Monday, July 9, 2012

Rip Van Winkle Gardens

Joseph Jefferson Mansion

The name "Rip Van Winkle Gardens" stuck in my head from the first time I heard it. It's been on our to-do list for ages, and our recent visit proved the place to be as memorable as its name.

We made a weekend of the trip, not missing a chance to spend a Friday night with our friend in Baton Rouge. Of course, we made the obligatory visit to Mike the Tiger and brought our picnic dinner to the hill-top tables at the Manship School of Mass Communication. Then we tucked the kids in for the night, ready for their road-trip adventure the next morning.

Cypress Island Preserve at Lake Martin
Every time I cross the Baton Rouge bridge over the Mississippi River and begin heading west, I'm reminded of larger trips we've taken to the desert Southwest and beyond. Particularly the drive through Henderson Swamp and its scattered, water-logged cypress trees puts me in vacation mindset.

We didn't quite make it to Lafayette, but instead veered south through Breaux Bridge and, as on a previous trip, stopped at Lake Martin for a stroll along the Nature Conservancy's Cypress Island Preserve boardwalk. This time we were in for a double treat. Not only was the visitor's center open, but the nesting birds were out in full force. We escaped the oppressive heat inside the quaint visitor's center, where the kids poked and prodded the touchable animal shells and skins on display and we visited with the two helpful staff.

St. Martinville
Back outside, we sweated our way along the boardwalk, still managing to enjoy the scenery, before hopping in the car to drive the lake's east side. This proved to be the best viewing spot for the thousands of egrets and herons flying around the trees. Flashes of pink signaled the presence of roseate spoonbills in the area as well.

From Lake Martin, we again dined at La Petite Paris Cafe in St. Martinville, where the waitress remembered us from our last rowdy, lunchtime visit. (I thought I saw fear in her eyes when we walked through the doors!) We relived our walk down to the Evangeline Oak on the banks of the Bayou Teche, and then set off on our final stretch of road to Jefferson Island.

We traveled the back roads through miles of Louisiana countryside to reach our destination. The land rises as you approach the gardens through a line of live oak trees. Like nearby Avery Island (of the Tabasco fame), Jefferson Island is one of five coastal salt domes emerging upwards of 100 feet above sea level. In 1870, Actor Joseph Jefferson built his mansion on top of one dome and spent 36 winters in his home alongside expansive Lake Peigneur. Future owner J. Lyle Bayless, Jr., surrounded the house with acres of gardens in the 1950s, naming them in honor of the actor who was best-known for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle.

Rip Van Winkle Gardens
Today, the house and gardens are open to the public, and the property also offers a visitor's center/gift shop, conference center, cafe and a bed and breakfast. The location is a picturesque backdrop for weddings, but we came to explore the trees, plants and bugs that make up the fairytale gardens.

Snaking out from behind the gift shop, the path branched off into a series of options. A peacock strutted by us, while a massive cat eyed us suspiciously from atop a statue. We took the high ground, skirting a Japanese Teahouse and desperately trying to catch a dragonfly at the garden pond. A plaque underneath one live oak tree marked the spot where Pirate Jean Lafitte's treasure was found. We had to wonder whether this was true...

Joseph Jefferson Mansion
The house itself is a four-story, elegant mansion gazing down at the flowing green lawn below. Cottages behind the home beckoned as a bed and breakfast where overnight visitors could awaken to the crowing of the nearby rooster. Completing the circle, we found our way back to the visitor's center with Lake Peigneur off to our right. Water skiers bounced across the serene waters that hid a tragic history. In 1980, a drilling rig struck a salt cavern, and a hole opened in the lake that turned into a tumultous waterfall draining the water and sucking in 65 acres of the gardens. The theater shows live video taken of the event.

It was a successful adventure for us, particularly as our four-year-old left with a bug catcher of tadpoles. On the ride home, he entertained us with stories of the frogs that would soon live in our house as his younger brother snoozed loudly beside him.

Garden Statues