Date Visited: June 2018
Feel like visiting a modern-day Caribbean Pompeii? The volcanic island of Montserrat offers a very different travel experience from the usual sun, sand and beaches.
Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, tiny Montserrat is slowly dusting itself off after recent volcanic eruptions decimated the southern part of the island (including the capital Plymouth), covering large areas in ash, mud and other volcanic debris.
While the Soufrière Hills Volcano is far from dormant (there has been no considerable activity since 2012) Montserrat is open for tourism and visitors are once again returning to the island that, due to its rich Irish heritage, bills itself as the ‘Emerald Isle of the Caribbean‘.
Montserrat is one of 14 British Overseas Territories, governed by a locally elected Premier and Parliament and is the only place outside of Ireland where St. Patrick’s Day is a public holiday (and the biggest festival of the year).
Whilst the island has a few nice (black sand) beaches, the main draw today is ‘volcano tourism‘, with a highlight of any visit being a tour of the fascinating, abandoned capital of Plymouth, which lies entombed under many metres of volcanic debris, inside a restricted exclusion zone. Plymouth remains the capital of Montserrat, making it the only ghost town that serves as the capital of a political territory.
Due to the ongoing volcanic threat, the southern two-thirds of the island lie inside a restricted exclusion zone, leaving residents and tourists with the lush, green, northern third of the island to enjoy. The population of the island has dropped from 12,000 at the time of the eruption to 4,900 today, with many former residents taking up UK resettlement packages.
For a period of ten years from 1979 – 1989, the island was a magnet for many famous musicians who came to record at the legendary AIR Studios Montserrat, which was created by Sir George Martin – the renown English record producer who signed The Beatles and produced every album they made until they disbanded (see the ‘Musical Legacy‘ section below for more).
Located in the Caribbean Sea, Montserrat is part of the Leeward islands. Its nearest neighbours are Guadeloupe (86 km) to the south-east, Antigua (55 km) to the north-east and Nevis (62 km) to the north-west.
Like neighbouring islands, the original inhabitants of Montserrat were native Arawak and Carib Indians who migrated up through the Antilles chain from South America. Archaeological digs in the Centre Hills area of the island have found evidence of human habitation extending back to 4000 BC.
As with every other island in the Caribbean, the first European to arrive was Christopher Columbus during his second voyage to the New World in 1493. Columbus named the island after the Virgin Mary and the Monastery of Montserrat, which is located in the hills outside of Barcelona, Spain.
Spain never attempted to take control of the island and it wasn’t until 1632 that the first Irish settlers arrived from neighbouring St. Kitts, some 80 km (50 miles) to the North. The Catholic settlers came to the island to escape Protestant intolerance and soon more Irish from Virginia joined the settlers. By 1648 there were ‘1,000 white families’ on the island, the vast majority of whom had a connection to Ireland.
The Irish established plantations and, being historical allies of France (and not being friendly towards the English), invited France to claim the island in 1666. The French took control but never sent any troops to protect the island, leaving it exposed to an English invasion, which took place later that same year.
Once the British gained control of the island, they imported African slaves to work on the various sugar plantations. Once slavery was abolished in 1833, a Quaker, Joseph Sturge, purchased a sugar estate on the island as part of his campaign to support freed slaves.
More family members eventually joined him on the island and, in 1869, they established the Montserrat Company Limited, planting lime trees, which led to the commercial production of lime juice. They also established a school, and sold parcels of land to the inhabitants of the island.
From 1871 to 1958, Montserrat was administered as part of the federal crown colony of the British Leeward Islands. In 1958 it joined the short-lived West Indies Federation and, after the federation was dissolved in 1962, it became a Crown Colony.
Two recent natural disasters have had a devastating impact on the island which was once a tourist playground. The first was in 1989, when Hurricane Hugo (a category five storm) slammed into Montserrat, damaging 90% of all structures on the island, including AIR Studios Montserrat, which was then abandoned. Hugo left 11,000 out of 12,000 people homeless and set back the tourist industry considerably.
Soufrière Hills Volcano
The second (more cataclysmic) natural disaster commenced in 1995 when, after a long period of dormancy, the Soufrière Hills Volcano became active. The nearby capital, Plymouth, was evacuated in 1995 and was abandoned permanently in 1997 after it was burnt and mostly buried by a series of pyroclastic flows (a fast-moving current of hot gas and volcanic matter that moves away from a volcano reaching speeds of up to 700 km/h (430 mph) and temperatures of about 1,000 °C) and lahars (volcanic mud flows).
