Ireland is the first country that comes to mind when you hear a lush green landscape populated by friendly and resilient people who have endured more than their fair share of hardships. However, the above equally applies to the "other Emerald Isle" called Montserrat that is found in the heart of the Caribbean. The resemblance is no coincidence, as Montserrat’s first European settlers were in fact indentured Irish servants, held against their will, and their influence remains very much evident in the accent of residents, music and the fervor with which they celebrate St Patrick’s Day.
Unfortunately, Montserrat’s recent history has been dominated by two natural disasters. Hurricane Hugo demolished 90 percent of the island’s buildings in 1989. Then, the Soufrière Hills volcano, Montserrat’s most prominent natural landmark, erupted and destroyed roughly two-thirds of the tiny island in 1995. Montserrat’s first capital, Plymouth, first airport, Great Alps Waterfall, and famous AIR recording studios were among the casualties.
Over half of Montserrat’s tiny population fled after the eruption, but those that stayed are working hard to resurrect Montserrat’s tourism industry. Although most of the areas affected remain out of bounds for most visitors, the northernmost third quarter contains more than 30 stunning dive sites, over half a dozen hiking trails, and unusual grey volcanic sand beaches not found anywhere else in the Caribbean. Visitors can stare at the Soufrière Hills volcano from a safe distance from Jack Boy Hill or at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, which carefully tracks its every move.
Even though most of Montserrat’s beach resorts closed after the eruption, those which remain boast some of the Caribbean’s most affordable accommodations. Conventional hotels are considerably outnumbered by private suites, rental properties and intimate bed and breakfasts. Montserrat’s first youth hostel, the Hot Rock, greeted its first guests in 2006. The island’s limited places to stay make advance booking a must. A thick goat meat stew called goat water served with crusty bread rolls is the national dish.
Traveling to Montserrat has gotten much easier since John A Osborne Airport opened near the village of Gerald in 2005. The island had been without an airport since W H Bramble Airport’s forced closure in 1997. There are currently direct flights to St Martin and Antigua with Antigua also being the departure point for Montserrat’s main ferry service. The boat trip between the two islands typically takes two hours when waters are calm.
The main means of getting around Montserrat are by taxi, minibus and rental car from independent dealers. Taxis have green license plates, while rented vehicles have red license plates. Minibuses do not travel on set schedules and are generally just larger versions of taxis. Most of Montserrat’s 30 cab drivers give fascinating guided tours of the small island which has with no traffic lights, few gas stations and one main road which can be traveled by bicycle.
- Scuba dive or snorkel among the newly grown coral at Montserrat’s 30 dive sites
- Relax on the soft gray sand of Montserrat’s beaches.
- Cycle past the lush tropical landscapes and picturesque villages of Montserrat’s main road
- Watch for the rare oriole or any of the island’s other 33 bird species in the Centre Hill forest
- Gaze upon the Soufrière Hills volcano from a safe distance at the Observatory, Jack Boy Hill or a guided aerial tour
- Go “liming” with the locals during a lively rum tour of Montserrat’s most popular watering holes
- Guarantee many return visits to Montserrat by drinking Runaway Ghaut’s fresh spring water as the legend goes