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This island was a very popular tourist destination until Hurricane Hugo caused widespread damage in 1989 and then in 1995, the island's volcano, Soufrière Hills, became active. A large part of the island was evacuated as a result. There have been on-going volcanic eruptions in the southern half of the island since that time, and that part of the island (the exclusion zone) is now ash-strewn and inaccessible.
The northern half of the island is untouched, as beautiful as it ever was, green and lush; visiting it is perfectly safe. The active volcano (which can be viewed from a good distance) has become a tourist attraction in its own right. Montserrat is still well worth visiting, and the locals go out of their way to be encouraging and welcoming to tourists.
Colonisation dates to the 1600s; a gun battery was strategically placed at Carr’s Bay in 1624 to defend the island against approaching ships. Montserrat was initially an agricultural economy; plantations and sugar mills were common in the 1700s with sugar cane juice and molasses processed for local consumption and export. Later, the well-to-do built their estate houses on the island; an elaborate main house was often a landmark because of its size and numerous rooms. In 1857 Joseph Sturge established the Montserrat Company, which cultivated lime fruit for export and sold small plots of land to settlers. Various old churches date to the late 19th or early 20th century. The first air charter flights on the island began in 1956; an eleven-hole golf course (now defunct) opened in the Belham River Valley in response to growth in tourism in the 1960s. A well-equipped recording studio, established by Beatles producer George Martin in 1979, attracted a long list of popular musicians in its one decade of operation. Tiny Montserrat promoted itself as "the way the Caribbean used to be".
Montserrat has been hit hard by the four elements, both from without and from within. First the wind and waves of Hurricane Hugo swept through in 1989, damaging 90% of the island's structures. Then the earth and fire welled up in 1995, with the volcano of Soufrière Hills forcing the long-term evacuation of 2/3 of the island's population, and closing the old airport and seaport in June 1997.
The capital, Plymouth, is now covered by 40 feet of ash, earning its nickname "the new Pompeii", and much of the rest of the southern part of the island is now quite uninhabitable and unusable. Government offices have since been set up in Brades on the northwest shore of the island, out of harm's way. Much of the island's population has returned, with estimates ranging from 4,700 to 9,500, compared to the pre-Hugo/Soufrière high of over 12,000. A new town is being built at Little Bay and the new port there is being expanded.
Temperatures year-around average between 76-88°F (24-32°C), with constant cooling breezes. Rainfall is a little more common from July to November.
Montserrat is small, but getting larger. The erupting volcano is gradually extending the southern end of the island. The northern part of the island is mostly quite hilly.
Regions and settlements
Montserrat had traditionally been divided into three parishes; since the 1995 volcanic eruption, only one (Saint Peter, which is Northern Montserrat) is inhabited.
Villages in the northern part of the island include:
- 1 Brades. The de facto capital
- Little Bay. The new port, which is rapidly expanding to become a new town
- Saint John's.
The northern zone of Montserrat has a number of different beaches. Each one has its own appeal and all are worth visiting.
The old capital town, Plymouth, was in the south and has been destroyed or buried by volcanic eruption. While the Soufrière Hills Volcano Hazard Zone in the south is (de-facto) never publicly accessible, the level of access to Central Montserrat Hazard Zones in the centre of the island is variable, based on current volcanic activity levels.
The Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO) 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).
Northern Montserrat, the area not covered by the Hazard Level System, offers unrestricted access and is home to the majority of residents and attractions. Brades, the de facto capital, and the new John A. Osborne Airport are here.
|Central Montserrat Hazard Zones
The Central Hazard Zones include four hazard zones that sometimes allow full or partial access. Zones A and B often allow full unrestricted access, while Zones C and F allow daytime access only; the MVO has been known to close Zone C for long stretches of time.
|Soufrière Hills Volcano Hazard Zone
The Soufrière Hills Volcano Hazard Zone, or Zone V in the Hazard Level System, includes the Soufrière Hills volcano and the abandoned capital Plymouth. The 1995 eruption of the volcano covered the whole area with volcanic debris. The volcano continues to erupt and for your own safety, you currently cannot enter this area. In theory, this area would be opened for daytime use only if a year were to pass with no volcanic activity, something which has not occurred. Maritime transit is currently not permitted off the eastern coast (Zone E) but is often permitted off the western coast (Zone W) during daytime hours, provided that boats do not stop.
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.
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.
Antigua-based day tours, such as Carib World Travel [dead link] and Jenny Montserrat Tours, typically package existing scheduled flights or ferry runs to reach Montserrat. Any same-day boat tour will therefore be limited to days with more than one scheduled ferry run (Tue, Thu, sometimes Sat). Once in Montserrat, the tours typically offer a view of the volcano sites or a boat tour to Plymouth.
