There are times when it seems like temperatures are never going to come down in New Orleans. Then, in an instant, “fall” arrives and we enjoy such a brief, and wonderful, moment when it isn’t too hot – and not too cold – that we almost forget about the various school breaks, professional days and holidays that leave us scrambling to figure out what to do with our kids. Just as things start to cool off, however, a quick trip to the Tabasco Museum just 45 minutes south of Lafayette lets us heat things up a bit before our humid winter brings cold back to the big easy.
While you will be hard pressed to find a New Orleanian that doesn’t have strong opinions about Tabasco and its use, the amount of us (self included) that have visited its birthplace is perhaps not so plentiful. Avery Island houses both the factory and museum dedicated to the production and history of the famous hot sauce and the McIlhenny family that has run it for generations.
The 10-stop, self-guided Tabasco tour takes you through a small museum dedicated to the origins of the hot sauce recipe through the greenhouses that hold the peppers leading to the storage barns where the sauce is aged in white oak for three years before it heads to bottling on the assembly line. Along the way, interactive displays and clear instructions make it easy for school age children to read and follow along while the open spaces and constant flow of the exhibits keep smaller children from losing interest. Meanwhile, the “mining” exhibit that explains how the “island” is actually a huge salt dome surround by swamp is a special treat for kids interested machinery and excavation.
The entire Tabasco tour last about an hour and a half, meaning you could make this part of a visit to other places in the area or make a full day at the island, taking a break for lunch in the restaurant or picnicking at a nearby table (they do ask you to be mindful of trash pick-up since there are signs warning you to be careful of bears). You do, of course, get samples and your own souvenir bottle to take home, but the gift shop has plenty of Tabasco products like chocolate, which was surprisingly good. Meanwhile, their extra-aged Family Reserve sauce that you can only purchase on the island is also worth a try.
While many would be content to end their day on a spicy note, the island’s other role as a bird sanctuary is the origin of its other attraction. The Jungle Gardens are not only a beautiful refuge on a sunny day, they also hearken back to a dark time in the 19th century when the snowy egret was on the verge of extinction because the feathers of the young, white birds were so valued for women’s hats. Ned McIlhenny not only founded a private bird sanctuary on the island to protect the birds, he also created his Jungle Gardens by filling what is now 170 acres with exotic plants as a means of continuing his love of conservation. The gardens today still have one of the oldest bamboo groves in the country as well as countless bird species, which you can see best on special bird watching tours as well as other events throughout the year.
When facing a rogue school day off this year, Avery Island is an easy day trip that is not just a visit to all things hot and spicy but instead is multi-faceted experience that gives kids a taste of how one small island provides a whole lot more than that red stuff mom is always putting in her gumbo (or, as the commercial says, in just about anything else).
Just the Facts …
Avery Island: Highway 329, Avery Island
Tobasco Factory and Tour Museum:
Hours of Operation: 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
Children under 4: Free
Phone: (337) 373-6139
Tickets can be purchased online: Tabasco.com/visit-avery-island/factory-tour-museum
Hours of Operation: 9 a.m.- 5 p.m.
Price: $8 for adults ($12.50 with Tabasco tour included)
$5 for children ($9.50 with Tabasco tour included)
Tickets can be purchased online: JungleGardens.org