Painting by Paul Schexnayder.
If you haven’t been to New Iberia lately, October would be a good month to renew your acquaintance with the city as it hosts a series of special weekend events.
Nestled in a bend of the 120-mile-long meandering Bayou Teche, New Iberia boasts a nationally recognized Main Street, the country’s oldest continuously operating rice mill, one of the state’s best-known antebellum mansions, and a fictional detective followed by millions of people around the world.
The city, which is about twenty miles south of Lafayette and eighty miles west of Baton Rouge, was founded in 1779 under Spanish Gov. Bernardo de Gálvez. Today New Iberia is Louisiana’s only remaining city founded by the Spanish.
A History of Preservation
Preservation of buildings, history, and culture has long been an integral part of New Iberia’s identity. Organizations such as the New Iberia Main Street Program, the Iberia Cultural Resources Association, the Bayou Teche Museum, and the Shadows-on-the-Teche National Historic Trust Site have worked hard to keep the city’s heritage alive.
Four years ago, these organizations came together to put on what has become one of the city’s signature October events—New Iberia Beneath the Balconies.
The event takes advantage of one of the city’s most noticeable architectural features—the balconies that adorn many of the buildings lining Main Street. Performers are set up on ten balconies, and spectators move from one balcony to the next as each performance concludes. Each of the balconies has a different theme, and the performers range from grade school and high school students to local actors and gospel choirs.
This year’s Beneath the Balconies is October 26; and, for the first time, the event will feature food booths and musical entertainment beginning at noon in Bouligny Plaza. Organizers hope people will mingle, eat lunch, and shop before heading to the first performance, which starts at 2 pm at Shadows-on-the-Teche.
But Beneath the Balconies isn’t the only thing happening in New Iberia. Other October events include the Shadows Arts & Crafts Fair on October 5, the World Championship Gumbo Cook-Off October 11–13, and the New Iberia Downtown ArtWalk on October 19. Events continue in November with a Civil War Encampment November 2–3 and a Civil War Tour and Presentation on November 9.
In short, there are plenty of reasons to visit.
Before You Go
Visit the Iberia Parish Convention & Visitors Bureau website at iberiatravel.com. The site offers a Plan Your Trip feature that allows you to peruse different categories—such as Things to Do, Where to Stay and Dining—and add items to an itinerary. When you finish, you can email yourself the itinerary.
If you prefer a more old-fashioned approach, however, stop by the Iberia Parish Welcome Center at 2513 Highway 14 on your way into town and pick up a copy of Discover Iberia, a jam-packed guide to attractions, events, restaurants, accommodations, and more in the area.
Where to Begin
Start with a trip to the Bayou Teche Museum. The museum offers a primer on the city’s history and provides several interactive exhibits that focus on music, culture, agriculture, and industry. The interactive nature of the exhibits allows visitors to view videos, hear music, and even experience a ride in an elevator that replicates a descent into a salt mine. The elevator is a favorite of children, while another exhibit—dedicated to Dave Robicheaux, the fictional detective made famous by native son James Lee Burke—is also a visitor favorite.
Afterward, head to Shadows-on-the-Teche, a jewel in Louisiana’s famed collection of antebellum mansions. The home was built between 1831 and 1834 by sugarcane planter David Weeks. It remained in the family’s possession until 1958, when William Weeks Hall, great-grandson of David Weeks, died. Today it is a National Trust Historic Site owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The goal of the Shadows is to depict life on a nineteenth century southern Louisiana plantation, a task helped greatly by the discovery of more than seventeen thousand paper documents belonging to the Weeks family. Packed away in trunks, the documents include invoices, receipts, business and legal papers, and personal letters. Much of the furniture is original, and one of the more unusual items on display is a door containing the signatures of famous people who visited the mansion.
From the Shadows, pick a direction—right or left—and take a walking tour. Turning left, or east, will take you away from downtown and past several blocks of historic homes. Nearly fifty-five structures make up the Residential District Walking Tour. Most of the homes date from the 1880s to the 1930s, and encompass a variety of architectural styles, including Georgian, Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, and Greek Revival.
Turning right, or west, will take you past some fifty-nine commercial buildings that make up the Commercial District Walking Tour. Most of the buildings are still in use. As with the residential structures, the architecture is varied, but what is most striking is the energy that emanates from a still-vibrant downtown. Large metal plaques attached to many of the buildings provide information about the structures in English, French, and Spanish. Many also feature decals with QR codes on them; by scanning the codes, you can call up even more information on a smart phone.
Maps for both walking routes are available at the Iberia Parish Welcome Center, the Shadows-on-the-Teche Visitors Center and the Bayou Teche Museum.
