Tell friends you're planning a visit to Montserrat, and you should expect some quizzical expressions. Spanish mountain? Massachusetts college? West Indies island? The name applies to all three... but only the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean beckons with shamrocks, sunshine, and the still-smoldering Soufriere Hills Volcano.
Travelers savvy enough to venture beyond neighboring Antigua, Guadeloupe, or St. Kitts find a tropical throwback to another time.
The British-governed territory endears itself to divers, nature lovers, and villa vacationers with unspoiled reefs and a unique Irish-Caribbean culture. The inhabitants of Montserrat are an optimistic people, maintaining a phoenix-like hope about life, despite the fact that the volcano has rendered two-thirds of their island off limits.
Outside Ireland, Montserrat is the only place to declare St. Patrick's Day an official national holiday. Even passport entries come stamped in the shape of a shamrock.
Celebrations honor the 17th-century Irish indentured servants who settled here after fleeing anti-Catholic violence. The festival also recalls a failed slave uprising of 17 March 1789. Resilient islanders merge all traditions and ethnicities for a weeklong party.
Festivities begin on 16 March with performances at the Cultural Center and a party at the governor's house.
On my visit, the Hon. Peter Waterworth met me wearing an orange tee shirt tucked into a plaid kilt. He clutched a tankard of Guinness stout, flown in from Ireland for the occasion. Dublin's own Martin Healy Band entertained with flute and fiddle until local crooner Shaka Black commandeered the microphone.
Back in the Eighties and early Nineties, music ignited the 39-square-mile isle. Sir George Martin, the former Beatles producer, built AIR Studios for such recording stars as Paul McCartney, Sting, and Elton John. Mick flew down too, along with Dire Straits and Jimmy Buffett, who recorded his album Volcano here. Montserrat native Arrow sang Hot, Hot, Hot as reggae beats pulsed in discos and nightclubs.
Then, on 18 July 1995, a rumble like a jet roar swept over the sultry landscape. Longtime resident and expat Carol Osborne recalls seeing the smoke starting to rise from a green mountain--not wispy puffs but powerful columns shooting skyward.
Day and night, the plumes churned and the noise pounded. Plymouth, the capital, and the surrounding southern hills were emptied, no small feat given that the north end of the island had little in the way of housing or facilities for 10,000 residents.
Finally, the Soufriere Hills Volcano went back to sleep, but the tempera-mental toddler wasn't through with her tantrums. She acted up again and again, spewing ash that necessitated masks for breathing and numerous evacuations. Then she blew her top, exploding like a wild child flinging off her clothes, the verdant peak trans-formed into gray shale.
Today, she's a turbulent teen with a growing Facebook fan base. One day she's gentle and kind, approaching sweet 16. The next day, she rages. Life with adolescent Souffi teeters on the edge, and Montserrat's remaining 5,000 residents will never be the same.
Still, a sojourn to her simple lifestyle blesses one with a laid-back escape. Sparkly black beaches usually lie empty, except in the fall when the green and hawksbill turtles nest ashore. Guides lead divers into the warm aquamarine sea caves and rock formations where spotted morays, porcupine fish, and octopuses hang.
Deep-sea fishing benefits from a lack of cruise-ship traffic. Wahoo, bonito, shark, marlin, and tasty yellow fin tuna cavort just two to three miles offshore. Hikers find well-marked trails established by the National Trust.
A boat ride to see the ruins of Plymouth is a must. Often called the modern-day Pompeii, no other destination in the world compares *with the ghostly apparition of the lost capital. Onlookers gasp at the sight of the now-forbidden city standing as if Medusa turned it to stone.
Soufriere doesn't spew lava. She heaves red-hot rocks and boulders over the dome like popcorn, along with blasting steam currents called pyroclastic flow. The currents travel up to 100 miles per hour, mushrooming like clouds of an atomic bomb.
During Montserrat's rainy summer, gushers gather trees, rocks, ash, and mud in a mixture resembling wet concrete, then flow downward in torrents. Plymouth has gradually sunk deeper and deeper, buried in a cement stew. Sightseers cruise her shores but aren't allowed to stop. The outing engulfs the senses with dusty smells, eerie quiet, and a stark vision of a once-vibrant community.
Scientists at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory monitor the situation 24 hours a day.
One eruption in February 2010 sent ash billowing 40,000 feet, carpeting the last remnants of the control tower at the former airport. Pyroclastic flows create new land, leaving the seawater at shoreline a gorgeous luminescent turquoise and increasing the mass. The additional property is of use to no one. Temperatures below the ground simmer around 300 degrees.
Folks here have high hopes for the geothermal wattage in the volcano's core. David Lea, a longtime resident and documentary videographer, said Montserrat could become "the bread-basket of power in the Caribbean." If only the Montserratians could finance and pull off such a grand, eco-friendly project.
In the meantime, St. Patty's Day parades start near Little Bay, the proposed new capital, and march to the Village Heritage Festival, where replicas of plantation slave huts and traditional African food take center stage.
I tried Duckna, a paste of shredded sweet potato, coconut, and spices wrapped in elephant-ear leaves (taro) and tied with strands of banana palm. The national dish, Goat Water, reigns most popular despite its less-than-enticing name. It looks, tastes, and smells like spicy gumbo with pieces of tender goat meat.
Expats and visitors from other Caribbean islands gather at beach bars and rum shops. The bands play while patrons quaff Guinness alongside mango rum punch. But... no green beer.
Music once brought prosperity to this island and now it simply unites, inviting outsiders to raise a cold one and join in its legacy of song.
Driving on the mountainous isle of Montserrat can be a rather hair-raising experience, and perhaps one not to miss. Roads are narrow, never more than two lanes wide, and not necessarily well kept. Some have fantastic ocean side views. Others cruise high above little villages.
Jack Boy Lookout on the eastern side of the island makes a good day trip. The lookout offers an excellent vantage point for viewing the volcano and the Exclusion Zone, including what remains of the airport and villages covered by volcanic pyroclastic flows. Pack a lunch and take advantage of the picnic areas, barbeque pit, trail, and landscaped grounds.
You'll encounter many blind corners as you tour the island. Toot your horn when approaching any curve.
As a British Overseas Territory, vehicles are driven on the left side of the road. Drive with caution and be prepared for locals to speed past.
Although car rentals are available, none are with the major U.S.-based rental companies. Most are privately owned and reasonably priced. You will need to obtain a Montserrat driver's license. (Throughout the Eastern Caribbean, the driver's license has become a valuable source of governmental income.)
Most rental companies will add on the cost of the temporary license--roughly EC $50 or $19.00 U.S. Also, carry an International Driving Permit along with valid driver's license.