While driving around the island, you need to be aware of the different Exclusion Zones. There are five defined zones, being A, B, C, F and V.
- Zones A & B: Open 24 hours and inhabited.
- Zone C & F: Open only during daylight hours and not inhabited.
- Zone V: The main exclusion zone, which includes the city of Plymouth. Strictly forbidden to enter (without an authorised guide) and if you are caught inside the zone without the correct permit you are subject to prosecution. Unfortunately the roadside sign which announces the demarcation line for Zone V is currently laying in long grass on the side of the road and is easily missed.
Montserrat Volcano Observatory
Perched high on the side of a hill in the village of Flemmings, and with a clear view of the Soufrière Hills Volcano, is the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO). Staff at the observatory use a variety of instruments (and a sleek helicopter) to continuously monitor volcanic activity.
‘The Police’ recorded the video for ‘Every Little Thing She Does is Magic’ on Montserrat.
Tiny Montserrat has had a huge impact on the world of music and it’s all thanks to the vision of one man, renown English record producer, Sir George Martin. Known as “the 5th Beetle‘, Sir George decided quiet Montserrat would be an ideal place to create a 2nd ‘away-from-it-all’ recording studio where artists could come and focus solely on their music.
Opened in 1979, AIR (Associated Independent Recording) Studios Montserrat offered all of the technical facilities of its London predecessor, but with the advantages of an exotic location and over the next 10 years attracted a string of world-famous musicians such as:
- Boy George
- Dire Straits (who recorded ‘Brothers in Arms‘ at the studio)
- Duran Duran
- Elton John (who recorded ‘Too Low for Zero‘ at the studio)
- Eric Clapton
- Jimmy Buffet (who recorded the album ‘Volcano‘ while looking at the then-dormant Soufrière Hills Volcano from the studio)
- Little River Band
- Lou Reed
- Luther Vandross
- Michael Jackson
- Paul McCartney (who recorded the hit single ‘Ebony and Ivory‘ with Stevie Wonder at the studio)
- Sheena Easton
- Stevie Wonder
- The Police (who recorded ‘Ghost in the Machine‘ and ‘Synchronicity‘ at the studio)
- The Rolling Stones
At least 67 albums were recorded at the studio until, like everything else on the island, it was severely damaged in 1989 by Hurricane Hugo and was abandoned. Today, this icon from the pop era is quietly rotting away in the tropical heat, surrounded by fencing and signs warning people not to enter.
You can learn more about the musical legacy of Montserrat from the informative displays which have been arranged by David Lea at the Hilltop Coffee House.
While almost all musicians who recorded on Montserrat were from more distant lands, one artist – Alphonsus Cassell (aka Arrow), was a homegrown talent who found worldwide fame with his famous Soca music hit ‘Hot, Hot, Hot’.
The currency of Montserrat is the Eastern Caribbean Dollar (EC$), which is issued by the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank, whose headquarters are on neighbouring St. Kitts. Since 1976, the exchange rate has been pegged to the US$ at a rate of US$1 = EC$2.70.
Besides Montserrat, the EC$ is also the currency of:
- Antigua & Barbuda
- St. Kitts & Nevis
- St. Lucia
- St. Vincent and the Grenadines
The only ATMs available on the island are in Brades at the Royal Bank of Canada (all cards accepted) and Bank of Montserrat (only Visa accepted). Many places on the island do not accept credit cards.
The Great Montserrat Bank Robbery
In 1995, the reawakening of the Soufrière Hills Volcano sent pyroclastic flows and ash falls across a wide area of southern Montserrat including the capital, Plymouth. As the capital was quickly abandoned, a sum of nearly a million Eastern Caribbean dollars, worth about USD$300,000, was left laying in a bank vault at the Plymouth branch of Barclay’s Bank.
At some stage following the evacuation, locals – who had knowledge of the now buried treasure – returned to the bank premises, tunneled through the volcanic rubble, then through the 20-inch reinforced concrete walls of the safe and stole the cash.
