Montserrat – the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean – at 39 square miles is one of the smaller tourist destinations in the region. And nearly 20 years ago, life on this idyllic island paradise changed forever when the Soufriere Hills Volcano erupted and rendered two-thirds of the island including the former capital Plymouth uninhabitable. The population plummeted from a high of 12,000 to just a few thousand and at one-point discussions were held about closing the island. However, continued support by the British government and investment by some private entities has seen the island making a comeback! The population is now a healthy 5,000 with further growth projected and a new capital in Little Bay is in development. Montserrat before the volcano and even now is popular with people who are interested in ecotourism, volcano tourism, hiking, bird watching and scuba diving. The island also has strong appeal for those who want to experience the Caribbean the way it used to be. Below I list in no particular order, 10 of the more popular tourist attractions in Montserrat.
1. Soufrière Hills Volcano
The Soufrière Hills Volcano reawakened from its 400-year slumber on 18th July 1995. Eruptions continued finally peaking on 25 June 1997. The result is that two-thirds of the island was left covered in volcanic ash. In fact, much of the tourism infrastructure including the former airport and capital was buried beneath the volcanic ash. Things have since quieted back down with the volcano and its safe to visit the island to see how this sleeping giant has transformed Montserrat. One of the best places on the island to view and learn more about the volcano is the Montserrat Volcano Observatory. Located in Salem, you can get a fantastic view of the volcano, Belham Valley and Plymouth from the Observatory’s viewing deck. Visitors can also view informative posters and artefacts and watch a documentary detailing the history and impact of the eruptions. The experience is both informative and educational.
2. Former Capital: Plymouth
Prior to the Soufrière Hills Volcano erupting, Plymouth one of the prettiest Caribbean towns was the capital and hub of Montserrat. That all changed after the eruptions as the main docking harbor, much of the government infrastructure, as well as commercial services, markets, and shops were buried under layers of ash, mud and stone deposited by the pyroclastic activities. So too was the Evergreen Roundabout a popular liming spot for people from all parts of the island who came to town for work or to do their weekly shop. Plymouth now makes up part of the Exclusion Zone but was recently opened up to tourists who can marvel at the Caribbean’s answer to the Italian city Pompeii. Once thriving and full of life and activity, things are very much at a standstill, and many of the Georgian buildings are barely visible under the mounds of volcanic ash. It all now resembles a dusk covered lunarscape and is an archeological treasure worthy of being added to the sites in the Caribbean with UNESCO World Heritage status.
3. Garibaldi Hill & Jack Boy Hill
Garibaldi Hill and Jack Boy Hill are two great viewing spots on opposite sides to take in a wide angle view of the Soufrière Hills Volcano and much of the island. Garibaldi Hill on the southwest side of the island is accessed through the Belham Valley via a once gorgeous golf course, now also covered by volcanic ash and mud. The road to the top of Garibaldi Hill is winding and at times somewhat extremely rugged, so a 4X4 vehicle is recommended. At the top of Garibaldi Hill, you will be rewarded with sweeping views of still lush and green Salem, Old Towne and much of the buried city of Plymouth. Jack Boy Hill on the northeast side of the island provides another vantage point to marvel at the volcano, in particular, the old W.H. Bramble Airport and eastern villages that were also damaged by the pyroclastic flows. Surrounded by a flower garden, you’ll find a BBQ grill and tables for a picnic as well as a telescope to get a birds-eye view of the area including new beach formed as a result of volcanic activity.
4. Runaway Ghaut
Montserrat has many deep ravines and ghauts that carry rainwater from the hills down to the sea. The most famous of all is Runaway Ghaut located on the side of the road north of Salem and is in the general vicinity of a long ago bloody colonial skirmish between the British and French. A walking trail in also in this area and the legend goes that anyone who drinks the fresh water from this ghaut will be drawn back to Montserrat time and time again.
5. Hiking & Birdwatching
The rugged, green and lush landscape of Montserrat lends itself well to hiking. Plus there is an abundance of plant and animal life to be seen including 132 tree species, 13 mammal species and 117 species of birds. In terms of hiking, there are over 12 clearly marked trails including moderate ones like Blackwood Allen Trail, Dry Waterfall Trail and the Oriole Walkway Trail a popular trail in the Centre Hills. These you can experience on your own or better yet with legendary tour guide James “Scriber” Daley of Scriber’s Adventure Tours. Not only will Scriber point out all the various plant and animal species, but for those who are keen on bird watching, he is a master at mimicking the calling sounds of the various birds increasing the probability that you’ll see one or more birds including the national bird, the Montserrat oriole.