Antigua's customs departure taxes are EC$37.50/US$15.00 per person. Montserrat departure taxes are EC$10.00/US$4.00 per person for same-day trips, higher for an overnight stay. Many of the advertised package prices do not include this extra cost.
- Fly Montserrat, http://flymontserrat.com, ☎ . Scheduled flights twice daily between Antigua and the John A. Osborne Airport (IATA: MNI) near Gerald's. The Britten Normal Islander aircraft seat nine people with very limited luggage space for a 20 minute flight with amazing views of Antigua, Montserrat and other islands in the distance. Approx US$118 (one-way, adult), US$201.90 (return). Private charters Antigua-Montserrat from US$950 (one way)..
The primary transportation harbour (the new port) is at Little Bay, north of Brades. Since 2014, Little Bay has been the target of redevelopment. Regular ferry service from Antigua was interrupted in April 2016, but has returned under a new operator; check the schedule in advance. On some public holidays there may be boat tours with fantastic views of the volcano, pyroclastic flows, abandoned and destroyed towns as well as beautiful scenery.
- Jaden Sun, Port Little Bay, Montserrat, ☎ . Fast 218-passenger ferry to Antigua, runs 3-6 times weekly starting December 2016, provides luggage and small cargo services. Additional accommodation to dock at the Old Plymouth Jetty as required. One trip daily on Friday and Sunday, no service Monday, three trips daily on Tuesday and Thursday. Saturday may have one or multiple trips, depending on season. A special schedule applies on the St. Patrick's Day weekend. The crossing takes 90 minutes, but passengers are asked to check in 90 minutes before departure; additional charges apply for additional baggage beyond two bags. EC$300/adult, half-price for under-12's.
Traffic drives on the left. Montserrat has one main two-lane road that winds along the coast on the east and west sides of the island. Cars can be rented from several businesses. Traffic is light (there are no traffic lights) but there are only two gas/petrol stations on the island. In 2011, a 4-door Suzuki Vitara (residents would call it a Jeep) rented for approx $250 US dollars per week.
A temporary Montserrat driver's license can be obtained at the police station in Brades or Salem, all that is required is a completed form, presentation of your home country/territory license, and a payment of US$20 or EC$50.
Bicycle rentals are also available. Taxis and buses run, mostly during the day. Hitch-hiking, during the day and early evening is safe and considered normal - just point your finger in the direction you are going.
Walking, while safe and possible to all points, is quite an arduous task, as the roads traverse very steep hills. Locals tend to walk within a local village or housing area, but find other transport from village to village.
The people of Montserrat all speak English (British variety), albeit with a local accent.
The volcano! An observation area on Jack Boy Hill on the eastern side gives a view of the ash flows covering the old airport. Huge boulders may sometimes be seen, crashing down the slope in a cloud of dust. Tours into the exclusion zone are sometimes possible, depending entirely on the official volcano risk level as assessed by the Montserrat Volcano Observatory staff. If you are able to go into the exclusion zone you will pass through a landscape of abandoned homes and fields, see the volcano close-up, and gaze down at the old capital of Plymouth, now buried in ash and mud. As of January 2012 no one other than government officials and scientists was permitted into what little remains of Plymouth.
- Boat tours around the island are one way to see what remains of the capital city and airport, although they are not permitted to stop or disembark in Plymouth. Various operators include Hubert ‘Buffy’ Buffonge in Little Bay (+1 664 492-1590) and Danny Sweeney in Old Towne (+1 664 496-0574); tour duration is about two hours.
- 1 Montserrat Volcano Observatory, Olde Towne (northwest of the volcano). MVO's observation deck and Visitors Centre are open Monday-Thursday with informative poster displays, interactive kiosks, a display of artefacts and a fabulous view of the volcano. A documentary (shown a quarter past every hour, 10:15 - 3:15) describes the history and impact of the eruption.
- 2 AIR Studios Montserrat (abandoned), near Waterworks Estate House, Frith. Associated Independent Recording (AIR), founded 1965 by Beatles producer George Martin, relocated here in 1979. Jimmy Buffett’s 1979 album "Volcano" was recorded here, as were albums by Dire Straits, The Police, Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Elton John, Duran Duran, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Ultravox, The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, Black Sabbath and Eric Clapton. The building still stands, in ruins, abandoned after 1989's Hurricane Hugo inflicted heavy damage. The pool is empty, the restaurant and bar are closed. All recording equipment was removed and the studios returned to London.
