Some years ago we watched a documentary about the Caribbean island of Montserrat. It described how the island had been devastated by a series of volcanic eruptions starting in 1995. The capital Plymouth was evacuated with the bulk of Montserrat's population shifting to the north away from the danger zone in the centre and south.
Over the coming years the Soufriere Hills volcano continued to be volatile with many dramatic incidents where pyroclastic flows sent huge volumes of lava, rock, dust and deadly gases in the region where Plymouth stood, increasingly buried by volcanic debris. The bulk of the population of 15,000 left the island for the UK and other places.
We were fascinated and over the years did some research about Montserrat, how was it doing now, was life returning to something approaching normal, was the volcano still causing strife? So, when it came time to plan a route through the Caribbean, Montserrat was always going to be on the 'must visit' list.
We flew in on a small plane (pilot and 7 passengers and it was full) with Air Montserrat from Antigua with the flight taking only 20 minutes.
We were met by Norman Ryan, owner of our guesthouse, Seaview Suites. We arranged a day trip with Norman for the next day.
Norman and his wife Pat and family were living in Plymouth when the eruptions started so he was the ideal guide for a tour of the volcano-affected zone (that part to which people are allowed access – two thirds of the island are a permanent exclusion zone for all except the volcanologists).
First stop was the Montserrat Volcano Observatory where we watched an informative film explaining the eruptions and with real footage of the pyroclastic explosions and flows.
We then visited various sites for views of the volcano and the exclusion zone and on the way we were able to walk through a home left just as it had been evacuated. It made the individual impact and devastating effects very real for us. There was washing up half done on the sink, jam in the cupboard, all sorts of reminders of someone’s everyday life suddenly thrown into chaos.
Norman spoke of his frightening dash to collect his daughter from his house on the hill in Plymouth, all the while the growing black cloud was covering the sky.
We then went to a deserted resort, The Montserrat Springs. There was an eerie feel as we wandered through the reception area, past the silt filled pool and restaurant into the rooms. Beds, wardrobes, light fittings, all still there and covered with fine dust. Floors had a deep covering of solidified volcanic dust. And the once classic views were now of the buried town of Plymouth and the volcanic flow down to the sea.
What remains of the Montserrat Springs Resort on the outskirts of Plymouth is in the zone that can be visited
No one is allowed back into Plymouth, it is too dangerous but thanks to Norman, we got as close to it as possible, and learned a lot about the devastating events. He described to us fascinating and moving details of the impact of the events of 1995 and the continuing effect that the volcano has on life in Montserrat.
Of course there is more to Montserrat than just the volcano. The steep slopes of the various hills are covered with forest and make for wonderful walks. We chose to do the Oriole Walkway trek. After a little confusion as to where the walk started, we had a lovely walk through tall trees, covered with ferns, stag horns and vines.
The highest point gave us some good views along the spine of part of the island.
We saw large iguanas and a couple of snakes but the orioles were elusive. The walk takes 1.5 to 2 hours one way.
There are also some nice black beaches, some with nesting sea turtle sites.
Montserrat also has an interesting history and a strong Irish heritage. It's the only place outside of Ireland where St Patrick’s Day is a national holiday. A visit to the small but informative Montserrat Museum is a worthwhile activity.
Locals say that if you drink from this natural spring you will return - I guess I'll be back
Our short visit to Montserrat, after many years of contemplating such a trip, turned out to be well worth the effort to travel to this little visited Caribbean island. For more information about Montserrat click here.
A big thanks to our hosts and tour guides Norman and Pat Ryan of Seaview Suites.
Cally and Ken