If following in the footsteps of a popular fictional detective is more appealing, you can do that instead. The Discover Iberia guide contains a map of the various places that make up Dave Robicheaux’s world. Although author and creator James Lee Burke no longer lives in New Iberia, he visits frequently, and the local bookstore—Books Along the Teche on Main Street—carries all of his Dave Robicheaux books.
By now you’ve probably worked up an appetite for lunch. Main Street offers several restaurants to choose from, including Victor’s Cafeteria, which is mentioned in Burke’s books.
After lunch, drive the few blocks to the Konriko Rice Mill. The mill, built in 1912 by Phillip Conrad Sr., is the oldest continuously operating rice mill in the country. Tours start at the company store and include a visit to the mill where workers process rice the same way the company has done for more than one hundred years, using pretty much the same equipment installed when the mill was built. After the tour, you can return to the store to sample some cooked rice as well as a cup of Mellow Joy coffee—a local brand.
For the rest of the day, head back to Main Street and soak up the food, fun, and atmosphere of one of the city’s special weekend events. Depending on which weekend you visit, it could be the Arts & Crafts Fair, the Gumbo Cook-Off, the ArtWalk, or Beneath the Balconies.
What about Sunday?
If you stay over Saturday night and are looking for something to do Sunday, head to Avery Island, home of the Tabasco Pepper Sauce Factory, the Tabasco Country Store, and Jungle Gardens. You can tour the factory via a glassed-in hallway and then spend some time in the interactive exhibit. The country store features all things Tabasco, as well as samples of sauces, jalapeño ice cream, and Tabasco soda pop, among other things. Outside the store, a food truck serves up such lunch dishes as crawfish étouffée, red beans and sausage, crawfish corn maque choux, and boudin.
Before you leave Avery Island, make a slight detour to visit the two-hundred-acre Jungle Gardens. The Gardens were established by E.A. McIlhenny, a son of Tabasco sauce inventor Edmund McIlhenny, and feature a variety of azalea, camellia, and bamboo plants as well as old live oaks and a giant Buddha statue. A number of man-made lagoons dot the Gardens, and it is not unusual to see alligators, turtles, deer, and other wildlife. The Gardens also are home to a bird sanctuary known as Bird City. A three-mile loop that you can drive or walk takes you around the property.
Finish your trip with a visit to Jefferson Island, which is an especially apropos destination in the wake of the appearance of a sinkhole last year in Assumption Parish. Like Avery Island, Jefferson Island sits atop a salt dome; and in 1980, an oil company punctured the dome while drilling. The puncture caused a sinkhole that drained the lake and swallowed nearly seventy acres of Jefferson Island. Over the next few days, water from the Gulf of Mexico refilled the lake, transforming it from a shallow, freshwater body of water to a deep saltwater lake.
You can learn all about the sinkhole, as well as about actor Joseph Jefferson, who bought the island in 1869 and built the majestic mansion that still stands. After Jefferson died, the land and house were sold to the Bayless family of Kentucky, and J. Lyle Bayless Jr. established the renowned Rip Van Winkle Gardens. The house is open for guided tours, but you’re on your own to explore the Gardens, which feature colorful plants laid out in intricate patterns, Asian-themed statues, and live peacocks. In addition, Rip’s Rookery is home to a variety of exotic birds.
Other amenities include Café Jefferson, which is open for lunch, the Bayless Conference Center, and bed-and-breakfast cottages.
Whatever your pleasure, New Iberia can deliver. Details. Details. Details. Iberia Parish Convention & Visitors Bureau (337) 365-1540 • iberiatravel.com Iberia Cultural Resources Association iberiacultural.com
Bayou Teche Museum
131 East Main Street, New Iberia
(337) 606-5977 • bayoutechemuseum.org
317 East Main Street, New Iberia
Monday—Saturday, 10 am–4:30 pm.
Admission is $10, and tickets must be purchased at the Shadows Visitors Center
109 W Main Street, New Iberia
(337) 369-9924 • victorscafeteria.com
Konriko Rice Mill
309 Ann Street, New Iberia
(337) 364-7242 • conradricemill.com
Store hours: 9 am–5 pm, Mon.—Sat.
Admission is $4.
Avery Island & Jungle Gardens
Tabasco factory and store are open daily 9 am–4 pm, except for major holidays. The Gardens are open from 9 am–5 pm every day of the year. $1 to drive onto the island, but the factory tour is free. Jungle Gardens,
admission is $8.
Jefferson Island &
Rip Van Winkle Gardens
Open daily 9 am–5 pm, except for major holidays. $10 to tour the mansion and Gardens or you can just wander the Gardens for $5.