Garden walks often showcase carefully manicured beds of flowers, pruned shrubs, and spaced and manicured trees. New Iberia’s Rip Van Winkle Gardens provided an experience of a different sort.
Ferns, instead of being ankle or knee high, towered over David’s head. Grass-like bamboo shivered in the afternoon mist, many feet overtop of the ferns, reaching, it seemed, for the clouds.
To be honest, I felt a lot like I’d stepped into Gulliver’s Land of the Giants and I was one of the little people.
But the gardens are named for Rip Van Winkle, rather than Gulliver, since the historic home where they’ve been created was built by the actor, Joseph Jefferson, who spent forty years bringing Washington Irving’s fictional character to life on stages around the world.
After playing the role more than 4500 times, I rather imagine that Jefferson may have known Rip Van Winkle even better than his creator had!
And I could well imagine how Rip Van Winkle might have felt, waking up in this place, his beard touching his toes and the gnarly branches of the live oak trees twisting overhead like phantoms in a crazy dream.
Lunch at the Café Jefferson
Our visit started with lunch at the Café Jefferson, a charming glassed-in retreat from the world nestled, it almost seemed, right in the arms of the live oak grove where it sits.
Since New Iberia is just a few hours from New Orleans, I wasn’t surprised to find a classic muffuletta sandwich as the noon feature. If you’re not familiar with this one, as David wasn’t, don’t be surprised to find olives chopped up in the top layer of ingredients instead of Saskatchewan’s staple pickle, dills.
While we’re not really olive eaters, lemon pie is one of my favorite desserts and I’ve never had a piece any larger–or tastier–on my travels anywhere.
The lemon filling was tangy and the perfect complement to my sweet tea, with crispy meringue that melted in my mouth. Yum!
Walking through the Rip Van Winkle Gardens
The day was hot and muggy, but then again, it was August in Louisiana not Saskatchewan, so we were prepared for the 95+ degrees. However, the intermittent misty rain and sunshine made the garden walks even more like a tropical adventure than we’d expected.
Spread out on twenty-five acres around the home where Jefferson spent 36 winters enjoying a break from the stage and being Rip Van Winkle, the gardens have lots of secret trails to wander at will, so there are no straight lines or paths.
The gardens, though, were developed by the property owner after Jefferson, John Lyle Bayless, Jr., in the 1950s after he sold the salt mines that tunnel under the island where the house sits.
It seems that every waterway in Louisiana has a pirate story to share, and Jefferson island is no different. Jean Lafitte, the most notorious of Louisiana pirates, had long been rumored to have buried treasure on the island back in the early 1800s.
The tale was proven true in 1923, when a real pirate’s chest was dug up on the island by workers, who made off with the riches, ironically leaving only 14 coins for the property owner.
Now, a creature more colorful than even Lafitte’s legends strides on the garden walks at the Rip Van Winkle gardens: the peacock. And you’ll find dozens of different flowers, especially camellias, along with banana plants, giant blossomed magnolias, and sago palms, just to name a few.
While paths crisscross the island, they all lead to the impressive mansion Joseph Jefferson built in 1870.
You can tour Joseph Jefferson House, as we did, although photography isn’t allowed inside. Tours begin from the front porch and an authoritative guide (ours was Maddie) shares all kinds of history and personal anecdotes about the house’s former inhabitants.
My favorite piece in the house was a tricycle made of a child’s hobby horse mounted to typical trike wheels–it even featured stirrups for the young lad’s feet. There was also a good collection of paintings by John James Audubon, along with fascinating paintings by Joseph Jefferson himself.
Jefferson’s paintings were masters at the style used in the Where’s Waldo? picture books for children, as he hid all kinds of things within the layers of his painted garden walks.
Jefferson Island is no ordinary piece of dirt plunked down in a bayou. While the gardens show there’s lots of rich soil to be had, it’s all held up 100 feet or so out of the surrounding lake by enormous columns of salt.
The columns, it seems, are two to three miles wide, and up to five miles deep. I guess Gulliver’s giants wouldn’t have any trouble filling their salt shakers here!
But Jefferson was just one of five islands sitting serenely in the mere 11 foot deep water of Lake Peigneur, the lake that was drained of 3.5 billion gallons of water in just three hours on a November day in 1980.
If Rip Van Winkle had awoken that day to see a 150 foot waterfall cascading down into the enormous hole where the lake had been, he’d likely have rolled back over sure that he was having the worst nightmare ever instead of waking up.
What caused the disaster? An oil rig. Much was lost, but the event also brought many species of plants and fish to the area.
Today, the island is as unique and maybe even more mysterious than ever, as you can see in this video from Rip Van Winkle Gardens.
Visit Rip Van Winkle Gardens
Rip Van Winkle Gardens are located at Jefferson Island, New Iberia, Louisiana. Visit online at: http://www.ripvanwinklegardens.com/