Monday, July 18, 2005

Tourism and Montserrat

The well-used taxi manned by George White lumbers up the road to St. George's Hill. As we approach the summit, White slows so I can appreciate the nearly ripe bounty of mangoes hanging from five trees next to the road. The landscape is green and serene, with cows grazing contentedly.

At first glance, you could be on almost any one of the Caribbean's mountainous islands. But then we pass a scattering of derelict, abandoned houses, a few with collapsed roofs. There's not a human sound in the air -- no soca music from a passing car, no children laughing in the street. As we crest the hill, the culprit responsible looms into view: Montserrat's Soufriere Hills volcano stands before us, implacable and all-commanding.

Ten years ago this month, the volcano reawakened after three centuries of slumber. Steam and gas still exhale along the rim of the crater, concealing remnants of the enormous lava dome that has bulged and collapsed repeatedly during a decade of eruptions. But vulcanologists believe that Soufriere Hills may be entering another period of repose. What's left of the dome is out of sight, and my eyes follow the path of now-cool ash flows that roared over the crater walls and down the flanks of the peak. One crashed against the base of St. George's Hill and headed into Belham Valley, consuming a golf course. Another ash flow continued west, rolling over the former capital of Plymouth. The settlement had been inundated, one eruption after another, creating a ghost town under a blanket of ash more than three metres deep in places.
It wasn't always this way. During the 1970s and 80s, Montserrat prospered gently as a quiet retreat. There was an 11-hole golf course, beaches of ebony- or honey-coloured sand, and a dive shop, attractions that drew 36,000 visitors in 1994. A recording studio lured Elton John and Paul McCartney. In 1979, Jimmy Buffett climbed the then-dormant volcano and returned to the studio to write and record an unusually prophetic hit Volcano:

I don't know

Where I'm a-gonna go

When the volcano blow.

It's been said that Montserrat -- 19 kilometres long, 11 kilometres wide -- is precisely the wrong size for an erupting volcano. If it were smaller, full evacuation would have been inescapable. Instead, when Soufriere Hills came alive in 1995, only the southern two-thirds was declared unsafe. The capital and its residents were moved north, crammed into a few square inhabitable kilometres, ducking the sometimes heavy ashfall (and coming out for the inevitable cleanup).

In June, 1997, a major collapse occurred, sending a cloud of ash, gas and rock exploding down the mountain, scorching everything in its path. Nineteen people, most of them farmers tending crops in the restricted area, were killed and the island's airport runway was buried.

Since then, Montserratians who stayed have coped with the conflagrations, while England pumped money into rebuilding the infrastructure (the island is a British Overseas Territory). The population dwindled to about 2,500 residents, down from 11,000 in 1995.

Although two small hotels and other lodgings were open, the island had just under 8,000 stay-over visitors in 2004, most arriving via the heavily subsidized ferry that travels twice daily from neighbouring Antigua. But today, Montserrat is finally looking at a more positive future. There's been no new dome growth for two years. Islanders who settled in England and the United States are returning, bringing the population up to about 4,700.

A new $23-million airport opened this week with regular commercial flights to the island from St. Maarten and Antigua. The government, with subsidies from Britain, is spending $3.4-million over the next three years to promote tourism and build parks and nature trails.

For my visit in June, I landed at Little Bay, in the north, where the capital has been rebuilt. I meet George White, who takes me through St. John's, the home of the audacious new airport, which flanks a ridge well above sea level.

We continue over to Jack Boy Hill, a lookout at the road's end. The east-side landscape is awesome -- broad grey flows of ash flood the formerly green slopes, extending the shoreline out by several hundreds metres. The bare outline of the former airport can be spotted. Picnic tables are set up for nights when volcanic activity can be appreciated from this safe distance.

Before its last collapse, the dome's elevation had grown to more than 1,100 metres, towering next to the island's official "highest" point, 915-metre Chances Peak. On many days, lava was extruded at a volume comparable to two or three refrigerators a second. These weren't the swift-moving orange rivers one sees in Hawaii. Montserrat's lava is viscous, rising slowly within the crater bowl for weeks or months, until the superheated unstable dome would disintegrate under its own weight, crashing down the slopes to obliterate everything in its path.

The Montserrat Volcano Observatory, perched on the slopes of Centre Hills, offers another remarkable view. Tours of the observatory are conducted by scientists Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, offering the latest prognosis on the future of Soufriere Hills. Today's report: The scientists are cautiously predicting a slowdown in activity.

"If it was a heart patient, you'd be giving CPR by now," jokes Vicky Hards, the resident vulcanologist.

Tasked with taking the pulse of a dying monster, scientists will be keeping a close eye on Montserrat for years to come. Mick Strutt, another vulcanologist with the observatory, says it will take time before scientists can identify a date when they'll be able to determine that the eruption has ended.

Soufriere Hills isn't the only sightseeing attraction the island has to offer. Ishwar Persad, marketing manager for the Montserrat Tourist Board, says the diving and snorkelling are excellent -- in part because of the island's low population and minimal pollution -- and birdwatchers come to spot the Montserrat oriole, among other species.

"There are six hiking trails now and six more in development," Persad says. "We have deserted pearl-grey beaches where you can go and you won't be harassed like on some islands, and you can rent a bike and explore the villages.

I make one more stop, at the ruins of Plymouth. The road into town passes a cemetery swathed in ash, the gravestones barely peeking up. Rainfall on the upper slopes has created deep new gullies, while in other areas the hardened ash flows are high enough that one can step from the ground onto the roofs of some downtown buildings.

A shoe store sits idle, its dirt-covered inventory still perched on the racks, while another shop has shelves of spices and sodas. I open an ash-caked bottle of black peppercorns and discover their fragrance is still intact. I consider for a moment carrying it home as a souvenir, until I realize I'm standing in a modern-day Pompeii.

Pack your bags


Montserrat's new airport opened this week, and WinAir (1-888-255-6889) offers four daily flights from St. Maarten and Antigua using 19-seat DHC-6 aircraft. A promotional fare of $123 is in effect.

The 144-passenger ferry from Antigua to Montserrat takes one hour, and currently runs twice daily except Sundays. It costs $93 round-trip. The schedule will be re-evaluated after the airport's opening.


By taxi: It's easy to explore the island on a day trip. The going rate for a full-day driving tour is $124, for up to four passengers; check with Thomas Lee (664-492-1649) or George White (664-492-1342).

Tour companies: Antigua-based Jenny Tours (268-464-4188) and D and J Tours (268-464-9453) do day trips from Antigua for $149-$198, including ferry, driver and lunch.


Vue Pointe Hotel: (664) 491-5210; The 22-room hotel opened in 1961 and offers cottages with views of the volcano. The Wednesday-night barbecue has been an institution for 40 years, and the black-sand beach is bigger than ever. Doubles cost $130 to $149.

Tropical Mansion Suites: (664) 491-8767; The 18-room hotel opened in 1999 on a hill near the new airport. What it lacks in charm it makes up for with modern amenities, like air conditioning in four rooms. Doubles cost $148 to $186, including continental breakfast.

Montserrat Tourist Board: (664) 491-2230;

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