I drove to the island on a day darkened by severe thunderstorms. On the shoulder of Highway 90 there were billboards advertising the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival, and on the radio, country singers singing incessantly about femmes fatales from Amarillo.
It was refreshing driving through the countryside after a rainfall. The plant life looked swollen and fit to burst. The air was a kind of fresh unknown in New Orleans. As I got closer to the island, the marsh water surrounded to the edges of the road. Different species of exotic birds appeared and increased in number, as did hilly salt summits. (The entire island rests on top of a salt plug that reaches deeper into the earth than Mount Everest reaches into the Nepalese sky.)
In order to find Avery Island, hop on I-10 West towards Baton Rouge. Take exit 220 towards Houma, and stay on Highway 90 West for 104 miles. This stretch of road will take you past St. Rose, Hahnville, Boutte and Morgan City. Take exit La.-329 North (hint: It’s the one under the sign that reads "Avery Island"). Hang a left onto Avery Island Road. You’ll know you’re on the island – in about 5 miles – when the fields yield to marshland on the right side of the road and you reach a small toll booth. On the left immediately after the tollbooth you have the option of seeing the TABASCO factory, and a little beyond the factory, the Jungle Gardens lie on the right.
You can explore the gardens, just like the rest of the island, by car, motorcycle, bicycle or on foot, but no matter how you decide to travel, your first stop should be the gift shop to grab a map of the gardens – and your tickets, which are $8 for adults and $5 for children.
While you’re in the shop have one of the workers go over the map with you, and don’t shy away from asking questions about the island – it’s encouraged – and the workers there seem to enjoy the conversation.
While I was in the store I sought out Patrice Duhan, an employee of the Jungle Gardens, to offer the scoop on a 900-year-old Chinese Buddha statue that rests just above a lagoon inside the garden.
“A rebel general overtook a Chinese temple and stole the Buddha that’s in the garden,” Duhan says casually. “He brought it to New York City in order to sell it, but that didn’t work out too well for him. Eventually, the Chinese caught up with him, and he was beheaded. A couple of McIlhenny’s friends found the buddha in an auction in 1936. They sent it to him because they figured it was the kind of thing his garden was lacking.”
This story along with rumors of papyrus, lotus and the world’s most complete collection of camellias, led me eagerly into the garden. Upon entry you’ll see Bayou Petit Anse on your right and a lagoon on your left. This is a good opportunity to take pictures of alligators, turtles and migratory birds.
Go a little further and you’ll reach the wisteria arch. After the arch, there’s a dirt cul de sac. You should park here if you’re planning on making a pilgrimage to the Buddha.
Although I was expecting the spiritual symbol had somehow been reincarnated into an expensive lawn ornament, I was actually taken aback by how beautiful it was, resting all gray-eyed and golden on a stone embankment above the lagoon.
The Cleveland Oak, President Grover Cleveland’s favorite oak tree, is within a stone’s throw of Buddha. After visiting the tree, head back to your car and take a right through the wisteria arch up the hill. This will lead you toward bird city, a heron sanctuary where 20,000 nests are built each spring.
The pet project of arctic explorer and conservationist Edward Avery "Ned" McIlhenny (the heir to the TABASCO empire), the Jungle Gardens were originally the Avery Island estate. McIlhenny converted his property into a preserve in the 1920s, expanding its girth to 170 acres and adding features such as its sunken garden.
The Jungle Gardens are open from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. daily. Be advised, there is a $1 "conservation fee" charged for each car to cross onto the island. For more information, call (337) 369-6243 or visit the Gardens' website.