For a small island, Montserrat tells a big story. Twenty-five miles southwest of Antigua, the British isle was where Paul McCartney, Elton John, and Stevie Wonder came to record at Sir George Martin’s Air Studios, and it was also the home of soca superstar Arrow who self-penned the ‘80s red-hot hit Hot, Hot, Hot. The only country apart from Ireland that celebrates St. Patrick’s Day as a national holiday, the 13x7-mile speck in the Caribbean Sea is also where the Soufriere Hills Volcano leveled the capital city of Plymouth two decades ago.
On July 18, 1995, the volcano, dormant for four centuries, spewed 20 feet of ash over the southern coast — a mere prelude of what was to come. A series of eruptions eventually caused fast-moving cascades of hot gas and rock that buried the once thriving city of Plymouth. Life, as it was, for Montserrat’s 12,000 residents changed forever: the population plunged as people faced the choice of fleeing to the north end of the island (unaffected by the eruption) or resetting in the U.K., neighboring Caribbean islands, the U.S., or Canada. The eruption was felt as far away as Puerto Rico.
Today, the volcano remains a wild card: the last major eruption was in 2010, when “Madame Soufriere’s” lava dome collapsed. Travel to the island is safe, but the volcano continues to gurgle, bubble, and percolate sulphuric fumes.
View the Volcano From Afar at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory
Ask Rod Stewart anything about volcanos and you’ll get an earful about what happened in Soufriere Hills. The volcanologist with the same name as the rock and roller is the director of the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, which locals simply refer to as the MVO. Scottish by birth and an Islander by choice, Stewart is delighted to talk volcanos with curiosity-seekers who come to view the landscape through the lens of the Observatory’s big telescope and pick up a souvenir in the gift shop.
“The biggest myth is that a mermaid lives in the lake, but funnily enough there is no lake at the volcano,” he says, pointing from the observation deck towards the Soufriere Hills. Funded by the Seismic Research Center at the University of the West Indies and the British government, MVO scientists brief the government weekly and broadcast daily volcano updates on local radio. “Soufriere Hills is one of the best-monitored volcanoes in the world,” Stewart says with his Scottish-Montserratian brogue, “nowhere else can you see a buried city like the one we have here.”
Tours of the Buried City
Plymouth is located in what's called the Exclusion Zone, or Zone V; because this area sits in the path of the greatest current volcanic activity, there is limited public access, although small boats are allowed to skirt the coast. Tours are conducted by rigorously trained guides who carry walkie-talkies in the event of another eruption. “Our five-year plan includes developing the buried city as a major tourism product,” says Hon. Delmaude Ryan, Monserrat’s deputy premier. “This includes markings on the buildings that are still above ground, plaques describing what happened, and amenities for visitors like bathrooms.” In another example of learning to live with the volcano rather than cursing fate, Montserrat plans to generate 100 percent of its energy geothermal by 2020, Ryan says.
Walking the "Lunar Landscape" of Plymouth
From the air, sea or on the ground, the devastation wrought by Madame Soufriere looks like the lunar landscape. Visiting Plymouth is a sobering experience: the once stately Georgian buildings are in various stages of ruin, most buried 40 feet beneath the ash with just the tops visible. Peering into the window of what was the Water Company is eerie: the desks have been left untouched for more than 20 years. Tour groups walk quietly as guides point out the burned-out shell of what was the town’s Texaco gas station, the Flora Fountain hotel, the police station, the Barclays Bank (rumor has it that the money in the vault was never recovered), the Cable and Wireless office, a supermarket, a church steeple peeking through new vegetation, and the Secondary School where all that remains is the door of the principal’s office.
In this eerie ghost town there no animals, birds, or cell phone service. Strikingly poignant are the belongings left behind, like the sole of a shoe or an old typewriter; in hillside homes (whose owners are still not allowed inside), toys, cradles, clothing, and furniture are frozen in time.
Cafe Features an Informal Volcano History Museum
Tours include admission to the MVO, pick-up at hotels, and a stop on the northern side of the island where the stores, hospital, airport and government buildings have been relocated. David Lea, an American expat who has lived on the island for more than 30 years, is the affable owner of the Hilltop Café, which hosts an unofficial museum of volcano and Montserrat history. Come for the waffles and Cuban coffee and stay to peruse his gallery of photos, videos, and art. Interesting for music fans, the Café also houses a treasure trove of Air Studio memorabilia, including Paul McCartney’s favorite chair.
Getting to Montserrat
Montserrat is a twenty-minute flight or 90-minute ferry from Antigua. SVG Air flies three times a day and Fly Montserrat makes the trip four times daily. You can day-trip to the island or spend the night to extend your explorations.
Gingerbread Hill is a charming place to stay on the island. Their two-bedroom villa has a kitchen, porch swing, and sweeping views of the sea and rainforest. For families that like to cook, the hotel shares space with mango and banana trees: feel free to pick. Resident hens supply big fresh eggs for breakfast omelet. For those who like music, Olveston House is the former home of Sir George Martin and is where the A-list rock stars stayed while on Montserrat. Decorated with mementos like Linda McCartney’s photos of John Lennon, the Olveston House restaurant is one of the island’s finest, presided over by Chef Sarah whose mother, Margaret Wilson, co-manages the hotel with Carol Osborne, the U.S. Embassy’s Montserrat representative.