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Volcanic eruptions on the pristine Caribbean island of Montserrat began in 1995 and have continued with brutal frequency. Two thirds of the population have up-and-gone and the capital city, Plymouth, was abandoned shortly before being completely destroyed. All in all, it was a pretty devastating mess, but the island slowly is moving forwards again.
The north side of the island, the safe side, is where the population is now centered. In some ways it resembles your average Caribbean island; that is, except for the ash rain that broods darkly in the sky occasionally. For this reason, we don't recommend going to Montserrat if you are looking for quiet times by beautiful beaches. There are other places for that. Montserrat is a chilling exploration of the destructive powers of nature. It may well be one of the Caribbean's most interesting destinations, just because of the lack of beaches.
Montserrat was populated by Arawak and Carib people when it was claimed by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage for Spain in 1493, naming the island Santa María de Montserrate, after the Blessed Virgin of the Monastery of Montserrat. The island fell under English control in 1632 when a group of Irish suffering anti-Catholic violence in Nevis, many of whom had been forcibly removed from Ireland as indentured servants, settled there. In 1782, during the American Revolutionary War, Montserrat was briefly captured by France. It was returned to the United Kingdom under the Treaty of Paris which ended that conflict. A failed slave uprising on 17 March 1798 led to Montserrat becoming one of a few places in the world that celebrates St Patrick's Day as a public holiday. Slavery was abolished in Montserrat in 1834.
From 1871 to 1958 Montserrat was administered as part of the Federal Colony of the Leeward Islands, becoming a province of the short-lived West Indies Federation from 1958 to 1962. In 1979, Beatles producer George Martin’s AIR Studios Montserrat opened and the island attracted world-famous musicians who came to record in the peace and quiet and lush tropical surroundings of Montserrat.
The last decade of the 20th century, however, brought two events which devastated the island. On September 17, 1989, the Category 5 Hurricane Hugo struck Montserrat with sustained winds of over 250 kilometres per hour, damaging over 90 percent of the structures on the island. AIR Studios closed, and the tourist trade upon which the island depended was nearly wiped out. Within a few years, however, the island had recovered considerably - only to be struck again by disaster.
In July 1995, Montserrat's Soufriere Hills volcano, dormant throughout recorded history, rumbled to life and began an eruption which eventually buried the island's capital, Plymouth, in more than 12 metres of mud, destroyed its airport and docking facilities, and rendered the southern half of the island uninhabitable. Following the destruction of Plymouth, more than half of the population left the island due to the economic disruption and lack of housing. After a period of regular eruptive events during the late 1990s, including one on June 25, 1997 in which 19 people died when they were overtaken by a pyroclastic flow, the volcano's activity in recent years has been confined mostly to infrequent ventings of ash into the uninhabited areas in the south. However, this ash venting does occasionally extend into the populated areas of the northern and western parts of the island. The southern part of the island has been evacuated and visits are severely restricted.
Today most of Montserrat remains lush and green. A new airport at Geralds in the north (renamed the John A. Osborne International Airport in 2008) was opened officially by Princess Anne, the Princess Royal in February 2005, and received its first commercial flights on July 11, 2005. Docking facilities are in place at Little Bay, where the new capital is being constructed. The people of Montserrat were granted full residency rights in the United Kingdom in 1998, and citizenship was granted in 2002.
The island of Montserrat is located approximately 480 kilometres east-southeast of Puerto Rico and 48 kilometres southwest of Antigua. It comprises 104 km2 but is currently gradually increasing in size owing to the buildup of volcanic deposits on the southeast coast. The island is 16 kilometres long and 11 kilometres wide, with rock cliffs rising 15 to 30 metres above the sea and a number of smooth bottomed sandy beaches scattered among coves on the western (Caribbean) side of the island. Montserrat has two islets, Little Redonda and Virgin, and Statue Rock.
Montserrat is made up of 3 parishes:
The Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO; see below) has divided the at-risk areas of the island into zones as part of a Hazard Level System. A map on MVO's website (mvo.ms) updates frequently to indicate the level of permitted access for each zone by one of four colours: green (unrestricted), yellow (daytime access or transit), orange (controlled access), and red (authorised access only).
Volcano viewing is one of the big activities now in Montserrat, because it is one of the few places in the world where travellers can see an active volcano and its destructive power. Although it is not possible to visit the Exclusion Zone, which covers the entire south eastern half of the island, including the capital of Plymouth and an additional four kilometres off the shore, it is possible to see it from a distance. Some say the views of seeing a city slowly being engulfed every year more and more by mud and ash can be intense. Some of the best places for viewing are:
The Soufrière Hills Volcano has to be constantly monitored and the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO) does that in the town of Flemmings. The MVO provides up to date information on the volcano to the general public. There is also the Interpretation Centre, inside the MVO, that has exhibits with videos, touch screen computers, artefacts and posters that explain the geology of the area. They also explain how scientists monitor the seismic activity, gas emissions, ground deformation and environmental impacts caused by the volcano. The center is open from 10:15 am to 3:00 pm Monday to Thursday.
