“I live here and I hate the volcano,” Roderick Stewart confesses without shame—“I’d be just as happy if it went back to sleep.” But like a mother caring for a fitful baby, the Scottish scientist dedicates his days and nights to watching the split-second mood swings of Soufrière, the still-active stratovolcano on the Caribbean island of Montserrat.
As Montserrat’s resident volcanologist, Roderick knows the volcano better than anyone else. He understands its rhythms and outbursts and the possible dangers posed by the random (yet infrequent) explosions. When the slow build-up of andesite lava turns top-heavy, it explodes and shoots down a pyroclastic flow at speeds over 100 miles per hour.
“If you’re on the slopes when it comes down, you’ve got zero chance of survival,” says Roderick Stewart, as if giving me the weather report.
What does that mean for us visitors and the islanders who live here? Stay off the slopes, know where to go, and keep out of the Exclusion Zone—the “off-limits” area that makes up two-thirds of Montserrat.
The remaining third of Montserrat is a natural paradise: lush, green, wild, and wonderfully untainted by tourist development. Surely, the bright side to the 1997 eruption is that it’s kept the crowds away. Once home to some 20,000 islanders, the population dwindled down to a mere 2,000 during the darkest years of ash and smoke. Now, thanks to many Montserratians coming back from England, the island is back up to about 5,000 year-round residents. A small population and lack of major development has kept Montserrat free from the ills of mass tourism that plague the rest of the Caribbean. There are no high-rise hotels or all-inclusive resorts on the island; no cheesy restaurant chains or silly T-shirt shops or drunk spring breakers.
Visitors may rent private villas or stay in any number of low-key, tranquil guesthouses with veranda views of the smoking peak. Intimate, gourmet meals are served at private bistros like Ziggy’s or Watermelon Cottage, where the owner entertains guests on his own backyard porch, surrounded by the chirping frogs and tropical birds.
Twenty years without cruise ships means the beaches are empty and clean, the hills are blanketed with thick rainforest, and the underwater world is vibrant and alive. On a single afternoon dive I saw rare sponges flourish amongst the brilliant coral, diverse fish, numerous eels and stingrays—and all of this life right off the island’s only major pier, which is big enough for the ferry to Antigua, but too small for any major cruise ships.
Montserratians are proud of their pure island and its living ecosystem. Unlike so many other neighboring islands, Montserrat is free of litter, pollution, and crime. Travelers seeking the solitude, beauty and unhurried moments of yesteryear’s Caribbean will find it here. But how can they welcome a new wave of tourists without destroying everything that makes Montserrat special?
Selling a volcano is not easy, though it’s definitely a unique feature. From Antigua, tourists can take short helicopter rides for a peek at the volcano, but it’s a short-lived experience. More recently, Montserrat has begun chaperoned driving tours into the Exclusion Zone, where visitors can walk through the ruins of the former capital, Plymouth, which now lies buried under some 20 feet of ash and stone.
I joined the “Buried City Tour” along with a fresh batch of day-trippers just off their boat—a small-scale sailing cruise of a hundred or so guests, anchored well offshore.
“What country owns Montserrat?” one of them asks our tour guide, Rose, as if the whole of the Caribbean is merely a collection of store-bought islands.
“We are a British Overseas Territory,” replies Rose proudly and without blinking. She’s a schoolteacher by training and knows how to enlighten even the most uninformed tourist. She is the ambassador for a house on fire, though the island has been deemed safe enough for our long line of minivans to venture into the Exclusion Zone.
Equipped with radios, receivers and a serious police escort, we are a scene straight out of Jurassic Park. Down here, the island is overgrown and thick with tangled vines. Beyond the jungle lies a sweeping rocky plain rising up to the smoking volcano that still pumps over 350-tons of Sulfur Dioxide into the sky every day. All that’s missing is the thudding footsteps of a Tyrannosaurus rex, yet across the prehistoric landscape lie the stark, modern-day ruins of the city that once was: houses, shops, offices and restaurants—their empty doors and windows gaping like barren skulls.
What’s left of Plymouth leaves a haunting impression. Even from the safety of the vans, one sees modern concrete buildings shattered by the unbelievable force of nature. Over 10 feet of ash and mud have buried so much of the city, that in certain areas, only rooftops poke up from the dust—a bizarre, post-apocalyptic vision rarely experienced outside the movie theater. We leave the vans and walk through some of the more exposed remnants of the city, where time stands still. Papers and envelopes are stacked on desktops—piles of work made pointless by the pile of ash that fills up the floor and outside balconies. It is how I imagine a nuclear holocaust might look, where all life ended instantly, leaving only dead objects and empty, buried rooms.
“I lost every single thing,” Rose admits to us, “Even my drinking glasses. When the workers came to help fix up my new home, I invited them in for a drink—Only, I didn’t have anything to serve a drink in.” Once our schoolteacher tour guide reveals that she herself was a victim of the volcano, the questions turn macabre. Yes, she says, nineteen people died—people who broke the law and entered the Exclusion Zone before it was safe.
“The hot gas just cooked their lungs. Oh god, those dead people looked like mummies when they found them.” She starts to cry and the mood has changed from somber to silent discomfort. The wounds are still fresh on Montserrat—this is not Pompeii with 2,000 years of history to hide behind. The volcano is still alive and has affected every islander directly, though despite the pain of loss, they take pride in their tempestuous mountain. Because of the volcano, you can still drink directly from the clear streams that run down the hillsides, you can walk on a beach without finding any broken bottles, and if you lose your wallet, all you have to do is call the radio station and somebody will turn it in within the hour.
The volcano has kept Montserrat pure and natural, and visiting the Exclusion Zone let me witness firsthand the true strength of the island’s amazing nature. These ruins stand as a memorial to all those lost or hurt by the volcano, and underscores what sets Montserrat apart from any other island in the Caribbean.