Montserrat: Hope rises out of the ashes
When a volcano erupted in 1995, half of Montserrat's population fled. Now, says Hugh O'Shaughnessy, this colourful island is springing back to vibrant life
Sunday 29 October 2006
Montserrat is the friendliest of islands. It's just not the done thing here to pass anyone you know without a greeting. This charming practice extends to motoring, where personalised car horns - Montserrat's equivalent of the ringtone - accompany any journey with a symphony of chirps, toots and chirrups. Elvis, my driver, was crestfallen on a visit to the Monserratian community in Manchester when his relatives told him: "Shut up, you in England now, boy." This friendliness, which struck me so powerfully when I came here in 1969, has, if anything, become even more noticeable since half of Montserrat's inhabitants were forced to flee when the Soufrière Hills volcano began erupting in 1995.
Today, the island's 5,000 remaining inhabitants are beginning to see that there is life after natural disaster. And the volcano is proving the key to attracting a new sort of ecologically oriented visitor - though whether these incomers might take the place of the music legends who came here in the 1970s to record at George Martin's Air studio, remains to be seen. What visitors will find at the site of Montserrat's former capital, Plymouth - which was turned into the Pompeii of the western hemisphere - is an abandoned town, with the tip of St Patrick's church steeple just visible through the dark ash, and boulders the size of buses.
Barclays bank and the Texaco petrol station are just recognisable and there are even a few pairs of shoes left in what was Plymouth's finest shoe shop. Elsewhere, the ash keeps its secrets: such as the details of a raid by a well-informed gang who went into the ruins of the bank, took a blowtorch to the vault and got away with a million Eastern Caribbean dollars - some £200,000 at today's rate of exchange. (This crime was a rare exception on an island where it is normal practice for many residents to leave their cars or their houses unlocked.)
On a hill overlooking Soufrière, is the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, where expert staff keep up a constant monitoring of the seismic activity. A new and sophisticated visitor centre has also been installed, and it is here that Dr Sue Loughlin, the British director who learned her volcanology at Durham University, tells me that she is confident that there is no threat of any immediate resumption of volcanic activity.
Since 1995, half the island has had to be abandoned, with many Montserratians given the chance to go to Britain as their livelihoods and possessions were swallowed up by the ash. And though most Montserratians now have an auntie living in Stoke Newington, Plumstead or Hull, it is the connection with Ireland that is most celebrated: your passport is stamped with a shamrock as you arrive in what is happy to be known as the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean.
Despite the exclusion zone, Montserrat still has land enough for its remaining inhabitants and scenery and vegetation enough for all its visitors. Come in season and mangoes, guavas and breadfruit are here for the picking. Kew Gardens is helping the Montserrat National Trust get a botanical garden and plant nursery going again, and the island has a profusion of plant life - indigo, cocoa, sugar cane, cotton, lemons, limes, bananas and heliconia, the national flower, have all been commercially cultivated.
All of which are signs that Montserrat is springing back into glorious life. And though the musical superstars may have dried up, there are still plenty of wealthy families willing to invest here: the Mars and JC Penney clans have maintained properties here and some of those who purchased recently have made spectacular profits as fears of renewed volcanic destruction have receded.
Meanwhile, it's a relief to be able to report that tourism is not big business in Montserrat and efforts to get casinos started have been beaten off. With fewer than 20,000 visitors a year, the island is innocent of Meliá, Club Med and Marriott, but its mountains and jungles are perfect for walkers and its waters tempt the snorkellers. Access, however, is still a problem. The ferryboat which shuttled between Montserrat and Antigua has been replaced by an air service run by Winair, but the new aerodrome at Brades can fall victim to the elements. Nevertheless it is usually possible for people holidaying in Antigua to make a day trip to Montserrat.
And Montserrat seems to be the only part of the former British Empire that is still growing. Volcanic activity continues to increase the physical size of the island. Officially, Mont- serrat has 39 square miles, but in reality, currently measures closer to 41. Having taken so much away, Soufrière is finally starting to give something back.
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The author was a guest of the Montserrat Tourist Board (0906-364 0641; visit montserrat.com). BA flies to Antigua from £535 (0870-850 9850; ba.com). Winair has connections to Montserrat from £43
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