When people found out I was going to Montserrat, they usually had one of two questions: “Where on earth is Montserrat?” or “Wasn’t it destroyed by a volcano or a hurricane or something?”
I’ll deal with the simpler question first. Montserrat is a small Caribbean island, 43 kilometres southwest of Antigua.
As for the natural disasters, well, yes, Hurricane Hugo devastated the island in 1989. Just as the small British overseas territory had begun to rebuild its major public buildings, including a hospital, a library and the main legislature building, the Soufrière Hills volcano came to life in 1995.
After two years of sending plumes of steam and ash into the air, the volcano erupted in earnest in 1997. When the smoke had cleared, the airport and the capital city of Plymouth lay largely destroyed under layers of ash and boulders (the Montserrat volcano spews this material, known as “pyroclastic flows,” rather than molten lava). To this day, the southern half of the island lies abandoned, and the volcano continues to glow--and, occasionally, to spit, as it did in May 2006.
I know this doesn’t exactly sound like a ringing endorsement for the place, but bear with me.
The northern half of the island is still very much inhabited. As far as experts can predict, that area will remain safe even if the volcano has another major eruption, since any future pyroclastic flows will very likely follow their predecessors into the abandoned section of the island. The British government has enough confidence in the safety of the inhabited part of the island that it opened a new $21-million airport on Montserrat’s northern tip in July 2005.
Although roughly two-thirds of Montserrat’s pre-volcano population of 13,000 emigrated after losing their homes, their jobs or both in the wake of the eruption, 4,700 people doggedly stuck it out.
What made them stay, in the wake of such a cataclysm? The same things that make Montserrat one of the most appealing destinations in the Caribbean: peace, safety, civility, secluded beaches and rainforests filled with birdsong.
From what I’ve heard, Montserrat was laid back even before the volcano erupted. But today, “sleepy” doesn’t even begin to describe the place. Outside of major festivals, such as Carnival in late December and St. Patrick’s Week in March, major social events range from a weekly hotel barbecue to bingo games.
There are no traffic lights. No stop signs. No billboards. No Hard Rock Cafés or Little Switzerland jewellery shops or cruise ship day trippers. There are just two gas stations and only one ATM that accepts international bank cards.
What you will find are goats and chickens by the thousands. And at any given moment, most of them seem to be on the one main road that winds around the island, giving a whole new meaning to the term “defensive driving.”
Montserrat’s marketing slogan is “The way the Caribbean used to be.” And, for once, the ad folks have hit the nail right on the head. If you remember the days when the Caribbean was the haven of scuba divers, beach bums and assorted gentle eccentrics, or if you’re sorry you missed those days, Montserrat is the spot for you.
“The tranquility of the place and the low crime level…is what people want when they are stressed out,” says Theresa Silcott, co-owner of the Grand View guesthouse.
It took me a little while to adjust to the casual etiquette of the island. For instance, people leave their keys in their car ignition--after all, on an island with one main road and no ferry service, a thief would find it rather difficult to use a stolen vehicle.
Most people recognize each other’s cars, and when they see a vehicle they know--even a rental car--they beep and wave. Although numerous people explained this custom to me, I couldn’t help thinking, “Why is that driver honking at me? Am I doing something wrong?” (Given that I was driving on the left along narrow, twisting, unlit roads, this wasn’t an altogether unfounded assumption.)
Within a few days, I’d met so many Montserratians that a chorus of beeps followed me wherever I went. I eventually got used to it. People even cheerfully observed that my driving was getting better.
Sometimes I didn’t even realize I was being observed. With only 280 guest rooms available on the island, including rooms in villas that are rented by the same people year after year, every new face stands out. In the 18-room Tropical Mansion Suites hotel, where I was the only guest, I was eating breakfast one morning when a man I’d never seen before walked through the dining room.
“Not out taking pictures today?” he asked with a smile. He must have realized I was trying to place him and failing, because he quickly explained he’d seen me with my camera on the roadside a few days earlier.
Such friendliness is easily Montserrat’s most distinguishing characteristic. Susan Edgecombe, a real estate agent who moved here from Chicago more than 25 years ago, explains that Montserratians who move away from the island have to make a special effort to teach their kids that it no longer OK to strike up conversations with strangers or hop into unknown cars.
Ah, yes, hitchhiking--another custom largely abandoned in North America that is still alive and well on Montserrat. Early in my visit, I was driving with David Lea, co-owner of Gingerbread Hill guesthouse. In the middle of a rain shower, he stopped and offered a lift to a man walking along the side of the road. The man hopped into the back seat and we traded some pleasantries about the weather. “We are showered with blessings from God,” he observed.
At the village of Salem, he hopped out with a cheery “God bless.” Only after we had pulled away did Lea observe, “Where else could you pick up a guy with a cutlass?” It turns out our friend had been working in the fields. I hadn’t even noticed the knife.
I suspect it’s this casual vibe, more than anything, that keeps Montserratians devoted to their tiny island and keeps visitors coming back. Despite the lack of a casino, a posh resort or even a golf course, the island lures moneyed visitors such as a General Motors executive and heirs to the Mars Bar and J.C. Penney fortunes.
The place even inspires loyalty from rock stars. Beatles producer George Martin ran a popular recording studio here in the 1980s, and Montserratians treated visiting celebrities such as Mick Jagger like ordinary folks (“It wasn’t like he was Stevie Wonder,” one local explained with a shrug). As a result, Montserrat became popular with rock royalty seeking a break from the paparazzi.
In the wake of the hurricane that destroyed Air Studios Montserrat and the volcanic eruption that followed, the big stars didn’t forget the island that had given them such a laid-back welcome. In 1997, Paul McCartney, Sting, Eric Clapton and many others performed at a concert in London to raise money for a cultural centre Martin is building on the north end of the island.
Near the cultural centre, the Montserrat government is building a modest new capital. Six new eco-friendly hiking trails have been cut through the island’s rainforest in an attempt to attract eco-tourists. A new dive shop opened in late 2005, joining several others in tempting scuba enthusiasts back to Montserrat’s famed underwater world. And, finally, hopes are high that the new airport will put Montserrat back on the tourist map.
When it comes to disaster, Montserrat seems determined to make the best of living in the shadow of the Soufrière Hills. The tourist board even promotes the volcano. “We market Plymouth as a modern-day Pompeii,” says Ishwar Persad, marketing manager with the Montserrat Tourism Board. “Where else in the Caribbean do you have an active volcano?”
The volcano is fascinating, but I’d argue that Montserrat has an even more compelling sales point: the determined Montserratians themselves. This is a country, after all, whose soccer team once stood dead last in the FIFA standings. What did they do? They sent the team to Asia to battle Bhutan for last place. They lost the game, won the dubious title and kept on playing. Until the rankings were reset after the 2006 World Cup, Montserrat had forged ahead of the Turks and Caicos, Guam and American Samoa to claim 202nd place out of 205. I wouldn’t count them out yet. Not by a long shot.