Monday, October 24, 2005
Hurricane Hugo came first, hitting the island, a British overseas territory in the West Indies, with fury in 1989. Then, the Soufriere Hills Volcano erupted in 1995 and delivered the final blow two years later when it covered the capital, Plymouth, in up to 20 feet of ash and rock, forcing the government to proclaim the city and the southern two-thirds of the 40-square-mile island uninhabitable.
Two-thirds of the 12,000 inhabitants fled to find new homes abroad after the eruptions, and tourism left with them. Yet today, Monserrat's 13-square-mile "safe zone" - beyond the threatening grips of the volcano - is on the rebound. With British support, the $18.5 million Gerald's Airport opened in July with at least four daily flights from neighboring Antigua on a 19-seat twin-engine turboprop. Plans for a new capital city and a nine-hole golf course are in the works, and construction continues to rebuild the tourist infrastructure.
The Montserrat Volcano Observatory, in Flemings, serves as the hub for investigating the still-fuming dome, with a veranda looking out at the 3,000-foot monster and its plume, best seen on a clear day. Resident volcanologists lead hourlong tours of the observatory at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday for $4 , and a larger interpretive center with photos, videos and models will open in the coming months. To get a closer look at the destruction, call police headquarters in the commercial center, Brades, (664) 491-2555, to arrange an escorted tour of the abandoned streets of Plymouth, billed as a present-day Pompeii, for around $55. Only a church steeple and the roofs of homes break above the solidified ash in one part of town; in another, sneakers line the racks of a shoe store as if customers will return tomorrow.
First inhabited by former Irish indentured servants in the mid-17th century, Montserrat conjures images of the other Emerald Isle thanks to 50 to 80 inches of annual rainfall, and a number of hiking paths criss-cross the lush, mountainous interior.
The Oriole Walkway is a popular route, meandering through three miles of rain forest full of darting black and yellow orioles. To avoid getting lost and to learn about the kaleidoscope of flora and fauna, book a guide through the Montserrat National Trust Olveston, (664) 491-3086, for $20 an hour.
Just off the handful of pearl gray beaches of the northwest coast is prime snorkeling and diving ground where green turtles and southern stingrays swim in the year-round 80-degree waters. Before the destruction, Montserrat had developed a niche as a haven for jet-setters and rockers like Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney with its get-away-from-it-all atmosphere.
Even with all of the rebuilding and limited space within the Safe Zone, the island maintains the same persona. There are no stoplights and just one ATM, and traffic jams are limited to herds of goats roaming freely. Open-air restaurants - like Jumping Jack's in Olveston, (664) 491-5645, where grilled wahoo and tuna snapper make regular menu appearances - dot the string of villages on the west coast.
Next door, the Vue Pointe Hotel, has 18 rooms and is one of only two hotels on the island. It has views of the volcano from each self-contained cottage starting at $100 (double occupancy). A number of guesthouses and private villas are returning to the rental pool as well.
"It feels kind of like small town U.S.A.," said Betty Dix, who visited from Chicago in 1978 and never left. That sense of place comes with a view of the Caribbean framed by mango and palm trees. It's what made Montserrat famous before the destruction, and as the locals like to say, it's "still nice" today.