Happy New Year! May the new year bring you peace, happiness, and journeys to unexpected destinations. Like the island of Montserrat.
This British Overseas Territory, which is located southwest of Antigua, used to be the jewel of the Caribbean. It was called the Emerald Isle because it looked so much like Ireland. Wealthy vacationers flocked to the lush, mountainous island that’s about the size of Manhattan, and famous musicians fell in love with AIR Studios, an isolated recording studio.
But then two disasters struck this little paradise. First, Hurricane Hugo pounded Montserrat, destroying many tourist facilities and closing the recording studio in 1989. Six years later, Soufrière Hills, a long-dormant volcano, erupted, covering the capital, the airport, and the southern half of island in nearly 40 feet of mud and ash. Two thirds of the population fled, volcanic activity continues to this day, and half of Montserrat is now considered an exclusion zone that’s off-limits to everyone except researchers and safety personnel.
So why visit a place that sounds like a war-torn country? Because it’s absolutely beautiful. Picture rocky cliffs, ever-expanding beaches, and volcano views. Because it has some of the best undisturbed snorkeling and scuba diving in the Caribbean. Imagine Four-eyed Butterflyfish, copper sweepers, and six-foot barrel sponges. And because you can get so close to an active volcano.
Take the ferry over from Antigua. You’ll arrive in Little Bay, a new town on the northwestern coast that will become the island’s new capital. Begin your exploration at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory. You’ll watch a short video about the island’s destruction and have a perfect view of the crater. Follow the winding road–you’ll probably pass a lot of roaming goats–to Jack Boy Hill, an observation area over the old airport. As you stand there trying to comprehend what used to be in front of you, boulders rolling down the hill create clouds of dust. And Garibaldi Hill is the closest you can get to Plymouth, the still-submerged former capital.
Head north, back to civilization again. Hike through the rainforest on the Oriole Walkway, where you’ll see black-and-yellow Montserrat Orioles, the national bird, darting in every direction. Explore black-sand beaches, like Woodlands Beach, with shallow reefs and bat-filled caves. Take the water taxi to Rendezvous Bay, the island’s only white-sand beach. You can snorkel among porcupinefish and snake eels in the quiet cove. Or visit Redonda, an uninhabited offshore island, to scuba dive among eagle rays, stingrays, and nurse sharks.
Regardless of how you spend your day, it will most likely end at Soca Cabana. The old shack overlooks the beach. It’s bamboo bar was rescued from AIR Studios. And half of the island hangs out here, particularly on Sunday nights. You could eat the same freshly caught fish or drink a similar sweet rum drink on many of the nearby islands. But when the reggae music starts, you’ll begin to see the soul of Montserrat and understand why you’re continually drawn to unexpected destinations.