July 2005

Montserrat - West Indies

It was a hot summer’s day like this one today, when the mountain suddenly exploded high over Plymouth and turned the town into the Pompeii of the Caribbean.

Today the little capital of the island of Montserrat remains out of bounds to visitors without official escort. Our policeman treads warily and pauses to look down at his feet. He says nothing and then murmurs quietly: “My home is underneath this. I’ll never see it again.”

Plymouth is now petrified as it was on August 3rd 1997 when the irritable volcano above it suddenly roared with suppressed anger, belched fire, lava, ashes and boulders the size of bathrooms high into the air. This lethal pyroclastic stew , half a mile wide, then tore its way at 100 miles an hour down the mountain into the pretty little town of Plymouth on the sea. They had known for weeks what was coming, the town was empty, the clock-tower was still working, the deserted Barclays Bank had been looted by a professional team using acetylene welding equipment, wire trolleys filled with water bottles and food in the supermarket had been left unpaid for as the old British world war 2 sirens wailed through the streets urging the residents to leave for ever. Nineteen had just been burned to death in a previous eruption by ignoring orders to flee.

Today, Plymouth remains frozen in time, larva, ash and mud, a durable mix gradually morphing into concrete , encasing the town sometimes in inches, often in feet of nascent rock. Here a church steeple pokes helplessly out of the rubble; twenty feet below are graves that will never again have flowers at their head; there, a deserted hotel with mud and detritus up to the level of the toilet seats and bath tops in the bathrooms. Sometimes as you manipulate carefully over the rocks and rubble, you walk gently on a wooden platform – its actually a rooftop. God only knows what lies buried beneath; Plymouth’s new school building reels drunkenly on its bent girders -- it was literally battered to death by gigantic boulders fired like popcorn from the heart of the inferno which then rolled like giant canon balls down the steep sides of the volcano and straight into the town. The larva finally spread like treacle into the sea making the water boil and adding considerably to Montserrat’s permanent coastline.

Walking through Plymouth today, its grim new architecture fashioned by the terrible forces that first created Montserrat millions of years ago is a truly awesome experience. If once can switch attitudes from the philosophically evocative to the pragmatic, it is also a unique tourist experience which cannot be repeated anywhere else in the world. That was my reason for coming. It should be yours too.

Montserrat is today considered safe for tourism. The pear-shaped island is raw, largely unspoiled Caribbean, only twelve miles long and seven miles wide, and there remains a small exclusion zone around the empty capital. Before the eruption, Montserrat specialised in rather posh residential tourism. Brits and North Americans bought villas or apartments and stayed for several weeks at a time. There’s a local built-in horror of gold chains, tattoos, chavs, and lager-louts . The island has only two hotels, one is the beautiful Vue Pointe which overlooks the still brooding (but now quiescent) volcano. Under the warm stewardship of Carol Osborne, the hotel, once headquarters of the rescue missions and aid workers who flocked to

Montserrat, is struggling to convince the world that its safe to return. The three and half star hotel has spacious individual chalets with cooking facilities, local diving and snorkelling, a bar always filled in the evening with friendly locals and unusually good catering. The Vue Pointe is currently losing thousands of pounds but as Carol, the veteran Montserratian from Boston, says: “If we close now, it means we’ve lost, just as it seems possible the island will revive.” (Her husband is a prominent local building merchant and they survive on that income). Although the larva claimed the local golf course and one of the two tennis courts is, well, somewhat bent, the hotel exudes a defiant Dunkirk spirit. Its closure would be symbolically disastrous for the island. Like everywhere else here, prices are very negotiable but you won’t do better than this for atmosphere, comfort and ambience.

The Island’s other hotel is ten miles to the north, called Tropical Mansions. It only has a tiny plunge pool, a bland and un-atmospheric bar and restaurant area, and a front desk that seems to employ innumerates. On my morning there, neither dry cereal nor fruit was available for breakfast. And this on an island that groans under the weight of fresh, wild mangoes, cashew fruits, pineapples and bananas.

I visited nearly every boarding house and villa on the island, and the truth is that you can stay on Montserrat for a week for the average price of a day in Barbados or Tobago. This is a bargain island, a British territory with virtually no crime, a small and truly friendly population, and sufficient attractions to warrant interest for at least 3-4 days. And the great thing is, everyone has a volcano story.

Talk to Shirley Spycalla (yes, really) who runs the Erindell Villa guest house up in Woodlands; lovely clean and bright rooms, a mere $65 a night for doubles, smashing pool and great atmosphere. Shirley is not just a grand hostess, but a classical soprano, singer of operatic arias who once ran the Mozart festival in Plymouth. She tells a good tale too. After a very hurried departure from her former home near the volcano, Shirley was determined to return to collect some vital belongings left behind. On the spur of the moment she defied the strict restrictions of the exclusion zone and drove back to her home to retrieve her possessions. She left her house keys inside the apartment while loading her car and the wind blew the door shut – and securely locked, from the inside.

