Kids grow up so fast and before you know it they’re teenagers and want to go everywhere, just not with you. Since school started and my oldest entered high school, I realized that my own opportunities of spontaneous travel with kids are slowly coming to an end.
Yesterday, thanks to Christopher Columbus and a teacher planning day, the kids and I used this bonus day off for an activity day of learning more about where we live. The choices were The Myrtles Plantation (haunted) or Avery Island. The kids chose Avery Island, home of the McIlhenny Company and Tabasco Pepper Sauce.
Avery Island is one of five salt dome islands along the Louisiana Gulf coast. These islands formed when alluvial sediment covered a vast plain of salt left behind by an ancient saltwater ocean. Surrounded by the swamps and marshes of south Louisiana, Avery Island stands the highest at 163 feet above mean sea level. On the drive to Avery Island, the kids and I discussed ecology, environments, and wetlands. They were disappointed that Avery Island wasn’t full of beaches, but this day trip did help them realize that there are many types of islands all over the world, and not all are tropical with beach chairs.
Sometime around the mid 1860’s, Edmund McIlhenny was given the seeds of Capsicum frutescens peppers that had come from Mexico or Central America. He was a foodie and gardener who created a pepper sauce from the seeds, to liven up the blandness of Southern food during the Reconstruction Period. He used the salt from his home on Avery Island for curing and preservation to bottle his pepper sauce, sharing this spicy delight with friends and family. The sauce became so popular among certain crowds, that McIlhenny secured the patent for “Tabasco”. He then bottled a large batch and sold bottled Tabasco pepper sauce wholesale to grocers along the Gulf Coast, and the rest is history!
The Factory Tour
Today Tabasco brand pepper sauce can be found in over 160 countries and territories. It is the most well-known brand of pepper sauce in the world, with many other products being developed under the Tabasco brand. Visitors to south Louisiana can take a free tour of the factory to see how this famous pepper sauce is bottled and distributed. The traditions of this Louisiana family-owned company have been passed down for generations and members of the McIlhenny family still live on Avery Island today.
The free factory tour takes about half an hour and wasn’t overly spectacular. There is a lobby introduction by an employee, a 15 minute film, and an unescorted walk down the length of the bottling area (behind plexi-glass walls). I definitely recommend this tour for foodies and adults, but my two kids made the comment that they really could’ve skipped this part. My daughter did mention that she loved the smell when we walked in.
I would love to have had a glimpse of where the pepper plants are grown, where the salt is taken from, and even a guided ride around Avery Island. Hopefully, the McIlhenny Company will incorporate some of new aspects of the tour in the future. I would gladly pay a few dollars for more of a tour than just the bottling area.
The Country Store
The Country Store had to be the most popular place for visitors. When we walked in, the place was packed and the line to check out was pretty long. Free samples of Tabasco brand products are available and we joined the long line of tourists waiting for a taste. The samples included the entire line of condiments (sauces and salsa), Tabasco Chili Mix, and some crazy items like jalapeno ice cream and Tabasco soda. If you’re hungry form more than a sample taste, the Country Store sells hot meals that vary from day to day. During our visit, crawfish etoufee and red beans and rice were available. Visitors would sit outside on the porch area and enjoy some Louisiana flavor.
So far, the kids were griping about how boring the day was. Fortunately Avery Island also offers Jungle Gardens, a 250 acre managed paradise, which was originally developed in the 1890’s by E.A. McIlhenny. The original concept was Bird City, a place to raise endangered birds such as the Egret. At that time, many birds were facing extinction due to the fashion of wearing feathered plumes in ladies’ hats.
Bird City at Jungle Gardens isn’t the only attraction in the 250 acres. The botanical offerings abound, as does the wildlife. Visitors take a driving tour in their personal vehicles, with many opportunities to stop and walk around. Our first stop was near a marshy area inhabited by small alligators. We stood at the edge and about six alligators swam right up to us. Finally the kids were getting interested!
We continued the slow drive, stopping along the way to take pictures of Snowy Egrets, more alligators, or just the flora of South Louisiana. We made a stop at Buddha’s Temple, an Asian inspired garden area that houses a statue of Buddha given to E.A. McIlhenny in 1936 as a gift. The statue was originally built for the Shonfa Temple, located northeast of Peking. It was commissioned by Emperor Hui-Tsung (1101-1125) and made by Chon-Ha-Chin. Both of my children are fascinated with other cultures and religions and they raced ahead with excitement to get a glimpse of this ancient idol.
The Jungle Gardens redeemed what was ending up to be a day full of griping kids. We did get to learn about agritourism and a regular product that sits on our table, next to the salt and pepper. We spent some quality time chatting as we walked around the grounds of Jungle Gardens and we laughed as we chatted in the car on the way home.
Cool Facts the Kids Like:
Tabasco pepper mash ages in barrels for three years before it is made into a sauce and bottled.
One of the first Tarzan movies was filmed on Avery Island.
Are you planning a visit to South Louisiana’s Cajun Country? Here are some pertinent facts to make things easier:
Avery Island Toll: $1 per vehicle
Factory Tour and Samples: Free
Jungle Gardens: $6.50 adults $4.25 ages 6-12 (Under age 6 are free)
How to Get There:
Avery Island is located near New Iberia, LA. The drive from Baton Rouge or New Orleans is a little over 2 hours. Nearest airport is Lafayette, LA. A rental car is highly suggested if flying into Lafayette, although we did notice a taxi entering the Island when we departed.
For operating hours and more information visit the Official Tabasco Website.