It took some time for the robbery to come to light and those implicated included a former bank employee and two local police officers. The Eastern Caribbean Central Bank, who belatedly reacted by cancelling a large range of Montserrat-registered bank notes (thereby leaving many people holding worthless pieces of currency) was criticised for its handling of the matter.
Like other small territories around the world, stamps issued by the Montserrat Post Office are popular with Philatelists word-wide. Currently the GPO (General Post Office) in Brades is operating out of temporary premises which are very claustrophobic and not worth visiting – unless you wish to feel like a sardine in a can.
However, located on a breezy hill south of Brades (near Angelo’s supermarket), you’ll find the much more spacious and agreeable Montserrat Philatelic Bureau where the friendly staff (email: email@example.com) will happily assist you with your Philatelic needs. They previously operated a website (www.montserratstampbureau.com) but this is no longer available. The bureau is another branch of the post office and as such you can take care of regular postal business here without fighting the masses at the poky GPO.
To commemorate its 30th anniversary in 2006, the bureau produced a booklet which contains many pages of coloured photos of different stamp issues. This booklet is available from the bureau free of charge.
The highlight of my visit to Montserrat was my tour inside the exclusion zone, which was conducted by the knowledgeable and informative Sun Lea, the owner of Montserrat Island Tours.
The ruins of the capital can only be visited on a guided tour, conducted by a specially trained guide and requires the issue of a police permit. Tours can remain in the city for one hour and during that time the guide is required to maintain constant radio contact with monitoring staff at the nearby Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO). Another requirement was that, even while walking about, the motor of our vehicle was always to be left running in case the MVO advised that we need to leave the area ASAP.
The half-day tour commenced at the Hilltop Coffee Shop (owned by Sun’s parents – David and Clover Lea), which was very convenient as I needed my morning coffee before going into the danger zone.
The first stop was the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO) where we had a view of the cloud-covered Soufrière Hills volcano and watched a documentary from the days following the initial eruption – most of the footage for which was filmed by David Lea.
From the observatory, we drove over the Pelham river into an eerie ash-covered landscape full of abandoned buildings. As we entered into Zone V, the exclusion zone, Sun contacted the local police patrol via radio to announce he was entering the zone “with four souls on-board“.
Plymouth was constructed on historical lava deposits in the shadow of the volcano and was evacuated when the volcano resumed erupting in 1995 and was abandoned permanently in 1997 after it was burnt and mostly buried by a series of pyroclastic flows and lahars.
After touring Plymouth we drove to a nearby former residential neighbourhood where we visited the ruined Montserrat Springs hotel – once one of the island’s finest.
Like a cake dusted with icing sugar, the entire property is coated in volcanic ash and is entered through the reception where paperwork and a calculator still remain on the desk.
Once past reception we visited the former pool area which has now been filled with volcanic mud as have all the rooms on the ground floor.
In all the rooms, bedside lights remain attached to the walls (but now just inches off the new ground level), shower curtains and other bathroom fittings remain in place as do buried dressing tables and wardrobes. Walking the corridors of the old hotel was indeed eerie.
After crossing the Belham river, a steep, narrow, unmarked road leads to the top of Garibaldi Hill from where you have sweeping views of the southern part of the island, including the buried capital of Plymouth and the Soufrière Hills volcano, which looms over everything on this part of the island.
Montserrat National Trust
The Montserrat National Trust is tasked with preserving and conserving the cultural, historical and archaeological heritage of the Island. Located on the main road in Olveston, the trust headquarters features a modest botanical garden, the Oriole gift shop (named after the national bird), a cafe (closed at the time of my visit) and historical and cultural displays.
Located on the side of the main road south of Woodlands, is this natural gorge which is fed by a fresh water spring. Local legend has it that if you drink from here you will return to Montserrat. Interestingly the locals mispronounce the name as ‘runaway gut‘.
This beautiful, black-sand beach, lies at the bottom of a steep, windy road and is often deserted. If you wish to snorkel there are a couple of reefs off the northern end of the beach.
Located at the top of the west coast next to the ferry dock, Little Bay offers a nice black-sand beach, beautiful sunsets and a couple of restaurants/ bars (see the ‘Eating Out‘ section for more).
This has been designated as the new capital of Montserrat and is currently a work-in-progress. The National Museum of Montserrat is located here but has limited opening hours so best to call ahead.