Montserrat has some amazing diving (and snorkelling for that matter of course). The volcanic activity that has left the southern half of the island un-inhabitable has made the coral strong. The underwater life has become very powerful in the last few years and there is diving to be found at all different experience levels. Another interesting diving experience is actually seeing the affects of the volcanic activity and pyroclastic flows have underwater. The main dive areas are from Old Road Bluff in the west all the way to North West Bluff, which is around the northern shore, towards Hell's Gate in the north-eastern corner. Then also along the eastern shore towards the border of the Volcanic Maritime Exclusion Zone.
In Montserrat, the lively festivities marking Ireland’s national holiday last an entire week. On the "other emerald isle," St Patrick’s celebrates both Ireland and the anniversary of the Montserrat slave uprising on March 17, 1768. Like Ireland, the day is marked by plenty of drinking, partying and a lively parade. However, Montserrat’s St Patrick’s Day Festival also includes masked street dancers called Masqueraders, a recreated slave village complete with a slave feast of local food and a junior calypso competition. The Freedom Run between Cudjoe Head and Salem Park also takes place along with kite flying, top spinning and unique music combining African and Irish influences.
The Calabash Festival is a celebration of Montserrat’s most useful fruit, from which many of the island’s traditional musical instruments, eating implements and other items are made. A cricket match, gospel concert, island boat tour, and Irish lecture series are all on the regular schedule of this seven-day event concluding with a nail and hair show followed by a jazz concert.
The Montserrat village of Cudjoe Head was named after a slave who fled from his master during the 18th century. Cudjoe was eventually caught, lynched, and beheaded. The slave’s head was perched on a silk cotton tree as a terrifying reminder of the consequences of running away. Today, Cudjoe Head Eve kicks off the festival with a lively street party filled with vendors, music and fun. This two-day August event includes a string band and masquerades along with bikes and relay races.
The Montserrat International Fishing Tournament usually takes place in October and attracts anglers from all over the world. Montserrat’s tourist board and fisherman’s cooperative are the co-organizers of the thrilling tournament.
Montserrat’s biggest literary festival takes place for three days in mid-November. Authors and bibliophiles come for bird watching, hiking and Soufrière Hills Volcano viewing parties in addition to fascinating literary workshops, readings, lectures, and panel discussions.
Montserrat’s biggest running event, the Annual Volcano Half-Marathon & Fun Run/Walk takes participants past the former AIR Studios entrance, the Montserrat Cultural Centre and Soufrière Hills Volcano. More casual joggers and walkers can participate in the shorter five-mile track. All proceeds go towards Montserrat charities.
Montserrat’s take on traditional Caribbean festivities runs from mid-December until the New Year. It's a homecoming for several former residents who fled the island after the Soufrière Hills Volcano to come back and enjoy Christmastime and celebrate Carnival, featuring beauty pageants, calypso competitions and lively street parties. Montserrat’s famous Masqueraders are among the most unusual dancers during the final New Year’s Day costume parade. The 50th anniversary is upcoming and expected to be the biggest and boldest celebration yet.
Montserrat has a hot and humid tropical climate with average daytime temperatures between 28 °C and 30 °C and average nights around 23 °C. Most rain falls between June and October with a change of hurricanes from August onwards. Therefore, the drier (and slightly cooler) December to April period is the best time to visit weatherwise. Unfortunately prices rise sharply during this period and the months of November and May still have good weather. So budgetwise these latter months may be a good option as well.
Several tour operators in Antigua offer day excursions to Montserrat, including observation of the Soufrière Hills volcano. Charter helicopters from Antigua offer another way to view the volcano.
Gerald's Airport (MNI) is a small international airport that opened in 2005 to replace the old airport which was destroyed in the eruption of 1997. Currently the only regular flights are:
From the 1st of June 2009, local Montserrat Airways Limited is going to operate flights with small 9-seater planes to and from Antigua and probably later on to islands like Guadeloupe, Saint Kitts and Nevis.
The MV Fjortof is operated by Twin Islands Ferry Service Ltd (TIFS) and commenced regular ferry services to Montserrat from Antigua in December 2009, with a one-way trip time of approximately 90 minutes. The fares for the ferry service are EC$125.00 for a one-way-trip, EC$250.00 for an adult return trip and children under 12 pay EC$120 (US$1 = EC$2.65). Each passenger is allowed 2 pieces of baggage free of charge and any additional baggage is charged at EC $50.00 per piece.
