“I don’t like the Caribbean,” one of my friends told me recently. “I think you’d like Montserrat,” I replied. When I thought about his comment, I realised how ill-informed it was. Saying you don’t like the Caribbean is almost like saying you don’t like Europe. Every island nation is different and Montserrat, like the Dutch island of Saba, stands out. It’s a really special place.
The huge volcano that dominates the landscape has, tragically, shaped this country’s identity. Around half of the island, including its former capital, was destroyed in the 1995 eruption and the areas are likely to remain off-limits for the rest of our lifetimes. Anyone visiting should spend some time understanding what has been lost and how the resilient islanders have coped. Many have left and, as a visitor, you can’t begin to understand the extent of the impact on locals whose lives were forever changed. But I think the legacy of the volcano is that Montserrat has retained its culture and identity, warmth and friendliness.
I suspect my friend’s experience of the Caribbean might have been based on a trip to a destination like Trinidad. The first time I visited Montserrat in 2008 I had come directly from Trinidad’s capital Port of Spain. It’s an ugly, rough and potentially violent place and you don’t want to go out there at night. But within an hour of arriving at Montserrat’s tiny airport, I realised how different this island was. Walking up the steep and long main road that runs through the straggling, temporary, post-volcano capital of Brades, a car pulled up alongside me. The driver leaned across the passenger seat and firmly told me to “get in.”
Having travelled straight from a city where you avoid alleys and bury your wallet beneath zippered layers of clothing, I assumed the worst. I entered the vehicle expecting to be robbed or kidnapped. I was wrong. The Caribbean is not all the same. The driver was genuinely interested in why I was visiting his home island and gave me a lift, expecting nothing in return except conversation.
Eight years later I’m back in Montserrat and whilst social division and conflict seems to be ripping many countries apart, I’m so relieved to tell you that this warm Caribbean welcome hasn’t waned. There are lots of British connections here too. When I arrived just after sunset I thought the Anglican church tower of St Peters would not have looked out of place in Devon. It was only in daylight that I realised the tower was concrete rather than stone.
Many islanders have a connection to Nottingham or Leicester, where there are sizeable Monserratian communities. Governor Elizabeth Carriere told me, “The British are the largest group of people who come here for two or three months of the year or who maintain houses here. Some British people have lived here for over 40 years.”
The Queen is on the stamps, there are British road signs and a red telephone box in Brades, and most of the corner shop-sized supermarkets sell Marmite.
Montserrat isn’t an independent nation – it’s a UK Overseas Territory. Island entrepreneur Nerissa Golden told me that when locals use the term ‘my country’ they’re not being political. “We’re just having ownership of a place we love.”
The UK link might explain why visitors will find the island reassuringly familiar. It’s like stepping into a big village, but it doesn’t explain the warmth of your welcome. Brits are, as you know, famously reserved. I’d like to think that Montserrat’s Irish connection is one of the reasons for the locals’ geniality. There is a strong Irish link here – your passport will be stamped with a shamrock shaped design!
Food often influences the identity of a place. The national dish is a thick Irish stew called goat water, which is served with dumplings. And Chef Steadman at Little Bay’s beach-facing bar proudly serves the local dessert – potato pudding with custard!
Tourism officer Rosetta West Gerald told me that Montserrat is the only place outside Ireland that celebrates 17th March as a public holiday. There’s a week of activities surrounding the St Patrick’s Day festival. The masquerade dance includes Irish dancing moves. “The steps are similar, with the use of heel and toe,” says Rosetta.
You will also find lots of Irish place names on the map. Some of the communities have, sadly, been lost to the volcano but the memory of Cork Hill, Kinsale and St Patrick’s lives on. And you’ll meet many Sweeney’s and Farrell’s. “You can hear the Irish in the islanders’ accent,” says tour operator Roselyn Cassell Sealy. I’m not sure whether I could but there is a slightly different lilt to the locals’ conversation.
I headed to the replacement capital of Little Bay. It is still being built. The street pattern has been laid out but only a handful of buildings have been constructed and they look like they’ve been dropped into place from the sky.
My first stop was the museum, to meet Donna Henry and find out why Ireland is so closely linked to Montserrat. She explained that the island was ‘discovered’ by Sir Thomas Warner who had sailed over from St Kitt’s. He brought Irish settlers, many of whom had fled Protestant persecution at home. In the 1670s half of the resident population were Irish.
Since the eruption of the volcano in 1995, the island has become home to more nationalities. More than half the original population left Montserrat – forced away due to homelessness, loss of business and employment.
Governor Carriere told me that she’s proud that the island is now multicultural. “We have a Jamaican community, Hispanic community, Haitian community who are living and working here and adding to the character of the island.”
Montserrat is also termed the Emerald Isle. That’s not just the Irish link. It’s also down to unspoiled natural beauty – its thickly wooded hillsides. Things grow well here.
Donna at the museum was keen to point out that there was more to the island’s history than just the volcano. The island was known for its high-quality lime fruits. I headed to the National Trust’s Botanic Gardens where Sarita Francis took me on a tour of the four-acre site. It was created, with assistance from staff at Kew, eleven years ago following the volcanic eruption.
