I recently had the opportunity to take a press trip to the Caribbean island of Montserrat, a former bastion of chic in the West Indies. In the past decade and a half, the island has gained notoriety, not for its visiting celebrities and the pockets of posh that catered to them, but for a rather unfortunate history of natural disaster. No sooner had residents finished rebuilding their island after the devastation of Hurricane Hugo than the Soufriére Hills Volcano began to erupt. As I flew to the island, I wondered what, if any, part of the island's former life as host to the world's glitterati would remain.
I arrived at the newly opened Montserrat International Airport by helicopter from Antigua. As we crossed the narrow strait separating Antigua from Montserrat, steep mountainsides covered with lush rainforest came into view, bringing the landscapes of Tahiti and Hawaii to mind. As we rounded a cloud-shrouded peak en route to the airport, the luxuriant landscape became dotted with villas that extended to the edge of the sea. We had arrived in Montserrat and my interest was piqued.
Montserrat was created by volcanic activity that, as in Hawafii, continues to this day. The resulting (and still growing) island measures about 12 miles long and 7 miles wide at present. Before the Soufriére Hills Volcano rumbled back to life in the mid-nineties after years of sleep, Montserrat's population numbered around 12,000. At that time, the island catered to the cultured elite: Sting, Paul McCartney, Elton John, and Princess Margaret all enjoyed the secluded, privileged atmosphere that reigned supreme in this Caribbean paradise. To a surprising extent, this atmosphere remains.
Many of the exclusive villas and the infrastructure that supports them remained amazingly unscathed by the volcano. Others, which were inundated with ash, have dusted themselves off and are eager to resume business. However, the occasional plume of ash that usually heads out to sea (and the neighboring island of Nevis) seems to grab more attention than the more compelling reality of an island embarking on its own renaissance.
With millions of dollars in aid, Montserratiens have begun to rebuild their island. The newly opened airport has several flights a day to both Antigua and Martinique. Roads are being repaired and community centers and schools rebuilt. Optimism is abundant. And why shouldn't it be? Visitors can lounge on the beach unharassed by vendors, masseurs, or fellow beachgoers for that matter. On my visit, I was often one of only two or three people enjoying the island's beaches.
Many of the island's forests are healthier than ever thanks to the copious mineral-rich ash. The Montserrat National Trust (www.montserratnationaltrust.com) has been working diligently to maintain and improve trails throughout the island's diverse forests, which range from arid to rainforest. For a modest fee, visitors can hire a ranger from the National Trust who will happily point out mahogany trees, vanilla orchids, and a host of herbs, whose uses range from curative to hallucinogenic. Trekking in the morning is ideal, because you avoid the midday heat and increase your likelihood of spotting birds, such as the endemic Montserrat oriole. Hikers need not worry about having skipped breakfast on an early morning hike, as rangers can whip up a true breakfast of champions: honey-sweet mangoes, naturally occurring Montserratien black pineapples, and the strange yet delicious mamifruit. Islanders regularly venture miles into the forest to gather them for their breakfasts.
The adventurous should also consider visiting Plymouth, Montserrat's former capital. This is by far one of the most interesting experiences visitors can have on the island. Plymouth had been a bustling town until the volcano erupted and ash flows began to bury its streets. Presently, a layer of ash and mud up to 18 feet high blankets the town. Only the taller facades, steeples, and tops of streetlights are visible in the town's center. The clock at the top of the city hall sits eerily still as the wind whistles through Plymouth's desolate remains. The scale of the devastation is incredible--shells of buildings extend from the sea several miles to the foot of the volcano. As one walks around the infernal landscape, it's easy to see why this is often referred to as a modern-day Pompeii. Although there is talk about making this a formal tourist attraction, with trails and guides, at the moment Plymouth can only be visited with an escort. Contact the Montserrat Tourist Board for details (www.visitmontserrat.com).
The volcano has also been a blessing in disguise for the island's coral reefs. A decade has passed with a virtual absence of divers, so the reefs here have thrived without human contact and are of marine park quality. Divers and snorkelers enjoy terrific visibility and an abundance of marine life. I partook of both and saw spotted eagle rays, southern stingrays, schools of squid, and the rarely seen flying gurnard.
Superbly qualified dive master Bryan Cunningham and his lovely wife Tish own and operate Sea Wolfe Diving School (www.seawolfdivingschool.com), the best dive outfitter on the island. It's set on the grounds of the Vue Pointe hotel and is within an easy drive from just about anywhere else. They offer PADI certified lessons and will take groups to a range of spots, from pristine reefs and coves to the 1886 wreck of a steel schooner. Snorkelers can explore a variety of shallow reefs, or a bat cave, where thousands of fruit bats roost above the eerily lit azure waters of their seafront cave.
The owners of Sea Wolfe also operate Diver's Haven (www.divers-haven.com), a Moroccan-style guest house with views of the sea and the volcano. Their accommodation/dive packages are an excellent value, with 5 nights and 3 days of two-tank dives starting at $389.
Food for Thought
Montserrat is not perfect. Though trying valiantly to recover, the shadow of the volcano still looms. The experts at the Montserrat Volcanic Observatory (www.mvo.ms) believe that the volcano is in a generally quiet phase, but since June 2005, activity has been elevated, with growth of the volcanic dome and a regular plume of ash. Normally, tradewinds push this plume out to sea, but winds do occasionally shift, sending the ash onto the island. In my experience, this was fascinating for the few hours it happened, but if one had to deal with such an occurrence for days on end, one's opinion might differ.
Yet with the modest risk of seeing a bit of ash comes great reward. Few islands in the Caribbean offer the opportunity for such diverse diving and hiking, not to mention lazing around on nearly deserted palm-fringed beaches. Even fewer, if any, offer such opportunities at affordable prices. The near-absence of tourists on Montserrat is a boon to the intrepid traveler. Four bedroom villas fronting the sea rent from $1,400 to $1,600 in low season and from $2,000 to $2,500 in high season. Guestrooms in privately run guesthouses such as the Travellers Palm (www.travellerspalmmontserrat.com) start at $35 per night. The folks at Tradewinds Real Estate (www.tradewindsmontserrat.com) can easily arrange villa rentals.
For those envisioning a more traditional getaway, amicable American ex-pat Carol Osborne and her husband Cedric run the Vue Pointe Hotel (www.vuepointe.com). It is far and away the best hotel on the island. Situated on a bluff with views of the volcano and a deserted black sand beach below, accommodations consist of private villas with double beds and kitchenettes. Each unit is situated so its patio has a full view of the volcano and the sea. Every Wednesday the hotel hosts an all-you-can-eat barbecue that shouldn't be missed.
Ferry service has been suspended indefinitely, so the only way to get to Montserrat is by air. WinAir (www.fly-winair.com) operates several flights daily between St. Maarten and Antigua, and Montserrat. From St. Maarten, flights stop in Antigua, but you do not have to get out or clear Antigua customs. Flights are short and generally reliable, although the Winair online reservation center is not. Travelers should note that Winair's online booking system often shows no available flights (for example, it shows that all flights are booked for the coming winter, which is far from the truth). Call their office to find the latest on schedules, fares, and availability: 888/255-6889.
For pictures of Montserrat, please refer to www.flickr.com/photos/travel_photos.
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