If you’ve ever had Tabasco Sauce you’ve heard of Avery Island. It’s says right on the Diamond-shaped label that this is where the hot sauce is made. Like me, you probably assumed this island was somewhere off Louisiana’s coast, possible near New Orleans.
Nope. Avery Island is definitely inland– it’s surrounded by a brook– about 45 minutes south of Lafayette and 90 minutes southwest of Baton Rouge and two hours southeast of Baton Rouge.
If you’re a fan of Tabasco, or you just like fun factory tours, there is enough to do in the area to make it worth a day trip.
Tour The Factory
The self-guided factory tour walks you through a half-dozen stations that explain the hot-sauce making process from growing the peppers to bottling. The tour facilities are created for visitors, though some give you a view on the actual production facilities. There are videos and some simple interactive elements.
The tour starts in the one-room museum where you learn the history of the McIlhenny family and see the many pop-culture references to the Tabasco bottle from the last 100-plus years. There are several stories (none confirmed) about how Edmund McIlhenny came upon the Mexican peppers he cultivated and used to rebuild his fortune after the Civil War.
From there visitors head to a greenhouse where you can see the tiny Tabasco peppers they grow on the island. Next you can smell the charred oak at the station that explains how the peppers are mashed into a paste that’s barrel-aged for a few years; I realized that this is the step that gives Tabasco the smoky tang that identifies it. Next door to this you can see rows and rows of actual aging barrels.
When the pepper mash has matured they mix it with vinegar and locally mined salt. Finally, they put it in skinny-necked bottles reminiscent of the recycled perfume bottles McIlhenny used, initially because they were all he could find, and later because their skinny necks were suited to dispensing drops of hot sauce.
If you really like hot sauce, stop by the gift shop, where they have the full line of Tabasco products available for sampling. It includes about a dozen hot sauces, plus pepper jellies and pickled vegetables. For the true aficionado they even have one or two flavors they only sell onsite.
If you want to make a day of your visit you can book a cooking class that comes with lunch, or a guided culinary tour that includes tastings of foods cooked with Tabasco. The tour and gift-shop sampling, which take a little more than an hour, were plenty for me.
Explore The Jungle Gardens
McIlhenny’s son Ned, took over the Tabasco business, lived on the island with his family and found time to be an active naturalist and conservationist. In the 1920s he converted part of his private estate to the Jungle Gardens, a dense, green collection of plants he collected from around the world. See local live oak trees, a sanctuary for snowy egrets and an Asian garden with bamboo and an enormous glass-enclosed Buddha. We visited on a rainy day so it wasn’t good for walking the trails or spotting alligators and the other birds and wildlife that live here. There is a road you can drive through the gardens with places to pull in to stroll around or visit the Buddha if you choose. It’s a garden that is both beautiful and interesting as an expression of what was exotic in a different period of time. And there is some latitude for kids to romp a bit.
The factory tour and gardens will run adults about $14; kids of different ages are discounted or free.
Side Trip to Rip Van Winkle Gardens
If you have time, head 30 minutes back toward Lafayette and Lake Charles to the Joseph Jefferson Mansion and Rip Van Winkle Gardens on Jefferson Island.
Tours run hourly to guide people through the Victorian-style mansion built by Jefferson, an actor known for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle. You can also take a good amount of time rambling around the gardens, which combine Balinese ornaments and tropical plants with 350-year-old oak trees, native flowers and shrubs. It’s also home to 260 kinds of birds, including peacocks.
Salt deposits run beneath the island and the lake it borders. In a truly bizarre accident, a subsequent owner of the property lost his house, a conservatory and part of the gardens when an oilrig punctured a hole in one of the salt mines, creating a vortex that sucked up most of the lake. It’s now a salt-water lake, refilled via a canal from the Gulf.
The property is fine for kids to roam around. The house tour isn’t lengthy. I’d feel safe taking babies in carriers or kids ages 7 and up who can resist touching things.
What’s For Lunch?
Both the Tabasco and Rip Van Winkle properties have restaurants. You can’t go wrong with either. Both spots have regional specialties like a rice-based boudin sausage, the local twist on gumbo and crawfish étouffée.
Tabasco’s Restaurant 1868 is cafeteria style and has corn dogs and chicken fingers as well as spicier dishes like red beans and sausage or boudin with pepper jelly. They have a vested interest in making sure the food you eat there, especially the ones cooked with Tabasco, is tasty.
The dining room on Jefferson Island is sit-down with some outdoor seating and a view of the lake from inside. The menu has elaborate dishes like crawfish Cardinale (with a cognac sauce) and eggplant Michelle (stuffed with seafood), but it also offers po’boys, muffulettas and chili. The desserts, particularly the bread pudding and Key Lime and pecan pies are worth saving room for. If you are with kids who can sit still and you have time for a leisurely lunch, it’s the option to choose. After all, you can walk off all the rich food in the gardens.
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