What? Where? Who?
Yeah, yeah, Montserrat. I just spent a few days of my spring break vacation there. You know it, it’s that little Caribbean island just a few miles from Antigua. The one with the volcano.
I’ve never heard of a Montserrat (or “I’ve heard of that Montserrat in Spain – is that what you’re talking about?”).
No, no, no. Montserrat is a U.K. territory. You need to take a small plane or ferry to get over there for Antigua. It has about 5,000 people and black sand beaches. It’s former capital city was destroyed by the ongoing volcanic eruption there so at least half the island is closed off to anyone. It’s awesome, it’s beautiful and it’s not Antigua.
(Author’s note: I found out soon after posting this story of a tragic passing of a local Montserratian legend, Jackie Fiyah. Please scroll to the bottom of story for the addendum)
This sums up most of the interactions I’ve had with people upon return from my early spring vacation in the last couple of weeks. Breeah and I spent nine days total spread across different areas of Antigua and Montserrat. Antigua (and Barbuda, which actually lies further from Antigua than Montserrat) is also tied to England, as a former U.K. territory itself, it regularly hosts ex-pats from the British Isles and maintains historic Nelson’s Dockyard National Park, the former British Naval Base in English Harbour (southeast Antigua).
After spending time on both islands, though, I can easily conclude that Antigua is for tourists/vacationers and Montserrat is for travelers. Yes, there is quite a big difference in those distinctions.
Breeah and I roughed it in Antigua. We didn’t stay at any fancy resorts. Our first hotel was literally right outside the airport takeoff and landing zone (which would periodically shake the room throughout the evening). Our second hotel was near the Sandals resort, but decidedly wasn’t the Sandals resort (it was the cheery and low key Buccaneer Beach Club). We rented a car and hit nearly every corner of the island and passed through every Parish. We definitely strayed from tourist traps (though we still got caught in one, which I’ll explain in a separate post). Still, you can’t help feeling like your there with a large group of non-locals (a mix of Americans, Brits and Europeans) and that the true culture of Antigua is lost. Don’t get me wrong, the natural beauty is profound, the locals were mostly friendly, helpful and interested, but I felt I could have been at any beautiful Caribbean island.
I didn’t get that sense in Montserrat. Truly undeveloped (or underdeveloped), I hope it stays that way for as long as possible. The territory has been rebuilding ever since the Soufriere Hills volcano began to erupt in 1995, eventually killing 19 and destroying the capital city of Plymouth. The volcano still puffs today and the latest major event, in 2010, destroyed much of what was left of the old airport. It’s greatly hampered the island’s population (thousands had sought refuge in Great Britain) and infrastructure, though the island has rebuilt quite quickly on the north side of Soufriere Hills.
We were greeted by our American ex-pat host, David Lea, who runs the Gingerbread Hill guesthouse and is somewhat of a celebrity on the island. He’s arguably the island’s foremost documentarian, having filmed and recorded hundreds of hours of video of the various eruptions and evacuations since the mid-90’s (For more on his DVD series, which is really quite interesting, click here). David, along with his wife Clover, also opened the Hilltop Family Centre and Coffee House, which is a museum in its own right. The various displays inside include many relics retrieved from the ashen town of Plymouth.
We also booked a tour with David, who took us (and another visiting couple from Texas) around on a whirlwind six-hour trip. One of the highlights of the early part of the tour was visiting the football field. Yes, the football field. In Montserrat. I’m not joking.
Actually the very first time I’d ever heard of Montserrat was a 2003 sports documentary called The Other Final. I’d heard about it soon after it had been released to DVD and purchased it, interested in a match that pitted the two lowest ranked countries in the world, Bhutan and Montserrat (and it took place the same day as the 2002 World Cup final). It was all the brainchild of a Dutch fan and filmmaker, who decided it would be some quirky fun to get the two nations on the same field. In the end it was all quite endearing and you learned of the various struggles and triumphs that participants from both nations shared in. Oh, Bhutan (the home team) won 4-1.
FIFA financed a project (post-eruption) for a new football field in Montserrat (part of an ongoing project devoted to developing football in smaller nations). With that Blake’s Estate Stadium was born and is unexpectedly grand. Want to play with the Montserrat football team? Well, you actually can in FIFA World Cup 2014 Brazil, which releases for Xbox 360 and PS3 in mid-April. They may be long from having a chance to qualify for the World Cup, but anything can happen in video games!
The national sport in Montserrat is arguably cricket, and the West Indies cricket team (a legitimate powerhouse in the sport) fields one player from Montserrat. Breeah and I watched a match between West Indies and England over at the People’s Place with some local rastafarians who were more than happy to explain the rules (of which my knowledge was extremely rough). John, the affable owner, was also quite engaging, and sent us of with a fresh mango as an “apology” for not remembering Breeah’s name. Our first encounter with the Montserrat locals was extremely positive and, most of all, fun. That didn’t change at all throughout our short stay.
