Adventurous, eccentric, and eco-minded visitors are returning to the partially destroyed island of Montserrat. Formerly known as the "Emerald Isle of the Caribbean," partly because of its verdant vegetation and partly because of its historic links to Ireland, Montserrat is 19km (12 miles) long and 11km (6 3/4 miles) wide, about the size of Manhattan. In the aftermath of one of the worst natural disasters to hit the Caribbean during recorded history, two-thirds of the population of 12,000 had to be evacuated in 1995 and 1996 after the island's volcano, Soufrière Hills, blew its top, smothering the southern portion of the island with pyroclastic flows of hot gases and boiling hot ash, sometimes traveling downhill at hurricane velocity. In the aftermath, much of the island's southern tier -- including the island's only airport -- was burned, buried, or rendered uninhabitable. Another destructive blast occurred in 1997.
Since the explosions, only about a third of the original population has stayed on island, the others having been evacuated, or emigrating of their own volition, to the U.K. or, less frequently, to such neighboring islands as Antigua. Today, thanks to enormous investment of time and energy from local and international geologists, the path of future pyroclastic flows can more or less be predicted. That has allowed tourism to return to the island, albeit in very small volumes. In fact, the volcanic eruptions have defined Montserrat as one of the most haunting and upsetting natural and geological spectacles in the Caribbean.
The volcano's last major eruption occurred on July 12, 2003, when almost two-thirds of the Soufrière Hills volcanic dome collapsed, sending ash and rocky debris as much as 15,000m (49,213 ft.) into the sky over Montserrat. In the aftermath, some islanders found themselves shoveling 1.5m (5-ft.) "drifts" of volcanic debris off their verandas and out from the bottom of their swimming pools. Today a visit to Montserrat can solicit hundreds of stories about heroism, endurance, disappointment, sacrifice, and backbreaking labor. About half the island is earmarked as an "exclusion zone," which you're supposed to avoid. In contrast, the other half is luxuriant and tropical.
Since the destruction of Plymouth, the island's historic and once-charming capital, Montserrat's commercial center and gerrymandered capital is Brades, on the island's north coast. Overall, you'll get the sense of a small community galvanized into new forms of self-reliance and cooperation, with lots of emphasis on somewhat gritty business-related visits from construction crews and British and international relief agencies.
Pear-shaped and mountainous, and most definitely volcanic in origin, Montserrat lies 43km (27 miles) southwest of Antigua, about midway between Nevis and Guadeloupe. Before the volcanic eruptions, Montserrat was known as the place where such musicians as Elton John, the Rolling Stones, and Stevie Wonder recorded. They, along with much of the rest of Montserrat's glitterati, moved long ago to safer, and more convenient, sites.
English is the island's official language, although it's spoken with a faint Irish brogue, a holdover from the island's early Irish settlers. The Eastern Caribbean dollar is the official unit of currency, although U.S. dollars are widely accepted. The island's biggest and most comprehensive travel agency is Runaway Travel, P.O. Box 54, Brades, Montserrat, B.W.I. (tel. 664/491-2776). They'll arrange access to Federal Express shipments, sell a limited roster of airline tickets, and perform a limited array of financial services, including foreign exchange. A valid passport is required for everyone.