Little Bay – Montserrat
One of the British Overseas Territories, Montserrat’s lush green aspect has earned it the alternative name of the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean. However, it isn’t only the island’s luxuriant tropical vegetation with its forest-cloaked hills and valleys of ferns which has led to this title. Montserrat has an Irish heritage which began centuries ago and is still such a significant part of the culture that St. Patrick’s Day is an official holiday here; something unique in the Caribbean.
Monserrat’s verdant green element is but one half of its story though. The southern part of the island is a deserted wasteland of abandoned towns and landscapes, including the official capital of Plymouth, which lie under layers of ash and volcanic debris. In 1995 the island’s volcano, which had lain dormant for centuries, woke dramatically and a series of eruptions left the entire lower island uninhabitable. Today this eerily hushed moonscape-like area with its half buried and abandoned buildings and which can only be entered with official guides has become a fascinating if somber and humbling tourist attraction.
A further island highlight is the volcano observatory. Here scientists monitor the Soufriere Hills volcano around the clock and visitors can get a close-up look of all that this involves along with some stunning views of the ash-spewing giant itself from an observation platform.
Even leaving the volcano-themed tourism aside, Montserrat is in every way a Caribbean destination with a difference. Its black and silver sand beaches which strikingly contrast with the vibrant blues of the sea have a beauty all of their own and there is instant appeal here for the adventurous and the nature passionate traveler. Once a Caribbean retreat for the likes of Elton John and Dire Straits to record some of their most famous albums, the island’s principal hub today is Little Bay with its peaceful black-sand beach, ferry port and cluster of bars and restaurants. Slowly this sleepy little town is being prepared to take over at some point from the Buried City of Plymouth which is still officially the island’s capital.
Overall the lesser-visited island of Montserrat with its warm locals and stunning scenery has some true and often unexpected treats in store for its visitors. If you are searching for a tropical escape that gives instant access into an ultimately tranquil island way of life and are ready to swap commercial destinations for those which embody the road less traveled then Monserrat could very well be just the slice of Caribbean heaven you are looking for.
A Morning in Little Bay and Montserrat
Begin your Montserrat day with an easy stroll among exotic plant species at the lovely National Trust Botanic Gardens after which you can join the technicians and seismologists at the fascinating volcano observatory. Here you will find incredible views, including those of the volcano itself, as well as getting a privileged peek into how an around-the-clock watch is kept on the volcano’s every activity.
The National Trust Botanic Gardens
Before the island’s volcano erupted so catastrophically in the 1990s Monserrat was far from short on easily accessible green spaces where islanders could head to relax. Following the Soufriere Hills volcano event however things changed drastically, effectively putting a large chunk of the island off-limits and forcing the decision to clear other areas of vegetation in order to make them usable for businesses and houses. In response to such, the government decided to create a botanic garden area at its Olveston headquarters which today has quickly developed into one of the island’s most beautiful places to visit.
Filled with plant species both indigenous and exotic, the National Trust gardens are ideal if you are looking for nothing more than the chance to wander amid charming surroundings or head off on short nature trails. However, the gardens’ purpose is also an educational one, striving to inform both islanders and visitors of the importance of conservation and with the aim of keeping alive the traditional knowledge of plants for their medicinal and culinary purposes. The grounds are divided into sections such as the Dry Garden, the Orchid House and the Amerindian Garden with areas also set aside to showcase plants that have been cultivated in the island’s history as economic crops such as lime, sugar cane, cotton and a variety of fruit trees. Many choose to explore these gorgeous gardens at their own pace but if you would like to learn a little more as you stroll you can take a guided tour. During this you will discover plants which are so rare they are found nowhere else on the planet outside of Monserrat or hear how islanders of long ago used certain plant species to cure illnesses and ailments.
The property is also home to one of the island’s ghauts, natural deep gully features which are an essential cog in the ecosystems of the rainforests. Legends surround several of these ghauts while that of the botanic gardens offers a chance to see the type of vegetation found growing in the areas of Montserrat’s interior hills. Those on the hunt for island souvenirs and gifts might also like to stop by the properties gift shop which has all kinds of island-themed keepsakes including art, rum, handicrafts and books.
Morning Coffee on Monserrat
Monserrat’s collection of places to pause for a morning coffee range from Caribbean-blue sea-view venues to those tucked away within tropical gardens and many have something special to offer. However, few would argue that the most unique of the cafe choices is that of the white-washed Hilltop Coffee House and Family Centre which sits atop Fogarthy Hill, 4km from the National Trust gardens you have just explored.