I won’t do an entire play-by-play of the tour, but David hit up nearly every important spot on the small island. That included the Volcano Observatory, which staffs scientists from Britain round-the-clock in an effort to monitor and study Soufriere Hills. According to David and the scientists at the observatory, the clearness of the skies on this particular day (March 11 – my 32nd birthday as well) was quite rare, making for an unobtrusive view of the volcano itself (which is usually enveloped by clouds). In these photos I’m posting, the only “clouds” you’ll see is the smoky plumes emanating from the crater.
We visited buildings on the very edge of the exclusion zone (a forbidden area which includes all of what’s left of Plymouth) and got some amazing views of this modern day Pompeii from the old Montserrat Springs Hotel. The “hotel” is now being overtaken by the earth itself, with about two feet worth of ash building up around the floors of the lobby area. Some rooms are brimming with various plants and wildlife (almost like a scene from Jumanji).
You can’t talk about Montserrat without giving a nod to the music scene there. Arrow, the artist who recorded the popular song, “Hot, Hot, Hot” lived and died on the island. We visited the famous AIR Studios which is now long abandoned (since 1989’s Hurricane Hugo) but hosted a who’s who of Hall of Fame rock bands and artists over the years including Jimmy Buffet, Elton John, Duran Duran, Sting, Paul McCartney, Rush, Rolling Stones and Black Sabbath (and many more). Many famous albums and songs were recorded here (a fairly comprehensive, but still partial, list can be found here). We spent some time in the now gutted studio, where Beatles producer George Martin (who still lives on the island part-time and owns the decrepit property) helped lay down some of the most legendary tracks in rock music. It was a bit sad really, that such an important place in music history is in ruins, but at least it is still standing – somewhat.
We had a full second day in Montserrat which Breeah and I used to go down to Little Bay, the new beachfront community in the northwestern part of the island. There are two black sand beaches in the area, one being Little Bay beach itself and the other being Carr’s Bay, which has a smattering of old cannons. Little Bay is the better of the two, with a fresh new development (not without some local controversy) and a more inviting beach.
The real gem of the few Montserrat beaches is Rendezvous Beach, tucked away over a hillside past the ferry terminal. While, in pure distance, this is theoretically a short hike (less than a mile), its steep grade makes it a near-hour journey each way but it is SOOO worth it. To date, Rendezvous is the best beach I’ve ever visited. It may not have crystal clear blue waters (yet still quite clear in its own right), but its dramatic cliffsides coupled with complete isolation (we were the only ones there for the whole three hours) makes it my top beach of the Caribbean. It was the absolute highlight of the trip!
I have a list of 10-20 places (the number varies as my interests change) that make up my travel bucket list. Among those places are Antarctica, Nunavut, Greenland, Andorra and American Samoa (the pattern generally being isolated or just plain out far-flung and/or geographically quirky). I’ve made it to two of these places now: Easter Island and Montserrat. I haven’t been disappointed with either. Such destinations usually offer up a more peaceful, unobtrusive environment to the traveler, allowing them to soak in the place for themselves at their own pace. More and more I’ve abandoned the touristy for the off-the-beaten-path type stuff. I’m a sucker for adventure, not getting taken for every last dime at a t-shirt shop or overpriced cruise terminal restaurant. I’d rather not spend $6,000 and stay at the same exact Sandals beach for a week and have no idea of the country I just visited. Montserrat met and exceeded my expectations and is, by far, my favorite place in the Caribbean. I highly recommend you go and check it out for yourself – and spend a few more days if you can (we wish we had)!
I had the pleasure of seeing Jackie Fiyah (given name: Franklyn Hixon) during our introductory tour of Montserrat on my birthday, this past March 11. Jackie, as youthful as could be for someone presumably in his 70s, exchanged pleasantries with David midway through our tour. Jackie, as I learned, was a true free spirit, an artist, a musician and a visionary. He was highly respected and a true legend on his home island of Montserrat. I recently visited a gallery exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery here in D.C. dubbed “American Cool”, profiling some of the country’s, well, coolest. Well, to me, even in my brief encounter, Jackie would definitely typify “Montserrat Cool”.
We had the great fortune to visit Jackie’s incredible house, dubbed “One Million Pieces”. Built by him from the ground up, the house towered over all nearby structures and offered an incredible view of the Soufriere Hills volcano and the surrounding scenery. Jackie’s sculptures were everywhere, most in the form of interesting faces or fully-posed characters, some integrated right into the wall. My favorite, which I’ll share with you, was a cricketer, with a view of Soufiere Hills in the background.
I write in past tense because on March 16, just five days after we dropped by, Jackie’s house collapsed with him in it. He didn’t survive.
For those that new Jackie far better that I, I send my sincere condolences. While the landscapes of God’s green earth inspires most of my travels, what I end up finding is that the memories created with the people I meet are what I ultimately what I cherish the very most. Montserrat’s beauty drew me in, but the beautiful people will stick with me forever.
For more information and a photo of Jackie, please read the story from the Montserrat Reporter. Jackie’s house was featured in a 2009 issue of Caribbean Homes and Lifestyle – you can find an e-issue here.