Once in a while I love digging through my travel trunk of memories, though my brain is a little rusty at times. Thank goodness for cameras! Nothing like a photo to jog the memory and bring back all sorts of details that, without the photos, I’d never remember. The first in this series is my 2008 visit to Montserrat. No, not the one in Spain – the one in the Caribbean.
A British Overseas Territory, Montserrat is an island in the West Indies. Its nickname is The Emerald Isle because it apparently looks like coastal Ireland (I haven’t been to Ireland as of yet so I’ll have to take other people’s word for it) and because of the island’s Irish history (Irish Catholics settled here about 1632 from other Caribbean Islands). It is a tiny island being only 16km long and 11 km wide. And for such a tiny place, this island has had a lot happened in it and to it.
One of the interesting things about Montserrat is its connection to the musical world. George Martin, the producers for the Beatles, opened a music studio on theisland in 1979. Very quickly, it became a hotspot for musical talent from around the world as people came to record their albums in the uniquely idyllic setting. To everyone, Montserrat seemed to have had it made – thriving music and tourist industry, lush scenery, strong economy. One of the biggest soca songs of all time even came out of this time period (1982) and was by a Montserratian artist known as Arrow – the song was ‘Hot Hot Hot’. For many people even today, they hear the word Caribbean and they think of this song. Unfortunately for Montserrat, it all changed in 1989.
Hurricane Hugo devastated Montserrat in 1989, its Category 4 strength wiping out practically all of the island’s infrastructure. Homes gone. Music industry gone. Tourism industry gone. Economy gone. Montserrat tried to rebuild but six years later, in 1995, the island’s volcano blew its top. Soufrière Hills Volcano erupted on July 18, 1995. It totally destroyed Plymouth, the capital of the island, by burying it under more than 39ft of pyroclastic flows. The airport and docking facilities were also destroyed. In 1995, Montserrat’s population was about 14,000. Today, the population is about 6000 as the other 8000 or so were relocated to the UK because about two-thirds of the island was placed under an exclusion zone order. The order is still in place today as the volcano is still periodically active (the last significant time was in 2010). It is forbidden to enter the exclusion zone area unless you’re with a licensed guide. The area is quite the sight with all the abandoned homes and the places that have been inundated by ash. It’s eerie, fascinating, and sad all at the same time.
The northern part of Montserrat is where the remaining population lives. It has been barely affected by volcanic activity and it remains lush and green. There is a new tiny airport and there are new docking facilities allowing for a ferry to bring people to and from Montserrat and Antigua.
Most visitors today come only on a day trip from Antigua. I believe Montserrat deserves more than a day trip. The island has hiking, black sand beaches, friendly people, and a fascinating Irish-Caribbean culture. It is a unique location to recharge from a busy life and to get away from it all – the place has only one main road! If you go, I suggest using Montserratian companies/guides rather than Antiguan – that way you can do your part in contributing to the local economy and help this lovely island in its difficult journey to reclaim its former glory.