone with the Mobile Phone Tour as you drive through.
There are also lagoons and the glistening Bayou Petite Anse. It is within this area that there are many sightings of alligators which, by the way, don’t seem to bother onlookers (nor appear bothered themselves).
Some of the most stunning scenes are the varieties of towering bamboo that skirts along part of the trail. McIlhenny, who was one of the most successful experimental bamboo growers in the country, planted more 64 different varieties of bamboo. (Fact: Jungle Gardens has one of the oldest timber bamboo groves in America.)
You will not want to miss the awe-striking centerpiece of the gardens: a massive, 900-year-old Buddha statue and shrine amid the mysterious and beautiful Asian horticultural display. Be sure to walk through the Torii Gate on the pathway that leads to this stunning site. There are also lagoons and stone bridges for your discovery and 10-foot high stalks of Chinese bamboo.
How McIhenny got the buddha here in the first place is an amazing story in and of itself. In 1936, McIlhenny received the Buddha statue as a surprise gift from two of his friends after they discovered it in a Manhattan warehouse, where it sat unclaimed for years.
The Wisteria Arch, a canopy draped drive through a stunning tunnel of Asian wisterias, is also a beloved highlight here. (Fun Fact: Chinese and Japanese wisterias were first introduced into New Orleans around 1875.)
To say Jungle Gardens is a bird lover’s paradise is an understatement. Another unexpected ‘wow’ feature is the surreal ‘Bird City.' This bird refuge is a feast for the eyes and, depending on the time of year, there are thousands upon thousands of snowy egrets who nest here. A wooden deck, which jets out over the lagoon and into the rookery, places you among these magnificent birds. It’s hard to believe McIlhenny started this rookery with only a handful of the endangered birds, all in an effort to preserve their species.
Bird City is also a year-round preserve for several different types of migratory birds including songbirds, heron, blue-winged teals, geese and wading birds. (Fact: There are more than 250 named birds that have nested or been spotted on Avery Island, and this documented list can be seen on the Jungle Gardens website.) (Tip: You can opt to take a bird tour between 7:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. by reservation only.)
Speaking of wildlife, there are several different types of animals that have made Avery Island their home. You may catch a glimpse of alligators, deer and raccoons that live in the hills and marshes, and there have also been sightings of black bears, wild cats, coyotes, armadillos, rabbits, otters, and muskrats.
Right next to the Jungle Gardens on Avery Island is the famed birthplace of TABASCO (the legendary red pepper sauce), and after visiting the Jungle Gardens, head straight to the TABASCO Museum and Visitor Center. The museum is full of fascinating personal and business artifacts, and family photographs that date back to the mid-1800s. It is here you will also learn all about the McIlhenny Company, and the multi-generations who’ve created and carried out the global TABASCO empire.
Hungry? While on the island, be sure to visit Restaurant 1868. Among the most popular mouth-watering dishes (all made with TABASCO products) are the Cajun Pirogue Sampler (crawfish etouffee, red beans and rice, and gumbo) and the Messy Mac Pulled Pork sandwich. For dessert, tempt your taste buds with a slice of cheesecake with a raspberry chipotle chocolate sauce or the scrumptious pecan pie. (Fun fact: All eight flavors of TABASCO sauces are on every table in this restaurant.) (Tip: Among the most popular sauce flavors are the Sweet and Spicy, Garlic Pepper Sauce, Siracha, and the two newest editions, Roasted Garlic and Scorpion.)
For more information: junglegardens.org