Montserrat is a British overseas territory located in the Leeward Islands section of the Caribbean’s Lesser Antilles. Montserrat measures approximately 10 miles long and seven miles wide, with 25 miles of coastline. Montserrat is nicknamed “the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean,” both for its resemblance to coastal Ireland and for the Irish descent of many of its inhabitants.
Its former era capital city and major port of Plymouth was destroyed and two-thirds of the island’s population were forced to flee abroad following an eruption of the previously dormant Soufriere Hills volcano that began on July 18, 1995. The volcano rendered the southern half of the island uninhabitable.
The eruption continues today, though on a much reduced scale, with the damage confined to areas around Plymouth including its docking facilities and the former W.H. Bramble Airport, the remnants of which were buried by flows from volcanic activity on Feb. 11, 2010. An exclusion zone extending from the south coast of the island north to parts of the Belham Valley has been imposed because of the size of the existing volcanic dome and the resulting potential for pyroclastic activity.
Presently, visitors are not permitted entry to Plymouth outside of organized tours. Travelers can obtain impressive views of the city’s destruction from the top of Garibaldi Hill in Isles Bay, and the Monserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO), on the island’s southwest side, features an observation deck. The MVO Visitors Center is open to the public Monday through Thursdays, and includes a documentary detailing the history and impact of the eruption, and shown at quarter past the hour every hour between 10:15 a.m. and 3:15 p.m. The Visitors Center also features informative poster displays, interactive kiosks, and a display of artifacts.
Huge boulders can sometimes be seen in the eruption zone, crashing down the slopes, enveloped in clouds of dust. Tours into the exclusion zone are available, depending on the volcano risk level; visitors pass through a landscape of abandoned homes and fields, pass within close proximity of the volcano, and look down into the old capital, now buried in ash and mud. Boat tours to view the destruction left behind in Plymouth are also available.
The village of Brades currently serves as the temporary seat of government while construction continues on a new town at Little Bay in the north of the island, out of reach of further volcanic activity.
Beyond the volcano, Montserrat is blessed with natural beauty, with lush tropical forests and leafy hiking trails of varying difficulty. Many hikes can be enjoyed independently; others require guides to clear a path
Montserrat also offers quiet beaches, and the island is surrounded by reefs, offering snorkeling and diving opportunities which can be enjoyed from shore or by boat. Diving is also available at nearby Redonda, a group of uninhabited islands 15 miles west of Montserrat. Here the waters are filled with exotic wildlife, including six-foot barrel sponges, eagle rays, stingrays, and an occasional nurse shark. Diving trips to Redonda and dive sites closer to Montserrat’s shores are also available.