“If you go to the Sturgeon Museum in Birmingham you’ll see advertisements for Montserrat lime juice. They shipped it from the islands to the UK in large kegs to give to soldiers to prevent scurvy,” Sarita explained. The American slang term for a Brit – Limey – was down to the soldiers’ use of the fruit juice from Montserrat. The lime rind was also used in perfume making. Sarita showed me the different types of limes that were developed by local growers. The botanic garden also includes an orchid house and plenty of exotic flora and medicinal herbs.
As you drive through the island, the road twists and turns through small villages of brightly coloured buildings. You will tackle some steep and sharp bends but the views across the rich, verdant, tropical forest are reward enough for all that gear changing and tight steering wheel turning.
And you can get out and immerse yourself in that forest too. It is a walker’s paradise. The governor is herself a keen rambler. “We have good hiking trails and they are very well managed,” she told me. Elizabeth also says the hiking guides are very knowledgeable about the island’s natural history. “It is fascinating and beautiful,” she added. “You don’t find this tropical forest and abundance on many other islands.”
The man to guide you around the twelve different hiking trails is James ‘Scriber’ Daley. He’s known for his extensive knowledge of the terrain and when the first eruptions from the once-dormant volcano rocked the island, scientists at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory asked James to guide them into the hills. “I’m like a GPS in the mountains,” he laughed. Most of the trails James would term as moderate and he takes walkers into the green and verdant Centre Hills. Serious walkers can tackle the 2,437 foot high Katy Hill.
“My tours are educational and I want to give walkers an insight into what is here,” James explained. The Montserrat oriole is a rare and endangered endemic species, which draws twitchers from all over the world. “Some were taken to the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in Jersey after the volcanic activity started and they have bred successfully,” he told me. Other wildlife highlights include the galliwasp. “I’m telling you, it’s something worth seeing!” he enthused. But as soon as James started describing the rare reptile, I could think of half a dozen friends who would not want to come face-to-face with it!
“It’s like half-snake, half–lizard,” he continued. “If it’s cornered, it locks its legs to its body and wriggles like a snake. The legs are very small for a creature that is sixteen inches in length. When it gets up it’s like looking at a salamander staring at you.” If that’s terrified you, just stick to daytime hikes. “It’s nocturnal and only comes out at night,” added James.
I was rather amused by the unusual creature I saw scurrying across the road as I drove on the sandy track by the wide, boulder-strewn Belham River. “Is that a wild pig?” I asked my guide, Sunny Lea. “No, it’s an agouti,” he told me. It’s a rare rodent that looks like a cross between a squirrel, a tailless rat and a rabbit.
When you spend time in Montserrat you’ll need to make your own entertainment. And I think that’s part of the island’s charm. During my stay, I called into the local radio station ZJB and the morning show presenter, Basil Chambers, put me on air. I had only stopped by to say hello and to have a look and was completely unprepared for the live microphone!
“So why do you think this island is so special?” he asked me.
“Errr. It’s real. There’s no fake tourist tat,” I replied.
“What you mean by that?” he asked.
“I haven’t seen a single inflatable banana ride,” I responded, cringing as the words came out of my mouth. Everybody listens to Basil. His show was on in banks, shops and offices as I walked around the island. Nearly everyone who I spoke to brought up my comment. Luckily, they agreed. There are no naff duty-free shops, manmade tourist attractions or ‘experiences’ and no walled, all-inclusive resorts. You don’t need a security guard on the front gate. The joy of Montserrat is wandering around talking to locals and, if you want to, getting some of the sun, sand and warm sea that the Caribbean is renowned for. Locals don’t do a great job of promoting the beaches. And I’ve no idea why – they’re more than perfect.
Emmy Aston at Scuba Montserrat was spot on when she told me that, unlike other Caribbean islands, nobody will hassle you, try to sell you knock-off watches or beads or try and braid your hair. It’s worth mentioning that, even if the volcano goes up again, all accommodation is in safe zones protected from the mountain by a significant range of hills. And you can find warm white sands on which to unwind. Emmy can rent you a kayak to reach Rendezvous Beach, or you can walk.
If you’re fine with darker volcanic sand, and I certainly am, Woodlands Beach is easy to reach by car. If you’re a keen snorkeller, it’s worth checking out the fish and colourful coral at the new reef.
As you walk to the beach, you’ll see regular visitors have made wooden signs displaying the distance to their hometowns. It’s 1,634 miles to Norfolk, Virginia and 4,100 miles to Leicester but the sign in the middle reminds you that it’s “0 miles to Paradise.”
And a wooden sign board held up by bamboo poles offers these words to reinforce the message that you’re doing the right thing: “May your life be filled with relaxing sunsets, cool drinks and sand between your toes.”
Back in town, Brades’ primary school pupils have painted murals that line the pavement through the temporary capital. One painting perfectly sums up the mood of a holiday on this island – Giovanni Greaves’ image of a carefree man relaxing at sunset on a hammock strung between two palm trees says it all, no words necessary.
Getting To Montserrat
To reach Montserrat from Europe or North America, you’ll need to fly to Antigua International Airport and then take the short, 20-minute flight using local airline Fly Montserrat.
I stayed at the clean, well-appointed and affordable Gingerbread Hill apartments.
I did not receive any discount or payment for these personal endorsements and recommendations.