No advance ticketing is required, as travelers can purchase their tickets upon check-in. To facilitate ticketing, check-in and other clearances at the point of sale at the ports, passengers are asked to check in 90 minutes in advance when travelling from Antigua and 60 minutes before the scheduled time for departure in Montserrat. In order to ensure continuity of service during the busy upcoming winter season, TIFS will have a backup ferry available to provide cover as may be required.
Travellers coming to Montserrat for the winter 2010-2011 period will benefit significantly from an expanded ferry service to the island from Antigua. From December 1st, 2010, the MV Fjortof ferry will operate the following schedule:
For further information on the service contact Twin Islands Ferry Service Ltd by phone at (268) 464 8474 or email email@example.com. Additional information on the ferry service, updates, as well as general tourism information can be found at Visit Montserrat.
Since years, the southern part of Montserrat has been off limits for travellers. Only scientists and other people with special permission can go into the exclusion zone. There used to be a zone which you could only enter at daylight, but even this small transition zone has been closed. There are good views however at the volcano and the former capital, Plymouth, from several places. Also, the former airport is viewable from a hilltop.
Montserrat has narrow and hilly roads, but in a good condition. Distances are small but still renting a car for a day or two is a great decision and you won't have to rely on public transport or tours. Driving is on the left.
Bikes are also available if you feel active.
Minivans provide the bus service around the island. There is a fixed prices no matter how long you stay in the bus.
Although there are no timetables or official stops, you can flag one down and leave the bus anywhere you like.
Taxis have fixed rates as well, albeit much higher, and they can double as tour guides as well.
Only be chartered yachts from Littel Bay.
Proof of citizenship is required. United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and CARICOM citizens may present a driver's licence or other government photo ID; all others require passports. Visitors from Cuba require visas, obtainable from British Consular offices. All visitors must have tickets for departure, proof of accommodation, and funds to cover their expenses while on Montserrat.
See also Money Matters
The currency of Montserrat is the Eastern Caribbean Dollar, or EC$. It has existed since 1965 and is used by 7 other states of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States as well. Only the British Virgin Islands (the nineth member) doesn't use it, but uses the US$ instead. The EC$ is subdivided into 100 cents and has been pegged to the United States dollar at US$1 = EC$2.7 since 1976. The EC$ comes in coins of 1, 2, 5, 10 and 25 cents and a coins of 1 dollar. There are notes of 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 dollar.
The people of Montserrat all speak English (British variety), albeit with a local accent.
Most establishments are casual. Some bars on the beach are okay with folks walking right in sand and all.
Most meal choices consist of chicken or seafood, with most having a red meat option, though the type of meat various greatly. Few places are open at night for dinner, and most of those that are require reservations (not because they're fancy or expensive, but because business is slower and they want to ensure they have fresh food available).
Montserrat isn't your typical Caribbean beach destinations, and few luxurious or all-inclusive style resorts exist. Also, there aren't that many beaches. Nature and activities are of more importance on Montserrat. Still, the island has a growing amount of great hotels, guesthouses and smaller places, sometimes with a pool and great views.
Villa rental for long term stays is popular as well. All of them are located in the northern half of the island, as the southern part is off limits since the volcanic eruption of 1997.
See also Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Montserrat. There is one exception though. You need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering Montserrat) where that disease is widely prevalent.
It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Montserrat. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and vaccination against hepatitis B and typhoid are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.
Dengue sometimes occurs as well. There is no vaccination, so buy mosquito repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net. Also wear long sleeves if possible.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also Travel Safety
Montserrat is generally a safe place, however in recent years, violent crime has increased. General safety precautions, including such as not walking in an alleyway at night, are advised.
The main concern probably is driving along the winding and narrow roads and the potential danger of the volcano.
Like almost all Caribbean islands, Montserrat may experience a tropical storm or even a hurricane during the season from June to November.
Volcanic eruptions still pose some danger, though volcanic activity has been primarily on the level of a nuisance in recent years. Travel to the Soufrière Hills Volcano Hazard Zone on the south end of the island is generally not permitted, for safety reasons. The Montserrat Volcano Observatory (mvo.ms) publishes current risk assessments and exclusion zone limits.
The Montserrat Public Library (+1 664 491-4706), next to the BBC Building at Brades, offers Internet e-mail computers.
See also International Telephone Calls
The General Post Office (+1 664 491-2457) is in the Government House at Brades, postcode MSR 1110.
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