The Caribbean's Emerald Isle of Montserrat is a tiny but lush, green, and mountainous island of less than 40 square miles. Lying in the chain of islands in the eastern Caribbean known as the Lesser Antilles, this British territory is perhaps best known for the Soufrière Hills Volcano that erupted in 1995, despite having being classified as dormant. That catastrophic natural disaster destroyed the historic capital Plymouth, sent much of its small population into exile, and created a largely unpopulated area in the southern part of the island. Although the volcano does continue to be somewhat active with an occasional ash flow that's made it a center of volcano study and research, the island has developed unique tourism attractions away from lava and geology.
Once the secluded getaway and playground for the rich and famous including Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Elton John, and The Rolling Stones, Montserrat was the one-time home of the world-famous Air Studio built by legendary Beatles producer, George Martin. In the past decade or so, Montserrat has literally risen from the ashes to become a new and inviting eco-tourism destination in the Caribbean, one that is a lot more affordable than its neighbors. Development on a low scale has taken place in the center and north of the island, including the construction of a new airport, new housing developments, roads, and a state-of-the-art cultural center. In general most accommodation, meals, and eco-based activities are about a third less expensive in Montserrat than neighboring islands, making it an attractive alternative for nature lovers and adventure enthusiasts seeking pristine landscapes, untouched rainforests, quiet black sand beaches, and a wide selection of water-based experiences.
Things to Do
Soufrière Hills Volcano itself is a spectacular and dominant force on the island and beneath it lies a modern day Pompeii, the buried former capital city Plymouth. Although it is not permitted to actually visit the submerged city (in the exclusion zone), there are excellent vantage points at Richmond Hills or by boat off the southern coastline. For the best views of the volcano itself, visit the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO) in Fleming and Jack Boy Hill which overlooks the destroyed old airport, the old estate house and several eastern villages, now buried beneath hardened lava and molten rock.
Each year during the month of December, Montserrat celebrates its distinct culture with a program of events and festivities making up its Carnival. Known simple as "Festival," the Festival runs from mid-December until New Year's Day, and for many years this has been the climax of the event calendar, a time when Montserratians living overseas return to the island to reunite with families and friends and enjoy the festivities. The island comes alive with music, revelry and a variety of celebrations that highlight Montserrat's vibrant culture including lots of impromptu dancing in the streets. Key events include an opening ceremony on December 19, Soca Monarch on December 20, "Nite of Pan" on December 22, Festival Queen Pageant on December 28, and the calypso finals on December 30. Festival culminates with a street jam and parade featuring vibrant and flamboyant costumes on January 1. For more detailed information on Montserrat's Festival visit www.visitmontserrat.com.
Zekie's Horseback Riding Tours (tel. 664/496-2765; firstname.lastname@example.org), the island's only horseback riding facility, offers visitors a unique way to enjoy Montserrat's picturesque tropical surroundings. Available tours include a Belham Valley Volcanic Landscape ride that takes adventure enthusiasts over volcanic mudflows at eruption sites. The tour also provides excellent vantage points of the volcano, from a safe distance, and allows a view of its impact on the former capital city, Plymouth, now submerged in ash and volcanic rock. Additionally, visitors can enjoy a "Swimming with the Horses" tour on any one of Montserrat's dark sand beaches or a Rainforest Ride tour, where the sights and sounds of the island's 33 species of birds and other local wildlife are only a few trots away. Experienced riders can also explore the destination at their own leisure. The cost for each riding tour ranges from $50 to $125 per person.
Located on the northern side of the island, in Little Bay, Scuba Montserrat (tel. 664/496-7807; www.divedestinationmontserrat.com) is a full-service dive shop and water sport rental-company, that provides various scuba diving and snorkeling tours. Available courses include discover scuba, open water certification, open water referral, advanced open water, dive master, digital photography, and night dives. Snorkel trips and private beach parties are also available. Scuba Montserrat will help sea adventurers explore and discover Montserrat's 13 miles of coastline, home to a variety of marine life including spiny lobsters, dolphins, nurse sharks, stony ledges, green turtles, copper sweepers, and an a kaleidoscope of colorful reef fish. A one-tank shore dive costs $35 with a guide, a one-tank boat dive is $55, a two-tank boat dive is $88 and a one-tank night dive is $70. A snorkeling trip including rental of equipment is $45 per person.
