Where can you find thousands of snowy egrets nesting on man-made stilt platforms, a rock salt deposit as deep as Mt Everest is tall, and a factory producing over 700,000 bottles of a fire-hot, red sauce a day? Only one place in world, Avery Island, LA, home to the world-famous Tabasco sauce.
Located three hours west of New Orleans through hilly, marshy Cajun Country, Avery Island is where Tabasco sauce was created in 1868. Edmund McIlhenney, a banker, married into the Avery family and settled on Avery Island in New Iberia Parish. Given some exotic pepper plants by a friend, McIlhenney experimented with creating a spicy sauce that would liven up often mundane fare. In 1870, he patented his special recipe and process that is still used today to create the red hot sauce sold in over 165 countries around the world.
Still family-owned and operated, the Tabasco factory is open for tours (free of charge). The factory produces over 700,000 bottles of the red (and now sometimes green) sauce four days a week. The sauce is bottled after it has aged in white oak barrels previously used to make whiskey at the Jack Daniels Distillery.
The tour provides a short and interesting video about how (and where) the peppers are grown, harvested, turned into mash and then sauce for bottling. If you visit on bottling day, you can watch the busy bottling room as all that fire-hot goodness is poured, capped, and labeled in those trademark long-necked bottles.
The last room has an interesting exhibit of old advertising campaigns and a chance to get up close and personal with the pungent pepper "mash" that eventually becomes Tabasco sauce.
A country store with a broad veranda and chairs for sittin' is filled to the rafters with Tabasco brand clothes, tchochkes, and foodstuffs. Tabasco bottle earrings anyone? How about a string of Tabasco bottle Christmas lights? Yep, I bought them both.
After visiting the Tabasco factory, it is a good time to drive around the "island" a bit. Avery Island is actually a series of hills that rise up above a vast marsh wetland. Underneath Avery Island is a vast deposit of rock salt that is estimated to be as deep as Mount Everest is tall. Mining of the salt deposit has been ongoing since the late 1800s and is expected to continue into the long-distant future. As it is on the "other" side of the hill from where tourist visit there is no visible sign of the salt mine operations.
Just a short 2 minute drive from the Tabasco Factory is Jungle Gardens with its famous Bird Island. In the late 1890's the founder's son, E.A. McIlhenney created what is now known as Bird Island. He raised snowy egrets in captivity on Avery Island and then set them free to migrate. Each year a group would return to nest on the island. McIlhenney created a series of nesting platforms that rise up on stilts over the bayous. Over 120 years later, those first eight egrets raised by McIlhenney, are now thousands of snowy egrets which mass each spring in a squawking community of white to raise their young safely on a sprawling network of reed platforms.
As we walked out to the platforms, we could hear the birds from over 300 yards away in the parking lot. Squawking and squabbling in low-guttural tones they provided the background to the more refined tones of the frogs in the adjacent reeds. There were the "banjo plunking" frogs and the "sounds just like a sheep" frogs. It made for quite a rare, nature symphony.
Bird Island is on one side of Jungle Gardens also created by the McIlhenney family over the years. Its 170-acres sprawls along the Bayou Petite Anse. Massive oak trees and thick stands of bamboo provide shade and cover for local birds, deer, and raccoons. Small lagoons contain small alligators and turtles. The gardens of camellias and azaleas were not in bloom when we were there, but given the extent of the gardens and the size of the plants, it must be spectacular in season.
It's possible to make a day trip to Avery Island from New Orleans if you leave early. A more leisurely two days would give you the opportunity to linger a bit in New Iberia and Breaux Bridge in the heart of Cajun Country. A loop tour is possible by traveling via Hwy 90 and Interstate-10.
For more information about Avery Island and Tabasco products check HERE.