A visit to the tiny island of Montserrat gives a glimpse of a totally unspoilt Caribbean, as well as the chance to experience life in the shadow of an active volcano
Stepping off the plane in Montserrat after the short flight from Antigua, I was met with the familiar tropical smells and sounds of the Caribbean. But shortly afterwards, when I had hopped into a taxi for a tour of the island, I realised this was no ordinary Caribbean adventure. A light carpet of volcanic ash covered the windscreen. Montserrat is a typically, sunny charming Caribbean island but has suffered the extremes of nature, and still lives with its unpredictability.
Lush green and mountainous, Montserrat is known fondly as the “Emerald Isle” of the Caribbean as it was originally settled by the Irish - St. Patrick’s Day is a national holiday here with a week of celebrations.
I was there to experience a snapshot of life on the island which was devastated in 1997 when the Soufrière Hills Volcano collapsed sending lava streaming towards the capital, Plymouth. Today, the southern part of the island is still an exclusion zone and most of the 4,000 population live in one small area in the north. The volcano is still active.
My driver Rueben took me on a whirlwind tour of the island – which is only 16km by 10km. Although Plymouth lies buried in volcanic ash, the rest of the island flourishes, boasting green mountains, world-class nature trails, deserted dark sand beaches, untouched reefs and a quiet, friendly charm.
Throughout our drive the ash fell softly as the wind blew it over from the volcano side of the island. A visit to the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (www.montserratvolcanoobservatory.info) told the dramatic story of the island’s relationship with the volcano. Montserrat's tourist industry is now undergoing a revival, with the volcano representing one of the island's most unique draws. We were able to learn about its geological origins and history as well as view the volcano from safe locations around the island, such as Jack Boy Hill.
Further information on the MVO, along with up-to-date activity reports on the Soufrière Hills Volcano and explanations of volcanic phenomena, can be found at http://www.mvo.ms/.
In awe I looked over Plymouth – called the modern-day Pompeii – where rooftops of buried buildings including the courthouse and the steeple of St Patrick’s Church are still visible. The Belham Valley, previously the site of an exclusive golf course, is now totally covered in volcanic mudflows giving it an eerie lunar landscape. By contrast, my tour continued through the unspoilt north of Montserrat with its green, verdant landscapes and spectacular coastal views.
Rueben insisted we stop at Cudjoe Head, which celebrates the macabre story of a slave, Cudjoe, who ran away from his master. He was caught and lynched at Cudjoe Head Corner and his head was placed on a silk cotton tree to remind anyone considering running away what the punishment would be if they were caught. Montserrat showcases its African ancestry during Cudjoe Head celebrations held during the first weekend in August. Festivities feature a street festival that includes live music and vendors.
Lunch was at a local restaurant, Olveston House, the colonial-style villa owned by The Beatles’ producer Sir George Martin. Sir George’s Air Studios were based on Montserrat in the 1970s, when the island played host to stars including Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, The Rolling Stones and Elton John. Rueben had earlier shown me a deserted row of once elegant mansions and villas owned by such stars, an area he called Montserrat’s Beverley Hills.
Outside the weather was changing again. "What we are seeing now is ash mixed with rain,” said Margaret Wilson, who manages Olveston House which also operates as a nine room guest house (see more below). The fine silty dust was being washed away and the pavements and patio shone in the afternoon sunlight. Later she showed me the villa’s ‘McCartney Hall’ a wall of pictures of The Beatles taken here by the late Linda McCartney.
For such a tiny place there is a wealth of things to do on Montserrat. The island offers great diving and water sports, and the peace and quiet made it ideal for my favourite island pastime of reading a book in a hammock.
The main activity after dark is to ‘Lime’ the night away in one of the island’s many rum shops (bars) such as Treasure Spot Bar ((664) 493 2003), which I sampled at Cudjoe Head, where there’s live music, and the crowd spreads out across the road to listen. When ordering a cocktail I was slightly surprised to be given the entire rum bottle to pour for myself – at no additional cost.
Locals I spoke to are excited about a new capital for Montserrat now being built at Little Bay to replace Plymouth. It is expected to be completed by 2020. But for now tourists are few and a trip here offers the chance to enjoy a slice of an uncommercialised Caribbean way of life. Montserrat has no big hotels and no fast food chains. Local delicacies include fried ‘mountain chicken’ (frogs’ legs) lobster burgers and goat water – Irish stew made with chunks of goat meat, one of the most delicious dishes I have ever tasted.
If staying on the neighbouring island of Antigua, day trip packages are available. As well as a guided tour of the island, the package includes a visit to the Montserrat Volcano observatory and lunch at a local restaurant. All visitors receive Montserrat’s distinctive green shamrock stamp in their passports – a reminder of the island’s Irish heritage.
Day-trip packages can be booked through tour operators including Carib World Travel - firstname.lastname@example.org / http://www.carib-world.com/Island_Day_Tours.htm and Jenny's Tours - email@example.com
Where to stay
Legend has it that if you drink the water from the spring at Runaway Ghaut you are bound to come back to the island. I drank thirstily and hiked to book my slot at Montserrat’s first eco-lodge, The Mount Pleasant Eco Lodge and Camp Site. Located in the lush forest of Woodlands, it has direct access to many of the island’s walking and nature trails that criss-cross the Centre Hills region.
Hotels and guest houses
Tropical Mansion Suites (Tropical Mansion Suites, PO Box 404, Sweeney’s) opened in 1999 and symbolised the regeneration of Montserrat after the first few years of volcanic activity. Built and managed by a local family, it is within easy reach of the airport and Little Bay Beach with great views of mountains and sea. It has 18 en suite rooms and its Breezes restaurant features international cuisine.
Olveston House (Olveston House, Olveston), Sir George Martin's villa, opens its nine comfortable rooms to guests at certain times of year. Olveston House sits on three acres of tropical gardens that provide spectacular views of the volcano and neighbouring Belham Valley. A favourite with visiting dignitaries and officials, delicious home-cooked food is served in a traditional dining room or on the terrace overlooking the gardens.