It can be difficult finding an authentic, unspoiled destination in the Caribbean. On many islands I’ve visited, tourism development has taken away any sense of tradition. But not everywhere. If you book a break in the British Overseas Territory of Montserrat you’ll experience a community where life revolves around café’s, the creative community and churches, rather than corporate chain hotels.
Don’t expect open top double decker buses, amphibious duck tours or late-night dancing. Imagine holidaying in a small, pleasant English market town spread out over half of a 39 square-mile island. That will prepare you for Montserrat. You will have to make your own entertainment, as you would if you were on a weekend break away from cities or coastal resorts in rural Britain. Fly Montserrat Airways CEO, Captain Nigel Harris, explained that the majority of locals are either aged under 20 or over 60. I guess that partly explains the more relaxed atmosphere.
“It’s the simplicity and beauty of the island which appeals,” says Governor Elizabeth Carriere. “And people are extremely friendly. That’s noticed by everybody who comes here. They will greet you even if they don’t know you. That’s the spirit of the island,” she told me.
And this isn’t a new thing. The relaxed island atmosphere and friendly locals encouraged legendary record producer Sir George Martin to set up the AIR recording studios here in 1979. There were 86 albums recorded on this little island, including iconic recordings by Dire Straits, Sting and Luther Vandross. I was taken aback when I saw the wall filled with album covers in David and Clover Lea’s Hilltop Coffee House. The stars weren’t hassled – locals kept a discreet distance and that’s why they kept returning.
You can read more about AIR Studios here.
Carol Osborne is joint owner of the impressive Olveston House restaurant and guesthouse business. It’s a 1950s-built replica of the Victorian plantation house that stood on the same site. It’s an ex-pat enclave, although islanders term the sizeable British, Canadian and American community as ‘internationals.’ That’s possibly because they serve Sunday roasts and superb fish and chips on Friday, in the restaurant or on the veranda. Like most islanders, Carol has fond memories of the celebrity visits. “Nobody paid any attention to them,” she told me. “Sting would come with his family in the summer time and then return to record on his own in the winter.”
Many locals have celebrity stories. Later that evening in the bar at Olveston House, I was introduced to Danny. He proudly told me that Mark Knopfler had written the opening line to the smash hit Walk of Life as ‘Here comes Danny singing oldies, goodies.’ “It was after I looked after him, taking him out water-skiing,” Danny explained. He claimed that Knopfler recorded the lyric and then decided to change the name to Johnny. Star references are everywhere. The Hilltop Coffee House features a stool sat on by the stars.
The bar at the open sided, beach-facing bar, Soca Cabana, at Little Bay is formed out of part of the AIR mixing desk, rescued following Hurricane Hugo, which destroyed the studios in 1989. And you can hang your coat where Mick Jagger may once have leaned. No need if you’re a Phil Collins fan – ‘No Jacket’s Required,’ apparently.
The island is proud of its own music style too. You will know Arrow’s biggest hit. It had the lyrics, ‘Feeling hot, hot, hot’ repeated over a bright, jolly soca beat. Sadly he died six years ago following a brain tumour. “Everybody knew the words of the song. It was pretty amazing,” recalls David Lea. “What most people don’t realise is that he recorded 33 albums before he died.”
On this small island people make their own entertainment and during the first four months of the year, Soca Cabana’s weekly Montserrat Idol competition is a must-attend event. Chef Steadman will serve you his signature potato pudding desert whilst you enjoy the island’s version of Britain’s Got Talent.
Emmy Aston of Scuba Montserrat told me about another musical highlight. In the Christmas period there’s calypso. “It’s like a musical stand-up routine,” she tells me. “People write and perform songs about topical local events.”
The island’s cafés also seem to help the art scene flourish. Next door to Emmy’s dive shop on a bend in the country road passing the tower of St Peter’s Church is the Java Lava Café. Trinidad-born Vidya Birkhoff launched Java Lava to showcase her cooking and islanders’ art. “How did you come up with the arts-meet-food concept?” I asked her.
“What I love is food – and I enjoy art. I am one of the artists,” she told me. “It’s only that I’m better at cooking than I am at art,” she added, laughing. “I thought an arts café was needed on this island. A coffee shop is a place for people to hang out and it offers a great way to promote local artists and also offers a great atmosphere. Coffee brings warmth. That’s what I wanted to create. Most of the people who come out to the café are my friends. I get to hang out with my friends every day and get paid for it.”
“I just don’t want to take people’s art and hang it on the wall,” continued Vidya, “so every month we have a ‘meet the artist’ event. I don’t take any commission. I want them to sell their work but also I like the artist to talk about themselves and introduce their pieces. We have music and food. It’s a nice vibe and people look forward to it.”
