Magical Montserrat: The Emerald Isle of the Caribbean
Don't be put off by the active volcano, the idyllic island of Montserrat is perfectly safe and is particularly welcoming to Irish visitors.
It appears on the horizon reaching from the crystal cyan waters of the Caribbean Sea into the cloudless skies above. "There you go – isn't it beautiful?" chimes our chirpy pilot.
The tiny island of Montserrat is best-known for its active Soufrière Hills Volcano. It's nearly 20 years since its eruption threatened to bury this Caribbean haven for good.
As the tiny eight-seater aircraft shuttling me from Antigua approaches the island, I see the sloping hills of green, forested areas and dramatic coastline. The view from the airplane window is nothing short of breathtaking. There are no multi-storey hotels, lavish golf courses or moored cruise-liners here.
I let out a sigh of relief as the dinky aircraft lands on the tarmac with the slightest of bumps. Measuring just 11 miles long by seven miles wide, much of the island, a British-owned territory, is ruled off-limits by the authorities as the volcano is still active – though now considered extremely stable by volcanologists.
What remains is an intriguing and stunning settlement. With a population of just 5,000 people it's friendly, safe, charming and local. The islanders consider it a proud nation and many view its remoteness as its greatest asset.
At the basic airport immigration desk a fresh-faced officer smiles once he sees my Irish passport. "Welcome home, brother, your first time in Montserrat?" he asks, before stamping a Shamrock on it.
Known as 'the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean' the Irish were among the first European settlers to arrive here in the late 1600s. Some were fleeing religious persecution in neighbouring islands, others sent here as indentured labourers and some came to make their fortune as plantation owners. The Irish, predominantly from Cork, once made up 70pc of the population.
Following the abolition of slavery, many of the Irish remained married and had children with the former African slaves – today the population is described as Afro-Irish. Montserrat is still the only country outside of Ireland which celebrates St Patrick's Day as a national holiday and most of the islanders have Irish surnames such as Sweeney, Fenton, Sullivan and Barry. A lady named 'Erin' playing a harp takes pride of place on the nation's flag in a nod to its Irish roots.
Within half an hour of landing I'm sitting at the counter of a beach bar, sipping a cold beer and looking out across Little Bay, where the country's new capital is being built at a gentle pace. Caribbean style. Over the next week most evenings involved sipping beer in one welcoming establishment or other.
In 1997, the Soufrière Hills volcano erupted covering the previous capital Plymouth. Nineteen people lost their lives.
"It was a beautiful town, it was lively, man, the jewel of the Caribbean and now it's covered in ash and mud and rubble. So sad, I can't even visit my mother's grave," says a local who's just tied up his fishing boat.
The majority of the islanders fled – but those who remained slowly rebuilt their lives, determined that the volcano would not rob them of their country.
This idyllic hideaway, just north of the French-controlled island of Guadeloupe, once hosted the world's most famous music stars when Beatles producer Sir George Martin ran Air Studios from here. I visit the 'studio', now a sprawling abandoned bungalow with peeling paint and rotting floorboards; its exterior is choked with weeds. The swimming pool is full to overflowing with greenish rainwater, iguanas skip around its edge.
The likes of Sting, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, Lou Reed and Eric Clapton sipped cocktails here in the 1980s. Thirty years ago Dire Straits recorded 'Brothers in Arms' in these unlikely surroundings. Bemused locals treated the music elite as they would any other tourist – they're far too cool to swoon around these parts.
The studios were destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 but George Martin maintains his Olveston House home on a street renamed 'Penny Lane' and visits regularly. On five acres of tropical gardens, it now operates as a restaurant and guest house.
Bit by bit, Montserrat is getting back on its feet, but the closest thing it has to a town is the administrative area of Brades where the British Governor is based – along with the island's two banks and some shops selling electrical equipment, household supplies and stationary.
In comfortable mid-afternoon heat, islanders slowly go about their business, but every few steps they stop to chat and laugh with neighbours.
Montserrat has its own government and on the third night of my stay on the island I bump into the Chief Minister Reuben Meade (their Taoiseach) having a beer in a bar in the popular area of Salem. As a superb reggae band belt out the tunes we chat before the Minister of Health, Education, Youth and Sports – Colin Riley (note the name) – wanders over to join us. This is Caribbean island life at its relaxed best. Outside a local woman is cooking fish and chicken to sell to passers-by.
