Introduction: Meet Madame Soufriere
Towering 3,000 feet (give or take, depending on current volcanic activity) above sea level, Montserrat's Soufriere Hills volcano slumbered uneasily for at least a century before erupting violently in 1995, and has continued to be active until the present day. The 'volcanic crisis' led to the closure of the southern two-thirds of the island and the abandonment of the capital city of Plymouth, once home to 12,000 people.
Pyroclastic flows -- superheated waves of gas and rock -- subsequently covered much of the city and the island's main airport, resulting in 19 deaths. Mud flows, known as lahars, have devastated other areas, including the scenic Belham Valley area, which has been periodically evacuated, as recently as 2007. Locals say the volcano makes its own weather, and the summit often is shrouded in clouds or steam, which can usually be seen billowing from vents on the volcano's flanks, as in the above picture.
Read more on volcanoes and earthquakes in the Caribbean here.
The Montserrat Volcano Observatory
The Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO) should be the first stop on your volcano tour of Montserrat. Spend the $4 to watch a short film detailing the recent violent history of the Soufriere Hills volcano, including some haunting video shot in the days before the evacuation of the capital city Plymouth, now largely entombed in volcanic rock, ash and mud. There's no tour of the MVO per se, but staff sometimes are around to answer questions, and the outside observatory provides an unimpeded view of the volcano and surrounding areas, including abandoned homes, the Belham River Valley, Sir George Martin's Air Studios, and glimpses of Plymouth itself.
Jack Boy Hill Viewing Facility
Jack Boy Hill is the most visitor-friendly place to observe the Soufriere Hills volcano. The modern visitor's center -- designed by a visiting Japanese architect who also helped build homes for displaced residents after the destruction of Plymouth -- includes a snack bar and barbecue area and can be used for events, including nighttime viewings when the volcano sometimes glows with pyroclastic fire and smoking boulders can be seen tumbling down the flanks of the cone.
During the day, this is the best vantage point of the ruined W.H. Bamble Airport, where a pyroclastic flow swept down to the sea in 1997, killing 19 people who had failed to leave the danger zone. The burned-out remains of the airport's control tower and terminal building can be clearly seen from Jack Boy Hill; the runway also is visible, although half covered in debris.
Belham River Valley
The upper Belham Valley has been hit by pyroclastic flows from the Soufriere Hills volcano, but the damage to the lower valley and the Old Road Beach area has been due to rain-induced mud flows, called lahars. Hiring a driver to take you to the lower valley and the beach is a must for any volcano tour: here you will not only understand the scale of destruction a volcano can cause but also get a sense of the toll on property and lives. A road across the hardened mud, leading to a community of still-occupied homes in Isles Bay, also crosses the former Montserrat Golf Course, and you can see the ruins of the clubhouse as well as the skeletal remains of trees that once lined the fairways.
There are also a pair of mud-encased homes you can visit, including the Crowe House, once a fine riverfront home now filled with mud up to the middle of the second story. Entering the house and viewing the ruined rooms and scattered personal belongings is a bit like visiting a gravesite. Visitors also can still enjoy a dip in the ocean at Old Road Beach: the east end is ruined by mud and swept by blowing dust, but the west end is relatively untouched and still quite beautiful with its black sands and cattle grazing nearby.
It's a tough hike or a straining, bumpy ride in a four-wheel-drive up Garibaldi Hill, but your reward is a prime perch for viewing the devastation done to the Iles Bay area by the Soufriere Hills volcano. Part of Isles Bay -- known as the Beverly Hills of Montserrat -- is still inhabited, but residents must drive over the mudflows in the Belham Valley to get to and from their homes, a journey that can quickly become dangerous when heavy rains bring more mud down from the mountains.
How you visit Plymouth largely depends upon the current state of the volcano alert in Montserrat. When we visited in March 2009, the island was under alert level 4, meaning high risk of serious volcanic activity and the possibility of evacuations at short notice. At this level, all ground access to Plymouth is forbidden, but there are boat tours of the southern coast that can get you within a few hundred feet of Plymouth's ruined waterfront and provides some spectacular, if somber, views. At lower alert levels, it may be possible to pay a guide and arrange for a police escort for an unforgettable on-the-ground tour of the former capital city.
If you're in Antigua and can't get to Montserrat proper -- and it's a very real possibility due to the horrid air service provided exclusively, if sporadically, by Winair -- you can still get an up-close look at the Soufriere Hills volcano and Plymouth by taking a helicopter tour. Caribbean Helicopters offers a Montserrat tour for $240 per person that includes views of Montserrat's east coast, the Tar River Valley, the Soufriere Hills volcanic dome, the windmills of St. George's Hill, the abandoned airport, and Plymouth. The tour lasts about 45 minutes.