Located at the top of the island and accessed via a very steep, one lane (but two-way) road behind the airport, Silver Hills affords panoramic views over the northern part of the island, including the new airport, the new settlement of Lookout, the east and west coasts and the Centre Hills and beyond.
Jack Boy Hill
At the end of the road on the east coast is this lookout which provides panoramic views into the exclusion zone. The former airport, W. H. Bramble, lies buried under the huge pyroclastic flow directly below the hill.
There are just two hotels on Montserrat but many more guesthouses, B&B’s and apartments, all of which are listed on the Accommodation page of Visit Montserrat.
Perched on top of an exposed, breezy hill (no air-con needed!), the guest house offers four spacious apartments with the top-floor, Heavenly Suite, offering unbeatable views of the island and beyond. By day you have stunning, uninterrupted, panoramic views of the mountains, rain forest and the sea (including the distant island of Nevis – i.e. St. Kitts & Nevis) and at night, incredible star-gazing from the private rooftop terrace (zero light pollution) and views of the lights of Nevis.
Clover and David can arrange car rental, airport transfers and tours of Plymouth and the Exclusion Zone, which are conducted by their son – Sun – through his company – Montserrat Island Tours (highly recommended).
For an island of 4,900 souls, Montserrat offers a surprisingly good selection of dining options, serving everything from unpretentious local cuisine to more refined fine dining. A full list of dining options is available on the Visit Montserrat website while here I’ve listed some of my personal favourites (ordered from north to south).
Time Out Bar & Restaurant
At the northern end of the island, Little Bay is an ideal place to watch the sunset and it’s here you’ll find the beach-side Time Out Bar & Restaurant. Offering American favourites (burgers, barbecued ribs, wings etc) – I recommend their fresh Fish ‘n’ Chips. Their bar is one of the few places on the island where you can get a drink in the evening.
The People’s Place
Located south of Brades on Fogarty Hill, you’ll find a local culinary institution, which is housed inside a very simple turquiose-blue shack – The People’s Place. The host (John) prepares great tasting, simple Caribbean fare which is always served with a big smile (his roti are especially good). If you’re in town on Friday, this is the place to try Goat Water – a stew featuring goat meat which is the national dish.
Hilltop Coffee House
Directly next door to The People’s Place is the Hilltop Coffee House which is a must for anyone visiting the island. The cafe is a nonprofit which was founded (and is run by) the energetic David Lea and his wife Clover (who also run the nearby Gingerbread Hill Guesthouse). Clover bakes the best brownies on the island and David brews a mean cup of coffee.
David has turned the cafe into a museum which covers all aspects of life on Montserrat from its musical heritage to the eruption of the Soufrière Hills Volcano (which David filmed and is available for purchase on DVD) to local art and much more.
David is known as Mr Volcano and filmed the entire eruption. You can purchase his DVD – The Price of Paradise – at the coffee-house.
An American native, David is very informative and enthusiastic about the island, offering visitors a free tour and explanation of his extensive collection of memorabilia. If there’s one place on the island from which you can gain an understanding of everything Montserrat – this is it!
If you’re looking for a fine dining experience, you’ll find it at Olveston House, the former winter residence of Sir George Martin, who purchased the estate in the early 1980’s. For many years, Olveston House hosted famous artists such as Sting, Eric Clapton, Elton John and Paul McCartney who came to Montserrat to record at AIR Studios. It’s worth excusing yourself to use the toilet while dining here just to view the old black and white photos of Paul and Linda McCartney and John Lennon which line the hallway. Offering Caribbean-infused international cuisine, the restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and ‘high tea’ with meals served on the breezy balcony, overlooking the garden.
From Olveston House to the Caribbean
If you’re spending anytime travelling around the Eastern Caribbean, there’s a good chance you’ll end up on a flight operated by the region’s dominate carrier – LIAT (Leeward Islands Air Transport). LIAT was founded in the 1950’s by Sir Frank Delisle from neighbouring St. Kitts, who lived at Olveston House and was the Managing Director of the Montserrat Company.
In 1953, the first flight touched down on the airstrip at Olveston House and LIAT airlines was born. Today LIAT serves 17 destinations throughout the region, including Guyana in South America.