Where to Stay
Rather than large resorts and huge, faceless hotels, accommodation in Montserrat is more low key and intimate. Many people choose to rent luxurious villas or stay in guest houses. Prices are affordable throughout the year.
Surfsighed (www.surfsighedmontserrat.com) is a charming villa located within walking distance of nearby Woodlands Beach. The villa is a split-level design, with the living room, kitchen, pantry/laundry room, verandah and pool all on the main level, and the three bedrooms and two baths up a short flight of stairs. The master bedroom is equipped with en suite bathroom and a private patio that is ideal for intimate dining or sunset cocktails. Weekly rates range from $1,000 to $1,500 for a maximum of six guests.
Inis Ealu (tel. 664/491-5270; www.homeaway.com/vacation-rental/p202931) offer guests a secluded island oasis with panoramic views of the island's surrounding ocean and lush tropical rainforest. The villa is equipped with a well-appointed gourmet kitchen that includes dishwasher, granite counters and a poolside mahogany bar for those cozy al fresco moonlit dinners. The master-suite features a king-size bed, walk-in closet, en suite bath with shower and a private balcony. Rates range from $1,000 to $1,500 per week for a maximum of six persons.
Tranquil beach views await you at Essence (www.essencemontserrat.com), a small guest house located on a picturesque hillside in Old Towne. From the patio you also have fantastic vistas of the volcano and the Belham Valley. Fan-cooled guest rooms include twin beds, a private bathroom, fridge, coffee and tea making facilities, cable TV and WiFi Internet access, and a private patio. From December to April rooms are priced at $60 and from May to November at $50. They also offer a more spacious apartment attached to the main villa for $80 per night ($70 in low season).
Erindellvilla (www.erindellvilla.com) is an intimate guest house nestled among colorful tropical gardens in the Woodlands Beach area. At a nightly rate of $75 guests can enjoy complimentary services and amenities that include a hearty continental breakfast, unlimited tea and coffee, maid service, laundry service, WiFi, beach towels, mats and umbrella, snorkeling gear, a mini tour to the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, and a cell phone for personal use.
Located just minutes away from the beach, Bunkum Beach Guest House (www.bunkumbeachguesthouse.com) offers visitors the privacy, comfort, and space of villa-style accommodations with the convenience of home-style living. The guest house features spacious bedrooms with en suite bathrooms, a fully-equipped kitchen, living/dining areas and a large swimming pool. For a daily rate of $65, guests will receive complimentary airport transfer service, maid service, shopping service, and free Internet access.
Despite it being secluded, Montserrat is quite easy to get to. Caribbean carrier Winair (tel. 866/466 0410; www.fly-winair.com) offers flights from Antigua starting from $80 one way (approximately three flights per day) throughout the season. You can also fly from St. Maarten from $180 one-way. All prices include taxes.
Alternatively, if getting there is half the adventure then perhaps a trip aboard a stunning yacht would be more appropriate. Beginning December 1, 2008, Antigua-based Ondeck Sailing (tel. +268/562-6696; www.ondeckoceanracing.com/antigua/montserrat-adventure.htm) offers sailing excursions between Falmouth Harbor in Antigua and Little Bay in Montserrat using a 65-footer ocean racing yacht. Skippers provide instructional information to those who are interested in learning the basics of sailing and guests are encouraged to participate in every aspect of the tour, making the journey appealing to both experienced and novice sailors. The tour's flexibility allows travelers who would like to spend additional time on the island of Montserrat to depart as early as 8am on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, with a three to four hour downwind sail from Antigua to Montserrat and return on another day. The tour's return trip departs at 1pm for a four- to five-hour upwind trip to Antigua. The cost of a roundtrip tour is $189 per person with a maximum of 15 guests per voyage.