The only way back in for the generously proportioned Mrs Spycalla was to try crawling through the metal-louvered window but, yes, you’ve guessed, she not only got jammed but every desperate wriggle merely wedged her in more securely. She screamed and hollered but no-one was around and no-one knew she had gone there in the first place. That’s when a new earth tremor began and the volcano started a new belch. Want to know the end of the story ? Go and stay and ask her for yourself….

Access to this beautiful little island, with its strong natural eco-system and raw beauty is through next door Antigua. I recommend the direct 8 hour flight from Gatwick followed by a 2-3 day decompression stay at the Blue Waters Resort hotel – one of the very very few hotels in the world that lives up to, always delivers and occasionally exceeds its brochure promises. Antigua (unlike Montserrat with its grey volcanic beaches) has some fine white beaches, and none more attractive than the one at the Blue Waters, golden sand as far as you can walk in the still, warm, ocean, no seaweed or rocks, Caribbean swimming as it ought to be. Accommodation well above average and all directly fronting the sea, great food and a quiet dignified atmosphere.

Today, Montserrat’s old airport lies buried forever under the larva but a new airport has just been opened (July 11th) and a brand new small-plane service now connects frequently between Antigua and the island. It’s a twenty minute ride. At this time there’s also an efficient helicopter service across the 27 mile waterway, and a ferry which may well be phased out. I hope so as the ferry-port on Montserrat is irritatingly and quite unnecessarily primitive. I’m one of those spoilsports who will not be bamboozled by Caribbean inefficiency posing as Caribbean charm.

The Montserrat Tourist Board is working hard with various charities , aid agencies and HMG to put the island back on its feet and I admire their endeavours. The `Centre Hills Project’ will turn the lush and unspoiled island rainforest area into a fully protected national park and make eco-tourism a major attraction. This forest houses some unique species including the endangered Montserrat Oriole, and an ugly little lizard called the Montserrat Galliwasp.

The charming shack-like restaurants on the island, serve original and colourful local dishes, whatever fish they’ve managed to catch for the day, and the ubiquitous but always freshly cooked rice, beans, and chicken. Fresh fruit for dessert ? Just reach over the veranda and pick it yourself. Prices for food, accommodation and everything bar the most luxurious villas are very cheap indeed and often negotiable (except over Christmas). On balance I wouldn’t take kids under 18 to the island unless they are truly eco-orientated.

Ultimately, the true Montserrat experience is that strange, evocative ghost town parts of which will peep in perpetuity above the larva and mud. Oddly, no-one including HMG who have the last word in these matters, has yet thought through a sensible, tasteful plan for marketing this unique experience to the outside world. As I discovered, it is now reasonably safe to walk both around, and sometimes into the empty buildings. I’m not an entrepreneur but I would have thought an IMAX cinema experience showing the hugely dramatic news films taken of the eruptions, followed by a tour around Plymouth on specially constructed duck-boards and carefully laid steps and hand-rails would be something to bring not only the Brits, but the North Americans by the planeload.

Trouble is, decisions on Montserrat are taken at the speed of a wind driven barge. No-one has called in a Disney or Tussaud’s theme park expert. On the one hand there’s a perfectly understandable determination not to turn Plymouth into another tee-shirt, junk-food, tourist-tat Caribbean hell hole. On the other, even after ten years there are still only the most vague plans for organising tours around Plymouth. One confidential report is a masterpiece of British prevarication calling for endless feasibility, safety and operation studies and numerous more discussions with tour operators and accountants before action is taken. But its now ten years since the volcano in destroying Plymouth inadvertently compensated by handing a tourist gift to the beleaguered island.

Frequent helicopter tours from Antigua fly like wasps over the dead town, but no money goes to Montserrat from this initiative.

I discussed all this with the island’s head of tourism, the chief minister and the British governor. Hearts are willing, but the flesh is flaky. Caution can be too much of a good thing.

The better news is that the chances of the volcano re-erupting are down from 50% to 30%. Montserrat is now picking itself up. We’ve already paid the little island a well deserved £240 million in grants and disaster aid relief money since the eruption. But now’s the time to get a return on the investment You can, with some hard work and luck, get a safe tour round Plymouth if you nag the tourist board and pay £30 for a policeman to guide you.

Don’t hang about for HMG to take a strategic tourist initiative. You could turn to stone while waiting.

Do it yourself. There’s no other experience like it.

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