Housed in a cute wooden cottage, around the corner from Olveston House, is another local favourite – The Attic. Open for breakfast and lunch only, this cafe serves local fare (I especially recommend the grilled fish with rice and salad) and fresh juices, all of which are made in-house. The homemade ginger beer is especially good – so good I had to order a 2nd glass!
It’s appropriate that the passport stamp to the Emerald Isle is a green clover leaf.
All flights into Montserrat arrive at the small John A. Osborne Airport which is located in the village of Gerald’s. Constructed at a cost of approximately US$18.5 million, the airport was opened in July of 2005 by Princess Anne and was built as a replacement for the former airport – W. H. Bramble – which was completely destroyed in 1997 as a result of the eruption of the Soufrière Hills volcano. Between 1997 and 2005, Montserrat had been accessible only by helicopter, boat and seaplane.
The airport has the distinction of being the only one in the Caribbean with a public road tunnel under its runway and is the base for FlyMontserrat Airways which flies three times a day between Montserrat and neighbouring Antigua (the only destination for flights to/from the island), with the 57 km hop taking 20 minutes in nine seater Britten-Norman Islander aircraft.
The following airlines provide services to Montserrat:
A word on taxes..
Antigua Airport is the only gateway for flights to/ from Montserrat and if you’re staying on Antigua more than 24 hours, you will be required to pay an arrival tax of US$37.50 and also a departure tax of US$37.50 (a total of US$75 in taxes!).
Most airlines automatically include these taxes in their tickets, however FlyMontserrat annoyingly does not! When you depart for Montserrat from Antigua, you’ll be required to pay the Antigua departure tax (cash or credit card) at the time of check-in. When departing Montserrat, you’ll again be required to pay the Antigua arrival tax (cash or credit card) at the time of check-in. You’re also required to pay the Montserrat departure tax (cash only) which is EC$45 per person. It would be so much easier if FlyMontserrat followed the example of all other airlines and included these taxes in its tickets.
A regular ferry service operates five days a week between Port Little Bay in Montserrat and Heritage Quay Pier in Antigua with the 52 km crossing taking 90 minutes on the fast boat – Jaden Sun.
If you ever spent time in Saint Vincent & the Grenadines, you might recognise this boat as being the old inter-island ferry which was once captained by the famous Captain Elvis and connected the Grenadines to the main island of St. Vincent on a daily basis. I’d always wondered where this boat (which was a lifeline for the Grenadines) had disappeared to and was very surprised to see it in its new role as the Montserrat ferry.
The ferry company also operates occasional charters to neighbouring St. Kitts, Nevis and Guadeloupe. You can view the current schedule and fares on the Montserrat Access Division Facebook page and you can make bookings on this website.
A small fleet of mini-vans shuttle back and forth along the one main road, during daylight hours and to no fixed schedule, stopping wherever required, charging a fare of EC$3.
There are approximately 30 taxis on Montserrat, all of whom are easily identifiable by their green license plates beginning with the letter ‘H‘. Taxis are available at the boat dock, airport or can be booked through your accommodation provider. You can view a complete listing of taxi operators on the Visit Montserrat website.
Your best option for exploring Montserrat is to hire a car, most of which are aging 4WD vehicles, which are ideal on the tough island roads. Although none of the international car rental chains are represented, you can organise car hire through your accommodation provider or from the complete list of operators on the Visit Montserrat website.
If driving, you’ll need to purchase a temporary local Drivers License (EC$50/ valid for 90 days) from the immigration officer at the airport (if you’re collecting your car upon arrival) or a police station elsewhere.
It’s easy to know who the tourists are on the island, as all rental vehicles have special red license plates beginning with the letter ‘R‘. The roads are steep, narrow and full of hairpin turns but traffic is light and there are no traffic lights on the island. With just one main road meandering through the northern half of the island, navigation devices are definitely not required.
Other travel reports from the Caribbean region include:
- Antigua & Barbuda
- Cayman Islands
- Dominican Republic
- Puerto Rico
- Saint Barthélemy (Saint Barts)
- Saint Eustatius (Statia)
- Saint Kitts & Nevis
- Saint Lucia
- Saint Martin/ Sint Maarten
- Saint Vincent & The Grenadines
- Trinidad & Tobago
- Turks & Caicos
- Virgin Islands (British)
- Virgin Islands (U.S.)
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Author: Darren McLean
Owner of taste2travel.com – an avid traveler, photographer, travel writer and adventurer.
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