Two encounters with modern-day Pompeii of the Caribbean
The Caribbean doesn't always have to be about beaches and cocktails.
A few decades ago, Montserrat Island was a little piece of paradise in the Caribbean. Its slogan was “the way the Caribbean used to be”.
Ironically, a big disaster hit the island in 1995. The Soufriere Hills volcano, thought to be dormant, roared to life after hundreds of years of inacivity. A series of extremely violent volcanic eruptions began and devastated the lower half of the island, destroying and burying Plymouth, the capital and only significant town, under layers of rock, pyroclastic flows and ash.
Today, it is an ash and mud-covered wasteland – a modern-day Pompeii. Two-thirds of the island is off-limits, considered too dangerous to live at due to eruptions and venting that continues to this day.
Needless to say the island offers volcano adventures for the intrepid traveler who don’t mind going a long way to ensure a permit to be able to arrange a visit to the abandoned no-go zone.
Location: Montserrat, in the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean
Ever since we were kids and heard about Montserrat, we always wanted to go there. On a previous trip to the Antilles, we found ourselves in Guadeloupe and had some extra days available, thus opening the opportunity to go for Montserrat. After all, we could see the volcanic cone of Montserrat from the northern beaches of Basse-Terre in Guadeloupe. Unfortunately, we realized that it was not possible, since we had to go all the way to Antigua to arrange onwards transport to Montserrat. Later, on a different trip to the Antilles, we found ourselves on the southern coast of Nevis. Again, we had a striking view towards Montserrat, and thus we started to inquire around the island. A local fisherman offered to take us there in his speedboat, but the price was astronomical and the trip he suggested sounded extremely rough. On a third trip to the Antilles we were finally in Antigua and quickly decided to not only do one tour but two tours to Montserrat.
During the first tour to Montserrat we flew into the island, bough a special permit on the police station and arranged an on-the-ground expedition into the abandoned Plymouth, in the forbidden Exclusion Zone beneath the still-active Soufrière Volcano. We engaged Sun Lea, of Sun’s Montserrat Island Tours. Sun grew up on Montserrat. His first hand personal account of his life and those of local Montserrations, before and after the eruption is both fascinating and tragic. Sun can arrange all the permits necessary.
On the second trip, we chartered a helicopter in Antigua and did a fly-over exploration of the island, volcano and Exclusion Zone. We umm'd and ahh'd over this for days, mainly because it was pretty pricey, but in the end we decided to just go for it. After all, experiences like these are priceless. We flew with Caribbean Helicopters, and spent around US$ 1.000 for a two-hour tour. The pictures we took speak for themselves.
Selected pics from Montserrat:
We've been discussing to go to Montserrat on two different other trips to the Antilles. Once from Guadeloupe. On another occasion from Nevis. In the picture, we are on the south coast of Nevis island and had a striking view towards Rodonda Isl. (right) and Montserrat (behind to the left). A local fisherman offered to take us there in his speedboat, but the price was astronomical.
The only way to get to Montserrat is to fly from Antigua with 'Fly Montserrat'. Flights fill up fast and high winds can halt service for hours or days.
The airline has a small eight-seat prop plane and the tour is around US$ 110 each way.
When the volcano erupted, the population plummeted from 12.000 to just a few thousand and at one-point discussions were held about closing the island. However, continued support by the British government and investment by some private entities has seen the island making a comeback. The population is now a healthy 5.000 with further growth projected. Montserrat has endured +15 years of volcanic eruption yet this tiny island remains determinedly upbeat.
A drive along the east coast, the bady battered road reaches several secluded coves and finally turns into the hills, and leads to viewpoints from where we could see ash and mud flows to the south.
Built in 1921 by Bhudda Allen, destroyed by hurricane in 1928 and later rebuilt. There a few charming sugar mills on the northern coast.
Views towards Redonda Island (front) and Nevis (left).
Montserrat is one of the more serene places to go beaching in the Antilles. The entire island is free from the crowds found at other Caribbean destinations. There are a number of beaches on Montserrat including Carr’s Bay, Little Bay, Woodlands, Bunkum Bay, Old Road Bay and Rendezvous Bay Beach. As a result of the volcano, most are light-grey to dark-grey sanded beaches. The only exception is Rendezvous Bay Beach, the island’s only white sand beach.
Anyone visiting should spend some time understanding what has been lost and how the resilient islanders have coped. As a visitor, we can’t begin to understand the extent of the impact on locals whose lives were forever changed. But we think the legacy of the volcano is that Montserrat has retained its culture and identity, warmth and friendliness.
...and the beautiful Katy Hills and Lawyer's Mountain in the backdrop. There is a good hiking trail cutting through this tropical centre from where bird's-eye views of the island .can be offered.
...from the Centre Hilss during a hike.
Getting permission to enter the exclusion zone takes some work. It’s not a theme park. And although locals speak highly of the scientists who monitor activity from the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, you never know when the mountain will blow again. We involed a local guide, Sunny Lea, who had to make a number of phone calls to officials within the police service and the MVO to gain clearance.
Life on the idyllic island changed forever when the Soufriere Hills Volcano erupted and rendered two-thirds of the island including the former capital Plymouth uninhabitable. Now, a special permit is needed to be able to visit the Exclusion Zone.
After we had obtained the permit we drove to the entry point for Plymouth and started waiting. As we waited and waited for police approval to crackle over the guide’s walkie-talkie, we began to wonder whether this was a good idea. We were about to enter the only modern-day capital city to be permanently abandoned at the feet of a very violent volcano.
Prior to the Soufrière Hills Volcano erupting, Plymouth one of the prettiest Caribbean towns was the capital and hub of Montserrat. That all changed after the eruptions as the main docking harbor, much of the government infrastructure, as well as commercial services, markets, and shops were buried under layers of ash, mud and stone deposited by the pyroclastic activities.
Ready to explore the ruins of the modern day Pompeii. It was a privilege to be allowed to visit this deserted city, mothballed in metres of ash and boulders – propelled out of the smoking volcano that now looms above the former settlements. Many locals have not been allowed to return. Many islanders have chosen not to. During our trip we were in constant walkie-talkie contact with the Vocalno Observatory.
The whole scene was one of devastation. We could make out the shape of buildings, still standing but with windows broken. The ash was deep and compacted. Some structures only had their upper levels visible.
In other buildings we could peer inside but there was only two or three feet of space between the ash and the ground floor ceiling.
We walked and crawled into a few house only to discover layers of ash
"Nobody would survive this,” our guide said while he pointed out the old cinema, the former hotel and what was Angelo’s supermarket.
Most islanders had never expected volcanic activity. And they certainly weren’t prepared for a new mountain to appear from nowhere, eventually reaching higher than their tallest peak, which stood at just over 3.000 feet/1.000m.
Many of the Georgian buildings are barely visible under the mounds of volcanic ash. It all now resembles a dusk covered lunarscape and is an archeological treasure worthy of being added to the sites in the Caribbean with UNESCO World Heritage status
Many buildings were bent out of shape by the huge boulders, which had rained down on the former capital.
One of the best experiences was to explore a former luxurious hotel. Here, we are in the reception area.