- Montserrat Cultural Centre, Little Bay, ☎ . Conference centre with 500-seat auditorium and stage, cinema and concert venue, bar and banquet facility, recording studio, souvenir shop, outdoor stage for open-air performances. Constructed 2007 with funds raised by musicians who had recorded in Montserrat in its heyday; a ‘Wall of Fame' displays bronze hand-prints of famous performers including Elton John and Paul McCartney.
- Montserrat Museum, Little Bay. Montserrat’s history and culture, pre-Columbian to Modern day. An adjacent Little Bay Plantation site hosts an archaeological project.
- Centre Hills. Bird watching: thirty-four species of resident land birds and migrant songbirds including Montserrat's rare national bird, the Montserrat Oriole. Species near extinction include the Montserrat oriole, Montserrat galliwasp, mountain chicken, forest thrush, yellow-shouldered bat and white-lined bat. Eight hiking trails. Guided tours and printed guides are available for a fee through the Montserrat National Trust or private operators.
Montserrat is blessed with natural beauty, with lush tropical forests crossed by trails of varying difficulty. Many can be enjoyed on your own, however, some require a guide to make the path clear. Stop by the National Trust or Tourist Information for a map.
Montserrat is known for its quiet beaches. Check out each one, they are all different. The island is surrounded by reefs; snorkelling and scuba diving can be enjoyed from shore or by boat. Redonda, a steep uninhabited island 15 miles to the Northwest of Montserrat, is a scuba destination with six-foot barrel sponges, Eagle Rays, Stingrays, and the occasional nurse shark.
Little Bay has a good solid pier where boats dock but no breakwater yet (as of 2014, one is proposed). As scuba and tour boats operate from this pier, tours may be cancelled for a day or two if there's a strong southerly wind with big swells. Once the weather changes, the boats can get out. Be prepared to go hiking, sightseeing, or just relaxing by the pool or at the beach while waiting for the seas to calm enough for the boats to be able to leave Little Bay.
Scuba Montserrat in Little Bay offers diving, snorkelling, daily diving, full courses, clear bottom kayaks, volcano boat tours and equipment. Green Monkey Dive Shop was closed (as of Jan 2014) as a hotel is to be built on their Little Bay site. The Tourist Board has listings of local guides for other boat tours or land excursions.
Carr’s Bay Gun Battery is now a picnic area; the ruins of the master's house at Carr’s Plantation remain visible at Little Bay.
Among radio amateurs, a confirmed country or island contact with a Montserrat VP2M callsign is a rare catch. Fewer than two dozen active "ham" operators live on the island. The Montserrat Amateur Radio Society can provide a local callsign to a visiting, foreign-licensed radio amateur on eight weeks notice. Over a busy ham radio contest weekend, CQ CQ CQ DE VP2M... might get a few thousand responses as hams worldwide seek a rare contact for the logbooks.
- St. Patrick's Festival, Salem, Brades, Little Bay, Cudjoe (multiple venues). March. A week-long celebration of Irish heritage begins the previous weekend and continues through to St. Patrick's Day (in the 1700s, the island was a haven for Irish Catholics).
- Montserrat Calabash Festival. Third week in July. African and Caribbean culture and music.
- [dead link]Montserrat Festival. Last two weeks of December. Christmas and holiday carnival.
Exchange rates for Eastern Caribbean dollars (EC$)
As of January 2017:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from XE.com
The currency of the country is the East Caribbean dollar, denoted by the symbol: "$" or "EC$" (ISO currency code: XCD), which is also used by seven other island nations in the Caribbean. The EC dollar is subdivided into 100 cents. It is pegged to the United States dollar at an exchange rate of US$1 = EC$2.70.
Coins circulate in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10 and 25 cents and 1 dollar. Banknotes circulate in denominations of 10, 20, 50, and 100 dollars.
Often, accommodations are priced in the more valuable US dollar, so the designation EC$ is useful to distinguish the two.
Items for sale in shops are generally 'expensive' compared to US and European standards.
Shops take cash, and may not accept debit cards. Also as a bonus, the ferry service only takes cash!
There are only two ATMs on the island, but the Bank of Montserrat cannot withdraw from international accounts (not even UK). As with the rest of the Caribbean the Royal Bank of Canada charges a flat fee of US$4.50 to withdraw, so if you want to avoid fees or being in a cashless state, stock up in your previous ECD currency country!
- Bank of Montserrat, Brades Main Road, ☎ . M-F 8AM-2PM; closes W 1PM, F 3PM.
- Royal Bank of Canada, Brades Main Road, ☎ . M-F 9AM-2PM; closes W 1PM, F 3PM.
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.)
There are no international fast-food chains on Montserrat.
