December 2016

The island rising from the ashes: Enjoying a tourism fightback on Caribbean volcano-hit Montserrat

It may sound morbid to visit a modern Caribbean capital that was destroyed by volcanic eruptions, but what is left of Plymouth – once the main town and only port on Montserrat – may yet turn out to save the tiny island's tourist appeal.

On July 18, 1995, the previously dormant Soufriere Hills volcano erupted without warning, and after further eruptions over the next two years, the port was finally abandoned in 1997.

Although the volcano remains active and still shows flashes of anger, it and the town it destroyed have become the island's prime tourist attraction.

A large exclusion zone has been created in the southern part of the island, including Plymouth, so visitors who want to get there are advised to hire a local guide to obtain the various police and safety permissions for entry.

As ghost towns go, Plymouth is quite remarkable. It's not Angkor Wat or Pompeii, but it's much more authentic than those touristy old gold rush towns in America.

Most of the old capital lies permanently buried under many feet of solidified ash and volcanic debris including boulders, some of which are the size of small houses.

They have come to rest in a grim and grey featureless landscape through which deep canyons have been gouged. But a handful of buildings still remain accessible, albeit with features forever bent and twisted almost out of all recognisable shape.

Climb carefully down some cracked and broken steps and enter the reception area of the former four-star Montserrat Springs Hotel. Pendulum lights still hang drunkenly from the cracked ceiling, and perfectly legible old emails and telexes with reservation requests and confirmations litter the back office.

Outside, the swimming pool is all but filled with the detritus that overwhelmed the rest of the hotel. But bulging weeds poking through concrete prove that nature's fightback has already begun.

Our guide took us carefully around the skeletal remains of more buildings, using his mobile phone to remain in constant contact with the Montserrat Volcano Observatory in case of a sudden movement from the menacing mountaintop.

Montserrat, though, is more than an island in aspic. Where the devastation failed to reach, there is sumptuous vegetation, breathtaking views from hilltops, a beautiful botanic garden with fiddlewood trees, airplants the size of footballs, and eyelash orchids among a larger orchid collection preserved with the help of staff at Kew Gardens in London.

The island, a British Overseas Territory, is trying to bring back tourism, despite its heavily reduced population of just 5,100 (about two-thirds were evacuated to the UK after the volcanic eruption) and its low profile in the scheme of Caribbean tourism.

However, one American cruise line does now include it on its itinerary. There will surely be more in the future.

The island can be reached directly from its neighbour, Antigua. There are 15-minute flights (costing $200 return – about £160), or a ferry service that takes two hours.

Apart from Plymouth – very much the island's unique selling point – Montserrat has a peace and calm which stems, ironically, from not being a classic tourist resort.

I found a little arts and crafts boutique where they wouldn't dream of selling tourist tat.

I bought a very pretty and carefully crafted mahogany fruit bowl for almost nothing, while the girl in the shop asked me if I'd like to meet the man who made it. He happened to be a relative and lived just doors away.

Our guide took us to an unadvertised and largely unknown former mansion site which contains at its rear an almost untouched old sugar mill from the late 19th Century. Its huge brass and steel carcass and gears need renovation and could become a real attraction.

It's one of the inexplicable contradictions of Montserrat that no one seems to care to do that.

Away from the guided tour, there's fishing, boat tours, and plenty of hiking opportunities.

There are no major hotels on the island, but plenty of sweet little guesthouses and apartments where you can stay at very affordable prices.

I would happily return for a two- night stay just to celebrate the true contrasts of nature's power and menace on the one hand, and its raw beauty and resilience on the other. 

For tours of Montserrat visit Mont Serratis Island Tours.
Kuoni (01306747008) offers seven nights' B&B at the Blue Waters & The Cove
Suites in neighbouring Antigua from £1,622pp, including return flights with Virgin Atlantic from Gatwick, and transfers.

At Sandals Grande Antigua Resort & Spa, seven nights cost from £2,300 per person, including return economy flights from Gatwick with British Airways, and resort transfers. 

To book, call 0800 597 0002.

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