While tourism is a major revenue generator for the island today it can facilitate far fewer tourists than neighbouring islands. There's only one hotel – Tropical Mansion Suites – and a small collection of comfortable guest houses.
"That's one of the reasons why we come back year after year," explained one Canadian couple. "It's not ruined like some of the other Caribbean islands. Montserratians love to see visitors and their welcome is genuine, they're not trying to make money out of you and they treat you with complete respect."
In the first quarter of 2014, the island welcomed 2,809 tourists – an increase of 9pc on the same period in 2013. Since the mid-nineties the British Government's Department for International Development has injected almost €500m into the island but there is still no indigenous industry to speak of. Development and ambition are necessary for greater self-sufficiency – but many here wonder at what cost. The tranquillity of Montserrat is perhaps its greatest selling point – little wonder it's become so appealing to honeymooning couples.
There's an unmistakable undercurrent of respect, fun and warmth in the population. The bars have no set opening and closing hours as such, the people have the time to stop, talk and find out about their visitors and at various eateries around the island the food can be surprisingly good. Calypso singing competitions and steel drum playing feature prominently on the social scene.
Boat trips are available where visitors can be brought to the southern tip of the pear-shaped island to see for themselves the devastating impact the volcano had on its former capital. Hill-walking, diving, snorkelling and fishing in Montserrat's crystal clear waters can also be booked easily.
At the quaint St Augustine Catholic primary school I organise a Skype call between the wide-eyed and delightful students there and an excited class in my children's Gaelscoile in Fermoy, Co Cork. They sing 'óró sé do bheatha abhaile' for their Irish cousins, many wearing the national dress of green, white and gold.
On this tropical paradise, and at the foothills of an active volcano, even the youngest generation of Montserratians are fully aware of their Irish connections. St Patrick's Day celebrations here go on for a week.
As evening falls I take a stroll along Woodlands beach where the sand is practically black due to the fallen ash emanating from the volcano on occasion. It's here I meet Frederick, a Montserratian living in London, who's home on holidays.
"I work for a train company there and every day I dream of sitting right here watching the sun go down. Montserrat is magical, there is nowhere like it in the world. When I leave I'll shed some tears. It's my heaven," he says staring out to sea.
On the way back to my lodge along winding roads I stop off at Runaway Ghaut – a ravine which carries rainwater from the mountains. A sign reads 'if you drink the waters from this burn, to Montserrat you will return' and so I fill my mouth with the cool clear water hoping that one day I'll revisit this intriguing little island which so many Irish men once called home.
British Airways and Virgin Atlantic (britishairways.com/virgin- atlantic.com) both fly from London Gatwick to Antigua and Barbuda. Fly from Dublin, Cork or regional Irish airports (on Aer Lingus or Ryanair) to Gatwick to get a connecting flight. Return flights from Ireland to Antigua via Gatwick booked with British Airways cost €802 depending on how far in advance you book and the time of year.
From Antigua you can fly to Montserrat with either Fly Monserrat (flymontserrat.com) or SVG Air (svgair.com). Flights cost approx. €150 to €220 return. Alternatively a ferry service operates from Antigua and costs about €100 for a return ticket (No advance booking required – see visitmontserrat.com for information).
It's advisable to hire a car in Montserrat but you'll need to purchase a licence at the police station on the island before you can drive. Beware of narrow roads, wild goats, sharp bends and road crossing iguanas. The speed limit is set at 20mph though, so driving here is relatively safe.
Where to stay: Gingerbread Hill (volcano-island.com). Boasting stunning views to the island of Nevis in the distance, this well-run guesthouse and lodge is popular among honeymoon couples, visitors looking to unwind and backpackers and it's ideally located in the area of St Peters. Spacious suites/rooms can range from €90 per night (for the 'heavenly suite' with sensational views) to €35 for the backpackers' double rooms.
For more information go to visitmontserrat.com
Putting your mind at ease
Volcano safety: The Soufrière Hills volcano is monitored constantly from an observatory on the island. Activity has dropped dramatically in recent years though occasionally some ash can fall on inhabited areas. More of an annoyance than anything. Islanders and visitors are safe behind the exclusion zone.
Climate: Winter and summer temperatures average between 24 and 32C with constant breezes from the sea and mountains. The island is vulnerable to hurricanes during the season from June to November.
Medical care: No vaccinations are required. There is a hospital on the island offering 24-hour services and a pharmacy. If more care is needed airlifts to Antigua might be necessary.