Montserrat: An Emerald Rising Through The Ash

The island of Montserrat, a British Overseas Territory in the West Indies’ Lesser Antilles island chain, has been devastated by the forces of nature in its recent history, but could its fortunes as an overseas destination soon be on the rise again?

Dubbed the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean, due to its similarity to the coast of Ireland and because many of its early settlers were Irish, Montserrat was establishing itself as one of the most exclusive destinations in the Caribbean until it was hit by the 140 mile per hour winds of Hurricane Hugo in September 1989. Ninety percent of its buildings were damaged, and the task of rebuilding had hardly been completed when the island suffered an eruption of the previously dormant, Soufriere Hills Volcano, on July 18, 1995.

These catastrophes not only brought an end to the islands reputation as a haunt for celebrities, with record producer George Martin’s AIR Studio having previously attracted the likes of Paul McCartney and rock band, The Police, but the volcano also destroyed Plymouth, Montserrat’s capital, and left the southern half of the island in an ash-covered exclusion zone.

Continued rumblings from the volcano throughout the late 90’s and into this century ensured that Montserrat was still not every traveller’s destination of choice, but although the volcano vented ash as recently as March 23 this year, the remaining islanders have learned to live with it, and a steadily increasing flow of curious travellers are also finding their way across the thirty miles of ocean that separates Montserrat from Antigua. In fact, the volcano has itself become an attraction, with the British funded Montserrat Volcano Observatory, established after the ’95 eruption, welcoming visitors keen to learn about one of natures great untameable forces and to see it from a prominent vantage point.

But Montserrat is not just about the volcano. White beaches, forested hill walks, tropical birds and friendly islanders, all of whom were granted British citizenship in 2002, await new visitors. The Princess Royal opened a new airport in the northern part of the island in 2005, to replace the one destroyed by the eruption, and a new government centre has been established in the town of Brades.

The island is accessed from the UK via a flight to Antigua, and a short connecting flight with Fly Montserrat Airways. Check the baggage allowance with the local airline though, as the restrictions of a small aircraft necessitate travelling light. Accommodation is also still at a premium on the island, but informal and welcoming guesthouses are easily located on the Internet.

Those who have dreamt of owning a Caribbean property but have been hampered by a limited budget could also find that Montserrat provides a surprising option. The island’s estate agents can offer villas at a safe distance from the volcano, with sizeable plots, swimming pools and sea views, for under £200,000, a fraction of the cost of equivalent properties on neighbouring Islands.

The re-emergence of Montserrat and the determination of its people to defy what nature has thrown at it are all part of the island’s charm, and even a belligerent volcano is unlikely to prevent the Emerald from rising again.

Colin Gibson