Jefferson Island is a strange but beautiful place that’s a short trip away from the Crescent City
As you head down Rip Van Winkle Drive, make sure to watch for peacocks in the road.
There are about 25 peafowl living at Rip Van Winkle Gardens on Jefferson Island, a strange but beautiful place about two hours from New Orleans, just outside of New Iberia.
Among other things, it’s a kind of botanical garden: You’ll see hibiscus and irises and walls of bamboo, along with cypress trees to remind you we do live in a swamp among swamps.
Wildlife on the island
As you enter the grounds, stop at Rip’s Rookery, an onsite bird sanctuary best known for its colorful roseate spoonbills. They take their distinctive red color from eating excessive amounts of crawfish, like something out of a Louisiana version of Willy Wonka. Also, take seriously the sign noting that weak and sick birds are culled by alligators: You might see some of the reptiles resting in the swamps around the rookery or even sunning themselves on the banks. I saw this cute family of gators on a recent visit. The little ones chirp!
There are colorful roses and soaring live oaks, a pond full of lovely waterlilies and another with colorful lotuses in bloom.
Make sure to explore the odd details of the island. It can begin to feel like Myst, the ’90s computer game. You’ll notice the quaint metal sign warning that “some of the plants in these gardens are noxious” and that you shouldn’t touch them, and the one asking you “to linger but not litter” and “to rest but not molest” the plants. Stroll a bit further, and the markers get more intriguing still: one under a centuries-old live oak indicates that President Grover Cleveland once took “siestas”–it is Iberia Parish, after all–under the tree. Another shows where, in 1923, a cache of coins said to be linked to pirate Jean Lafitte was unearthed. Expect to see peacocks in the most unexpected places.
Walk along the shore of Lake Peigneur to see a brick chimney sticking out of the lake at a spot marked on a tourist map as the “world’s largest man made sinkhole.”
The treasure trove of history
It turns out that Jefferson Island’s present role as a scenic tourist attraction is really inseparable from its history. It’s not, as I initially assumed, named for Thomas Jefferson. Instead, the name comes from Joseph Jefferson, a 19th-century theater actor then known for portraying Rip Van Winkle, the Washington Irving character who sleeps for 20 years, missing the American Revolution. Jefferson toured the country for decades, primarily portraying the sleepy New Yorker, and while he’s largely forgotten today, the 1911 edition Encyclopedia Britannica called the then-recently-deceased Jefferson “the most famous of all American comedians.” An avid fisherman, he spent part of his earnings on the island, previously known as Orange Island for its citrus harvest.
His visually distinctive mansion is usually open for tours, although it’s currently closed to visitors due to the pandemic. Still, you can follow Jefferson’s example and enjoy the grounds.
“In Louisiana the live-oak is the king of the forest, and the magnolia is its queen,” he wrote in his autobiography, “and there is nothing more delightful to one who is fond of the country than to sit under them on a clear, calm spring morning like this.”
The island remained more or less clear and calm for decades after Jefferson’s death, and starting in the 1950s, then-owner Jack Bayless began to develop the Rip Van Winkle Gardens, named in honor of Jefferson’s famous character. He added many of the flower collections, as well as the stunning Japanese-style tea house that still stands on the island today. He also built an indoor conservatory and a house for himself, both of which were submerged in a bizarre incident in 1980 owing to the island’s geology.
Jefferson Island is one of five islands in the area that are formed from pillars of salt left behind by a prehistoric ocean. The most famous is probably Avery Island, where Tabasco Sauce is produced. In addition to the gardens, Jefferson Island had long been home to a salt mining operation, and in 1980, a drilling operation in Lake Peigneur searching for oil instead found that it had pierced a mineshaft, causing the water from the lake to pour into the mine. Boats were beached, and a section of the island including Bayless’s house and conservatory and portions of the gardens were also pulled into the water, although miraculously nobody was seriously injured or killed. A bound collection of newspaper clippings in the garden gift shop tells the story as it unfolded at the time, with at least one headline story calling the incident a Cajun “Mt. Saint Helens,” after the Washington volcano that erupted around that time. In a small theater outside the gift shop, a documentary short telling the entire story plays on loop.
More recently, Michael Richard, who had begun working for Bayless as a college student in the 1960s and also runs the Live Oak Gardens wholesale nursery next to the garden, has taken over operations. He added features like a Balinese gate, custom-carved on the Indonesian island and shipped over to be assembled in its present home, said his son, Michael Richard Jr.
Richard Jr. also confirms the story about Lafitte’s treasure being found on the island: In fact, he says, the story he’s always heard is that a second box was found around the time by workers doing construction on a nearby property. They claimed the box was empty, he’s told–but also quickly stopped coming to work.
Where to stay and souvenirs
Today, other treasures can be found in the gift shop, which also sells coffee roasted onsite by the Orange Island Coffee Co., and scenic Cafe Jefferson, offering sandwiches from muffalettas to BLTs, gumbo and classic Louisiana seafood dishes like crawfish etouffee. If you prefer to dine elsewhere, it’s just a short drive to downtown New Iberia, which is very pleasant indeed and along the lovely Bayou Teche and full of places to eat. I personally went to Bon Creole, a cozy mostly seafood and po’ boy restaurant for a delicious fried catfish po’ boy, on the recommendation of a local business owner. You can spot the restaurant by its colorful mural, depicting a tranquil bayou scene punctuated by a crawfish the size of a minivan holding up what appears to be a record-setting fish catch.
If you’re in a literary mood, stop by Books Along the Teche, which is full of local interest reading material, including many by mystery writer James Lee Burke, creator of the New Iberia-set Dave Robicheaux series, and plenty of cookbooks filled with recipes that begin with a roux. If you’d rather see visual art, check out Paul Schexnayder’s colorful gallery, housing and selling works by numerous local artists.
Need a ride? Rent a car here
If you find yourself still looking for quirkily beautiful parks, you can also check out Brownell Memorial Park & Carillon Tower on Lake Palourde in Morgan City. Walk along the lovely lakeshore, and check out the cypress swamp. Maybe you’ll see more gators and spoonbills! Make sure to watch for spiders, which build their webs between the trees.
The park is named for the late former mayor C. R. “Doc” Brownell, who is depicted affectionately feeding a pack of raccoons. A bell tower plays familiar music roughly every fifteen minutes, so the following picture was taken to the stirring sounds of The Battle Hymn of the Republic.
Another nearby outdoor option is the Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge, which offers hiking and paddling opportunities. Keep in mind that the refuge was established explicitly to be a habitat for the Louisiana black bear, and take appropriate precautions, but note that the largest animal I spotted on a recent visit was an inquisitive nutria that didn’t even expose its hideous orange teeth.
Rip Van Winkle Gardens is currently $8 to enter, with the price slightly reduced since the house isn’t available for tours. You could wait until the house reopens, or take heed of the conclusion of Jefferson’s autobiography and head out as soon as you have the chance.
“And yet we are but tenants,” he concluded of his proud ownership of the island. “Let us assure ourselves of this, and then it will not be so hard to make room for the new administration; for shortly the great Landlord will give us notice that our lease has expired.”