Montserrat: Volcano Island

Montserrat is defined by its brooding volcano. The 1995 eruption buried Plymouth, the former capital, and charged through the chute provided by the old golf course. Some 8,000 people fled the island, and today the population is only  around 5,000. As a tiny outpost of the UK, it is possible to get a UK passport after working 8 years on Montserrat, which has attracted migrants from the Dominican Republic, Guyana and other Caribbean nations.

Plymouth remains in the Exclusion Zone, though sand harvesting has returned and tourists may be allowed in starting in January, 2015. It can be viewed from Garibaldi Hill in the Daytime Entry Zone, the hillsides of which have been reclaimed by the predominately American expat mansion owners. Jack Boy Hill is another vantage point, with views of the old, destroyed airport.

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I barely made it to Garibaldi Hill due to tropical storms in Antigua and LIAT’s operational problems. Montserrat is only accessed by small planes from flyMontserrat and SVG, and occasional ferries, all to Antigua. I was due to arrive Monday morning and did not until Tue night as the sun set. LIAT is notorious, that rebooking process was difficult enough. flyMontserrat was not going to refund even though Antigua Airport was closed Monday (“We do not refund for any reason, it was an Act of God.”). After some negotiation they waived the change fee to push my flights to Tuesday morning, which LIAT then made me miss while still stuck in Dominica. When I missed that they converted my ticket to ‘open,’ valid for a year. Just as they did that LIAT for operational reasons scrubbed another of my flights so I was stuck in Antigua.

I scrambled to rebook LIAT and flyMontserrat as the afternoon wore on. Their counters were next to each other at Antigua Airport and over two hours of back and forth the final result was LIAT was still not rebooked as I needed to be redirected straight to Barbados instead of 2 days in Guadeloupe, while flyMontserrat’s 16:00 flight departed and I nearly missed the last, 17:15, because they could not reissue my ticket. I finally just bought a new ticket before they closed the flight. Fortunately in some sense, between 16:00 and 17:00 flyMontserrat decided they wouldn’t fly 7:00 morning return, so the next counter was SVG with a morning return flight and one seat left. 3 ticket agents all in a row all struggling to get these tasks completed. I was so sick of LIAT and Antigua that I just wanted to do anything to get to Montserrat and never have to visit Antigua again.

What a relief after 48 hours of delays and frustration to be sailing in the air, breathing the sulfur on approach to Montserrat.

Montserrat Airport

Montserrat once had a legendary rock recording studio. Post-1995 visitors are few, usually with a personal connection to the island or on a day trip from Antigua. Volcano viewing is the main activity, and there are also hiking trails. Not a beach destination.

Upon arrival I phoned Gingerbread Hill and the American expat proprietors, 35-year island residents, and documentarians of the volcano, had their basic ‘backpacker room available,’ though I would need to let myself in since they were cooking dinner for the newly elected premier. A governor is appointed by the UK, while the premier is locally elected.

The only taxi driver greeting the flight, Be-Beep, knows the owners, indeed, knows everyone. For the price of the drop he took me on a meandering trip to a restaurant for takeout, a bank for ATM, and a supermarket. Internet had been out for two days island-wide and power was in and out. The restaurant had no power, though was still able to offer the default Caribbean choice, “fish or chicken.”

No one locks their doors. Keys are left in cars. Montserrat is fiercely proud of its tight-knit community.

Power was restored when I reached my room, I enjoyed my fish, and settled in for an early, unplugged night. Crap, forgot about the LIAT rebooking. That took another hour on the phone before finally getting resolved. I had booked using my US Bank FlexPerks points and their agent was able to break the logjam.

Montserrat Gingerbread Hill

Dawn returned Be-Beep and we bolted for Garibaldi Hill after a call to his friend at SVG to not let the flight depart. We had a quick peek at the top, a half hour later the sunrise would have been spectacular.

Montserrat Garibaldi Hill 01

Montserrat Garibaldi Hill 02

Far from the original plan, I still got my taste of Montserrat.

Along with similarly moody Saba, these are my favorites in the Caribbean.

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