Montserrat: Tour guide James “Scriber” Daley at the start of the Oriole Walkway Nature Trail. Photo: ©Ursula Petula Barzey.
6. Montserrat National Trust
The Montserrat National Trust is the go place to learn more about the island’s history and culture from the pre-Columbian times to present. There are rotating exhibitions on display, and the permanent exhibition includes photographs of the volcano, the former capital Plymouth and the flora/fauna on Montserrat. Beyond the museum, there is a beautiful botanical garden for exploration at one’s leisure. In addition, there is a gift shop to purchase a map of the hiking trails and other trinkets from the island.
7. Diving & Snorkeling
Montserrat is one of the more serene places to go diving in the Caribbean. The island is free from the crowds found at most other Caribbean diving destinations plus the water is warm and the visibility pristine. Around the island, there are about 30 different diving sites. More popular diving sites include those around Lime Kiln Bay, Bunkum Bay, Woodlands Bay, Little Redonda and Foxes Bay. Rendezvous Bay is also popular for divers of all levels with both shallow and deep-water sections. Located here is the famous Bat Cave where fruit bats hang in partly submerged caves. Further out from the island is Redonda popular for its wrecks and reef sharks. Overall, the reefs surrounding Montserrat are teeming with hard corals, sponges and swarms of colorful tropical fish. Plus depending on the time of year you visit, you may also be lucky enough to large sea turtles.
Montserrat: A group of snorkelers. Photo: ©Montserrat Tourist Board.
8. New Capital: Little Bay
With Plymouth buried under volcanic ash and mud, the government and most commercial businesses have set up base in the North. The government is currently seeking investment to build a new town in Little Bay that will include civic and government buildings alongside a new port, marina, hotels, residences and commercial properties. Currently built in Little Bay are the new Montserrat Public Market and the Montserrat Cultural Centre funded by many including ex-Beatles producer, Sir George Martin. He has an affinity for Montserrat as in 1979 he set up Air Studios on the island and recorded with the likes of Sir Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Wonder. Also newly built is the Montserrat Sports Complex used for regional basketball and netball tournaments. Beyond this, Little Bay is the current hub for several bars, restaurants, and a beautiful beach.
9. Rendezvous Bay Beach
There are a number of beaches on Montserrat including Carr’s Bay, Little Bay, Woodlands, Bunkum Bay, Old Road Bay and Rendezvous Bay Beach. As a result of the volcano, most are light-grey to dark-grey sanded beaches. The only exception is Rendezvous Bay Beach, the island’s only white sand beach. Tucked in a cove under a forested cliff, Rendezvous Bay Beach is only accessible by a short boat ride from Little Bay Beach or from hiking up and then down the Silver Hills area in the north. There are no regular facilities at this beach, however, due to location, it is totally worth the journey, as you’ll most often have it to yourself. It’s a great place to swim, snorkel, relax and unwind.
Montserrat: Rendezvous Bay Beach. Photo: ©Zena Tuitt.
Festivals are one of the main reasons people visit Montserrat. In fact, the island’s population gets close to doubling during the year-end Montserrat Festival as members of the Montserrat Diaspora as well as tourists gather for the festivities that run from mid-December to early January. This is Montserrat’s version of a Caribbean carnival and includes beauty pageants, calypso and soca competitions, steel pan showcases, jump-ups, parades and fetes with the world famous Montserrat Masqueraders making numerous appearances. Another popular festival is the Montserrat St Patrick’s Festival, a weeklong celebration of the island’s Irish heritage. Montserrat’s African heritage is also celebrated during the week with a commemoration of the bloody slave uprising which happened on St Patrick’s Day, March 17th, 1768. Rounding out the list of top three festivals, is the Calabash Festival held each July to commemorate the volcanic eruption, as well as showcase the rich culture and heritage of the island and its people.
So will you be considering Montserrat for your next Caribbean getaway? The island is not only of the most unique in the Caribbean but also one of the friendliest and safest in the region. Montserrat can be accessed daily via Antigua by a 2-hour ferry or 15-minute flight.
For flight and hotel deals to Montserrat via Antigua & Barbuda, check out our Caribbean travel partner, Expedia.com.
Top photo – Montserrat: View of Little Bay Beach. Photo: ©Hypnotik Frames.
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