I went along and the atmosphere was lovely. The food was rather good too. I have to mention Vidya’s famous rotis – they are an Indian-influenced, curry-filled flatbread, which are popular on her home island of Trinidad. Vidya groaned when I asked her about these. “We have a Caribbean Friday. It was originally a monthly event where I prepared rotis and jerk chicken. I was happy doing it every month but I was harassed into making it weekly. That’s enough!” she laughed. “We get orders for the Friday food on a Thursday. We always sell out by 1.30pm. It’s a mad dash from 11am until 2pm.” Vidya also runs Doughnut Mondays, which are equally popular!
“I love the island because it’s the Caribbean as it used to be – safe and beautiful – and you can sit outside. You can’t do that in every Caribbean island. Montserrat has been left untouched,” Vidya told me.
Tony Bates’ photography has featured at the Java Lava Café. He clearly could have made this his living if he hadn’t chosen another professional path – serving his country. Tony is posted to Montserrat from the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office. You can see some of his work on this link from Nerissa Golden’s Discover Montserrat website.
“There is a great art scene on the island,” says Tony. “And the Java Lava Café is brilliant because there are at least ten artists who produce work but have not had a forum to display it until now. Sometimes I take pictures of big stuff like seascapes and landscapes. Other times I might focus on tiny work like flowers, which are just a quarter of an inch across. There are so many photographic opportunities here,” he told me.
I was really impressed by the diversity of his work. A close-up of a hummingbird was incredible but I also liked the striking black and white images of deserted, dilapidated buildings inside the exclusion zone – off limits since the 1997 volcanic eruption.
“I’ve tried to be sensitive and aware of the possible public reaction. Not just the general public but islanders who owned or lived in those buildings. Without question, the reaction to those pictures has been overwhelming. I took a series of photos of a church in an exclusion zone, which has been abandoned since 1996. I wasn’t sure how people would react so I put them on our Facebook page with apprehension. The response was unanimously positive. I was taken aback by the compliments but also people told me it evoked memories of services and weddings they had attended over the years. I’ve been really encouraged by it and I hope it’s brought back some happy memories.”
“Is the light good here?” I asked.
“Photographers talk about the golden hour – half an hour before and after sunrise and sunset,” said Tony. “Light is still harsh an hour before sunset and afterwards the skies can turn bright red. It can be amazing. Even during the heat of the day you can find places and subjects where the light is really good – such as in the forest where the light is dappled.”
So Montserrat is a great place to come on holiday with a camera? “Absolutely,” said Tony. “It’s a great photography destination.”
I was gutted that I only had a chance to meet artist Shan Murrell on my last day on the island. Her gallery was closed while I was there but I bumped into her at the Java Lava Café. I wanted to buy one of the works and we chatted on email about shipping to the UK, but we were defeated by logistics.
Shan’s late mother was Monserratian and Shan moved to the island from Lancashire to live before returning to Preston following the uncertainties after the volcanic eruption. Now she’s back, producing beautiful prints and images of the island. Whilst many Caribbean artists use the bold, primary colours that they see every day in local flora and fauna, Shan’s work is muted and the colours are more Northern European – with earthy tones. I thought her work was some of the most appealing I’ve seen in my travels
I asked her which elements of the islands she most liked to capture? “The greenery, the hillsides and I love the beaches. You can go on any beach and if there’s more than two or three people there I think, ‘what are these people doing on my beach?’” she laughed. “I like the calmness, and peace and quiet and nature on the island. I have a nice network of friends and I do more artistically here than I do in the UK,” she added, in her rich Lancashire accent.
As a visitor you’ll feel brought into the circle when you walk in on a group of friends in a bar or café. I think that’s unlike anywhere else I’ve visited. Fly Montserrat’s Captain Nigel Harris told me that he has a better social life here than he does in England, even though there are only 5,000 residents. “Every night there is something going on,” he said.
There’s no nouvelle cuisine, experimental tasting menus or overpriced dining in Montserrat. It’s all good honest food and it’s affordable. “The food is wonderful here and you’ll find it in the rum shacks,” said Nigel.
Oliver and Meady open their bar in Salem at 7.30am and keep serving until the last customer has left in the evening. If you want really local food, try their ‘souse’. You can also sample pig trotters or goat heads. And if you want really fresh seafood, they fry fish on a Friday. Oliver goes spearfishing to catch the fish. If there’s been volcanic activity and the water is too murky, he relies on fish traps. “On a good day I can land 50lbs of fish in three hours,” he tells me.
I recommend the lion fish at Nanny’s Cafe too.
Similarly, the food at the Hilltop Café is excellent – particularly Clover Lea’s delicious vegetarian Mexican pie!
We’ve talked about local food. It’s worth mentioning the water, too. What comes out of the tap tastes superb. Locals are very proud of it
If you enjoy Montserrat and want to return, here’s a tip based on island folklore. Watercourses are known as ‘ghauts’. Local legend says if you drink the water in Runaway Ghaut, you will return to Montserrat. Maybe they could sell it at the airport. I hope I’ll be back for a third visit – and I’ve taken a sip as my own travel insurance!