Located just over 2 hours from New Orleans in Iberia Parish is a majestic salt dome island full of dramatic, seemingly mythical history waiting to be explored.
Jefferson Island, named for 19th century actor and comedian Joseph Jefferson, is often overshadowed by Avery Island, the birthplace of Tabasco (also located in Iberia Parish, just 20 minutes away). Jefferson Cafe, Rip’s Rookery Bird Sanctuary, Rip Van Winkle Gardens, Lake Peigneur, Jungle Gardens and the Joseph Jefferson House– are open and ready for business. The island even has a connection to the “largest man made sink hole in the world” and famous Louisiana pirate Jean Lafitte’s buried treasure.
Jefferson Island is one of five prehistoric salt domes in Louisiana (Avery Island is another). While technically not a traditional island, salt domes are areas of high ground (typically 50-100 feet above sea level), perched on top of enormous natural deposits of salt. When heading towards Jefferson Island from the surrounding countryside, the raised dome of the island is clearly visible.
My family and I took a short trip to Jefferson Island and the New Iberia region during the week of Mardi Gras, during one of the coldest days of the year. We stayed at a cozy Air BnB cabin on nearby Bayou Petite Anse, and while there, our host recommended we visit Jefferson Island. No one in my family had ever heard of it.
Friendly feathered welcome
Once on the island, we parked in the gift shop parking lot and were immediately surprised by peacocks– many of them. Several males boastfully shook their tail feathers towards the few females, completely disinterested in us humans. Peacocks are just one of 260 species of birds that inhabit the island.
A meal or snack at Cafe Jefferson is a great place to start your visit to Jefferson Island. The menu boasts gumbo (pictured left), crawfish étouffée, shrimp remoulade, and other local favorites. You can dine outside, along a wrap-around porch, or inside the restaurant’s glassed-in porch with breathtaking views of Lake Peigneur and centuries’ old oaks. Picturesque peacocks linger on the porch, along the lake, and on the restaurant’s roof– pretty much anywhere you can think of.
Protruding out of Lake Peigneur, is the brick chimney of former island resident John Bayless’s home, swallowed by a vortex during the Crystal Salt Mine disaster on November 20, 1980. On this day, a Texaco drilling rig pierced one of the enormous caverns of the Diamond Crystal Salt mine, flooding (and destroying) the entire mine. The vortex consumed the lake, 65 acres of native woodland, the Rip Van Winkle Welcome center, a glass conservatory, and Bayless’s home. In just 10 hours, the largest man made sink hole in the world was made, though thankfully no lives were lost.
Rip Van Winkle Gardens
Actor Joseph Jefferson played Rip Van Winkle more than 4500 times on stage during the 1800s. The gardens between Cafe Jefferson and the Jefferson House are named after this famous character. While my family and I didn’t linger too long among the 3000 species of exotic plants due to the cold temperatures, we did stop by the Balinese gate (custom carved in Bali, Indonesia, and now a popular site for wedding ceremonies) and one of several bamboo collections. The gardens also feature a Japanese Tea House, Lotus pond, rock garden, Acadian cottages (which host overnight guests) and the Lafitte oaks– where the pirate’s treasure was unearthed. A walk from Cafe Jefferson through the gardens to the Joseph Jefferson House takes about 10-15 minutes on foot.
Joseph Jefferson House
Built in 1870, the Joseph Jefferson house is a Victorian-style home with Moorish touches on the National Register of Historic Places. The home sits 55 feet above sea level, on the island’s highest point, nestled among 350 year old live oaks.
My family and I decided to take in a tour of the home, which, surprisingly, our 11 year old son and 7 year old daughter found very interesting. Highlights included viewing original paintings by Joseph Jefferson, the fourth-story cupola, and of course, centuries’ old coins, said to be part of Jean Lafitte’s buried treasure found beneath the Lafitte oaks. My children marveled at the small size of the beds (“people were that short back then?”), random artifacts (antique eyeglasses, dolls, and books), and the cellar, a true rarity in southern Louisiana.
Tours of the home are available 10am-4pm, 7 days a week. Admission is $12/adult, $10/senior, and $6/child (ages 6-17). Tickets can be purchased inside the Island Gift Shop, which includes local souvenirs such as glazed pecans, Orange Island coffee, and hot sauce. Admission includes viewing a documentary on the history of the island, including details about Jefferson’s life, Rip Van Winkle Gardens, and the 1980 salt mine disaster.
Upon leaving Jefferson Island, be sure to stop by Rip’s Rookery, located where Rip Van Winkle and Jefferson Island Roads meet. This bird sanctuary is home to 12 species of exotic birds, most notably, the roseate spoonbill. The vibrant red color of these birds come from crawfish, on which they regularly feast. American Alligators guard the waters surrounding the rookery from predators and keep the bird population in check, by consuming dead and weak fowl.
The nesting and rearing period for the birds is from March through June or July, depending on the weather. This is the best time to visit the island if you’re hoping to view the roseate spoonbill and Rip Van Winkle Gardens in full bloom.
Why You Should Go
Jefferson Island truly has something for everyone– delicious local cuisine, spirited birds, mysterious history, beautiful botanicals, and a quiet, other-worldly vibe. A visit here can be enjoyed by children of all ages, families, and couples for as short as a few hours or savored over a few days. In addition, a Jefferson Island trip can easily be combined with a visit to the city of New Iberia (20 minutes east) and/or Lafayette (30 minutes north). Do yourself a favor and check it out soon!
For more information, visit: https://www.iberiatravel.com/about-us/jefferson-island