In this travel piece for The Telegraph, Emma Featherstone finds out how the Caribbean isle of Montserrat copes with life in the shadow of a volcano
As we stepped onto the half lush, half volcanic island of Montserrat, its residents were gearing up for the Christmas carnival. Glendora, one of our guides for the morning and a Montserratian, gave us a taste of what it would entail: “We’ll have music, BBQ grills, dancing in the street… and a lot of watering holes will be open.”
The annual event, which includes calypso competitions and a costumed parade, is just one example of the upbeat spirit that has survived on the island dubbed ‘the Pompeii of the Caribbean’. Our small group would experience more of this stoic attitude as we took a minibus tour from where our cruise ship was anchored in the town of Little Bay through to the exclusion zones, including the buried city of Plymouth.
It has become one of the less-trodden spots for dark tourism – the trend for visiting areas marked by a natural disaster or man-made atrocity. But, given that tours are run by local guides – some of whom lived through the worst of the eruptions – our visit didn’t feel too voyeuristic.
Before we set off, Glendora gestured towards the island’s tiny prison, up high on a hill. She joked that its small population had “the best view on the island”.
On the first leg of the tour we passed by the Montserrat Cultural Centre, a gift to the island’s residents from Beatles producer Sir George Martin. Martin established the recording studio, AIR Studios Montserrat, on the island in 1977 attracting artists such as Stevie Wonder, Sir Paul McCartney and Sir Elton John. Glendora pointed out a large white house with a red roof, surrounded by trees, where McCartney’s family stayed.
Our driver, Randall navigated the winding roads, which became more uneven as we headed towards Plymouth. From the windows we spotted egrets perching on cattle; the island’s miniscule airport; a group of school children (the girls in long, burgundy skirts; the boys in khaki trousers) heading for their sports hall and a memorial for the people of the island who had died in World War One and Two. There are also plenty of churches – with a “watering hole for each one,” according to Glendora.
We piled out of the bus at the first stop, Runaway Ghaut, the best known of many deep ravines on the island that allow rainwater to rush into the sea, preventing flooding. Here each of us followed the instructions on the sign above the ravine – “drink from this burn and to Montserrat you will return”.
We carried onto Richmond Hill where we stopped at the remains of Montserrat Springs Hotel, once the most luxurious on the island. As we filed through the entrance, I secured a foam mask (handed out on the bus) to my face to filter out the sulphur dioxide lingering in the air. We picked our way through the remains of a formerly plush reception area and headed out to the swimming pool, now overgrown with weeds; guests no longer revelling in the views out to Soufriere Hills and Plymouth below.
Before Soufriere Hills began erupting in 1995, and wiped out the capital of Plymouth, the island had a population of around 11,000 – a mix of Montserratians and expats. Now it has just over 5,200.
We started driving through the areas that had been devastated by the eruptions, which our guides could only take us to with police permission. Even then conditions have to be considered safe – and guides carry a radio to be informed of any changes.
Shop fronts, office buildings and homes were half buried and windowless. We could’ve been on a film set for a disaster movie. But Glendora brought us back to the stark reality. “A whole village was wiped out in the click of a finger, it’s hard to come back and see it,” she said. Some buildings were buried up 60 to 70ft deep in earth and dried volcanic matter.
Two other guides, who had once worked in a government building in the now buried city, told us that the pyroclastic flows of hot material sometimes reached 100mph. Nineteen people had died in the eruptions. Another guide lost a friend: “When you have an explosion, there’s thunder and lightning, fork lightning. When the ash cloud came you couldn’t see the person next to you,” she explained.
We drove towards the sea, stopping at the deep water harbour. As we stepped out the minibus the sulphur dioxide really hit – similar to the smell of frying bacon.
Sitting high above the now green land, punctuated by half-buried orange rooftops, was the smoking Soufriere Hills mound, shrouded by clouds. While it has lain dormant in recent years, eruptions are still a threat, and it was a macabre presence, as we pored over a map of the island and looked at photos of how the city had once appeared before the devastation happened.
On our drive back towards the ship – including a stop off for sea-side lunch of calypso chicken, fried plantain, banana bread and rum punch – our guides pointed out signs of Montserrat is rebuilding itself as a tourist destination.
Holiday homes are being built and small golf courses are springing up. The lush greenery, quiet and seeming remoteness of Montserrat makes it an appealing island escape. If it was good enough for the Beatles…