- The Attic, Olveston Estate Drive (turn right off the Salem Main Road, just below the National Trust), ☎ . Roti for lunch.
- Emerald Rose Restaurant, St. Johns, ☎ , fax: .
- Gourmet Gardens, Olveston, ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Part of the old Olveston Estate. Sunday brunch. Eat on a patio overlooking the garden or inside the classic gingerbread house.
- La Colage, Sweeney’s, ☎ .
- Tina’s Restaurant, Brades Main Road, ☎ . Green wooden building on main road. Licensed. Tina's, La Colage and Emerald Rose offer great local lunches. EC$50 (lunch).
- Ziggy's, Mahogany Lane, Woodlands, ☎ . Upscale. Steak, butterfly shrimp, good wine selection. Dinner seven days/week by reservation only.
- Desert Storm Bar & Snackette, Salem Centre, ☎ .
- Gary Moore's Wide Awake Bar, Salem, ☎ . ,
- Misers, Salem, ☎ .
- ‘Ponts’ “Beach View” Bar & Restaurant, Little Bay, ☎ , e-mail: , email@example.com. Sunday BBQ.
Accommodation on Montserrat is a bargain compared to many of its less geologically active neighbours, as the island is anxious to re-establish its tourism industry. The tourism board has listings of private villas for as little as US$700/week. Beware of hidden "service charges", as a few properties have been known to tack on an extra 10% in addition to the room cost and taxes.
Prices do not include the 7-10% tax on accommodations unless otherwise indicated.
- Essence Guest House, Old Towne Bluff Drive, Old Towne, ☎ . Guest house owned by friendly Belgian couple, beautiful rooms and apartment ($55 and $75, respectively). English, French, Dutch spoken.
- Gingerbread Hill, St. Peters, Montserrat, ☎ . , (USA)Guest house and separate villa with mountain and ocean views. A fully equipped suite at US$125, or simpler accommodations as low as US$35. German and American radio amateurs have installed a fully-equipped station at the guest house; contact the Montserrat Amateur Radio Society well in advance to obtain an elusive VP2M local callsign. $35-125.
- Grand View Bed & Breakfast, Baker Hill, Cudjoe Head, ☎ , fax: , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Seven room guesthouse with covered patio, occasional live music or special events. Breakfast, lunch and dinner may be ordered in advance, with authentic Caribbean cuisine and home grown produce. EC$175-260.
- Hot Rock Hostel, Salem. Near Montserrat Volcano Observatory. Rates negotiable depending on how many and how long, about $25 including light breakfast (in 2008).
- Miles Away Villa Resort & Spa, Mayfield Estate Dr, Olveston, ☎ . , (Canada)Rooms and suites, three-bedroom villa with private pool. $10 extra for AC, $10 extra for continental breakfast. $100-120 (rooms), $180/night (villa, three night minimum).
- Olveston House, Olveston, ☎ . , Built 1950 by the manager of Montserrat Company to replace an original wooden house built in the 1800s, onetime home of ZJB radio and of the first local cinema. Currently the holiday home of Beatles manager Sir George Martin; when he is away, this private residence opens as a restaurant and six-room guest house. International and traditional English cuisine, breakfast, lunch, dinner and 'high tea' daily.
- Villa "Tan Ry Doon",, Olveston, ☎ , fax: . Villa rental in Olveston; owner is based in Bennington, VT, USA. $1250/week (winter), $850/week (summer).
- Vue Pointe Hotel, Old Towne, Saint Peter, ☎ . Reopened after extensive 2016 renovation, outdoor pool.
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.
Montserrat is generally a safe place, however in recent years, violent crime has increased. Assault is the most common form, with an annual rate of just over 10 assaults for every 1000 people. (By comparison, Canada's rate is about 7 per 1000). General safety precautions, including such as not walking in an alleyway at night, are advised.
No vaccinations are required to enter Montserrat unless coming from a country that has suffered a cholera, yellow fever, or small pox epidemic.
- Glendon Hospital, Saint John's, ☎ .
- Lee's Pharmacy, Brades Main Road, ☎ . 9AM-7PM.
- The Montserrat Philatelic Bureau (+1 664 491-2996) and General Post Office (+1 664 491-2457) are in Government House at Brades, postcode MSR 1110. While Montserrat doesn't issue its own passport or currency, it does print its own stamps (including some high-value sets just for collectors).
- The Montserrat Public Library (+1 664 491-4706), next to the BBC Building at Brades, offers Internet e-mail computers, thirty thousand books and extensive Montserrat and Caribbean collections. This library replaced the new library built in Plymouth in 1997, which never opened.