For those who are looking for great coffee, some wonderful home-baked accompaniments and a lovely second storey veranda to enjoy it from complete with sea views the Hilltop Coffee House can give you all of that. There is however so much more to this exceptional place which, besides its guise as a non-profit cafe, also serves as museum, art gallery, gift shop and cultural center. Run by film-maker David Lea, Hilltop gives you the opportunity to watch his short but impactful film which documents the volcanic eruptions which changed the island so drastically in the 1990s. The spacious interior of Hilltop is also home to a collection of items salvaged from what is now referred to as the Buried City but was once Montserrat’s pretty capital town of Plymouth.
Every inch of the walls are covered in photos and local art along with a large collection of album covers; these are the internationally famous works of names as iconic as Elton John, Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney which were recorded at the once-legendary Monserrat AIR Studios. With enough here to keep you absorbed and fascinated long after you have finished your coffee, David is also often on the premises himself and always happy to share his tales, anecdotes and vast mine of island information with his visitors.
For an elegant coffee break alternative and just 1km from the National Trust gardens can be found the charming Olveston House. Like Hilltop, this lovely venue which now functions as a guest-house and restaurant, also has a connection with the famous AIR Studios of Montserrat. This stylish single story property surrounded by acres of tropical grounds and volcano views was once the home of George Martin, the man who signed and then produced albums for the Beatles and who created Monserrat’s AIR as a hideaway recording studio for many music industry giants. At tranquil Olveston you can take a seat on the lovely wooden veranda where cloth-draped tables add an air of sophistication and the gorgeous greenery all around gives you a feeling of having escaped into a tucked-away oasis.
The Monserrat Volcano Observatory
Once you have finished browsing all the fascinating memorabilia and history at the Hilltop Coffee House or pulled yourself away from the tranquility of Olveston House you can head out again exploring the Montserrat highlights.
Located in Salem and nestled amid tropical vegetation can be found the Monserrat Volcano Observatory from which a team of scientists and seismology experts keep a round-the-clock watch on the Soufriere Hills volcano’s every activity. For hundreds of years this mighty giant slept but in 1995 that all changed when a catastrophic major eruption and a two year series of further activity turned the island capital into a deserted ghost town, buried both the port and airport in ash and left the bottom half of the island as a complete no-go zone.
Although its principal purpose is that of constantly monitoring one of the world’s currently most active volcanoes this establishment also acts as an interpretation center and is a must-visit for anyone interested in the island’s history and the part its volcano has played.
The center offers another chance to watch David Lea’s highly insightful 20-minute documentary which includes both dramatic live footage excerpts of eruptions and an emotionally-stirring window onto the aftermath of such a major natural disaster. You can also wander its educational kiosks, discover its collection of artifacts and view the various instruments today needed to keep a continuous watch on the volcano’s activity. There are often scientists on hand to share current readings with visitors and answer any questions you might have and if you’d like to take home your very own volcano souvenir you can browse the on-site gift shop.
The entire observatory is in essence a series of fascinating and insightful highlights for visitors but the observation deck is often ranked by those who come here as the best part of all. The island views from this lofty perch would rank as impressive by anyone’s standards but from here you can actually gaze upon the grand volcano itself, often seen spewing out visible clouds of ash to serve as a constant reminder that there are still massive forces of nature at work here. Your vantage point also takes in the Buried City of Plymouth which despite being deserted continues to be the island’s official capital.
Lunch in and Around Little Bay
Lunch spots on Montserrat come in a variety of guises from casual food trucks to restaurants perched atop vantage spots with magnificent views. Many of the island restaurants first open up their doors late in the morning and then serve a steady stream of ice-cold beers, snacks and meals to a lunchtime crowd, if such a word can be used on this sleepy island. There are also places where you can tuck yourself away if a tranquility-infused midday meal appeals more and should this be the case perhaps nowhere better fits this description than the gorgeous Watermelon Cottage in Olveston. Just five minutes from where you morning ended at the volcano observatory, this small but extra special restaurant is ideal for those seeking seclusion and at times the only others you will have to share this spot with are the tropical birds and butterflies which you can watch flit around as you lunch on high quality cuisine.
Nature lovers will adore this Caribbean hideaway which nestles amid tropical gardens right next to a stream and which, despite its intimate size, provides a full menu of Caribbean and European-influenced dishes at reasonable prices Dining here is beneath the shade of an open-sided pavilion and while it is hard to settle on just one thing which is most enticing about this gem of a restaurant it is often the warm welcome and attentive service which draw the most praise.
Of course there are many visitors who arrive on Monserrat, just as with any of the other Caribbean islands, who can’t bear to stray too far from its beaches. Luckily you don’t have to when it comes time to lunch as many restaurants are set right at the beach and in Little Bay can be found one such in this category –the lovely Summer Breeze.
Settle yourself down on the alfresco terrace or its roofed patio if you prefer the shade and choose from a menu which offers choices of both Caribbean and world cuisine. The setting is exceptionally pretty with the property peppered with plants and featuring trim lawns which lead down to a nodding line of coconut palms and then on to the sea. It doesn’t really matter where you decide to sit at this family-run and welcoming restaurant because every table allows you to watch the comings and goings of ferries and sailboats as you peruse the menu. Such choices as the chicken salad offer lighter lunches while those with larger appetites can find such treats as curried kingfish, garlic shrimp or grilled meats and seafood.
The Buried City –The Caribbean’s Pompeii
It is impossible to spend any time on Montserrat without coming across evidence and accounts of its living memory tragedy which centers around the eruptions of its volcano. Your morning explorations will have already brought you face-to-face with aspects of this but there is nowhere which recounts this Monserrat period more graphically and poignantly than the Buried City. For over three centuries Plymouth was Monserrat’s capital and often described as one of the Caribbean’s most charming towns with its colonial Georgian and Victorian buildings. In 1995 all that changed forever when the island’s volcano woke up dramatically after lying dormant for hundreds of years. The major eruptions which ensued buried the entire capital city along with other settlements beneath deep layers of volcanic ash and mud, laying waste the main government buildings, the harbor, the airport and any number of homes, business premises, shops, hotels and schools.
The whole lower half of the island is still today an exclusion zone and the town of Plymouth itself completely abandoned and deserted although official guides are now permitted to lead tours through this devastated area. Most of the guides who lead such tours themselves lived through the actual events and its aftermath so besides intimately witnessing for yourself what the destructive powers of nature at its mightiest are capable of you will also get to hear first-hand accounts which add depth, insight and truly personal touches to your experience.
Exploring this area and walking across its mud flow terrain has been likened by some to being on a disaster movie set while the similarities to a dusty lunar-like landscape are obvious to all. Some buildings have disappeared completely, buried beneath up to 70ft of ash and volcanic matter, others poke their now windowless uppermost stories through the debris while some shops, office blocks and even a church are exposed enough to still be entered.
The ghost-town eeriness of Plymouth is enhanced by the vast collection of everyday normal possessions still here such as toys, clothes and furniture; business premises still have ash-covered typewriters alongside piles of paperwork and the supermarket trolleys sit abandoned and exactly where they were left. Often visited spots during the tour include the 17th century St. Anthony’s Church with its ash buried pews, the large Flora Fountain Hotel with its ornate fountain now left dry and crumbling and the four story Molyneux Building.
Tours will also typically include a stop at Richmond Hill where, after making your way through the abandoned reception area of the once plush Monserrat Springs Hotel, you can stand at its former swimming pool for a bird’s eye view of the Buried City.
While a tour of Plymouth is certain to leave you both humbled and deeply touched after witnessing the aftermath of a large-scale natural disaster such as found at this unique site it is nonetheless an essential inclusion in any visit to Montserrat.
Pre-Dinner Drinks and Dinner in and Around Little Bay
Despite only having half an island to choose from –and a small island just 10 miles long at that –Monserrat will not leave you short of choice when your day’s explorations are finished and you head off for sundowners and dinner. Most of the bars and restaurants are clustered on the tranquil west coast around Little Bay, Salem, the area of St. John’s and the named beaches and bays of the island’s northern half.
Little Bay has a string of choices all to itself, one of which is the simple but highly popular beach bar and restaurant of the Time Out Grill, part of the Marine Village development.Besides its laid-back atmosphere Time Out is a great spot to head for a sampling of the type of glorious Caribbean sunset which turns the sea shades of bronze and scarlet and which you will have front row seats for at this western-facing spot. This charming little beach-front gem also has a good drinks selection including a range of well-mixed cocktails but it is best known for its own-blend concoction known as a Time Out.
Another of the Little Bay choices is the wonderful Pont’s Beach View which manages to give you both a gorgeous tropical garden where hummingbirds flit and a beach-front venue at the same time. Serving as both bar and restaurant, Pont’s decor of sea-carved driftwood, wave-smoothed ocean detritus and fishing nets is so charming it is hard to know whether to take your seat amid this or head out to the breeze-cooled deck to enjoy the ocean views and sunset. Despite its large helpings of loveliness Pont’s is as well known for its attentive and big-hearted host, Ponteen, as it is for its sea views, gorgeous jungle-like gardens and Caribbean barbecue food so it is hard to go wrong if you decide to head here for your sundowner session.
As most of the Montserrat set-ups function as both bar and restaurant you can easily transition from drinks to dinner no matter where you end up.Cuisine and ambiance range from fun barbecues at the beach to world class options for those who enjoy a little elegance and sophistication.
One of the choices in this latter category and so tucked away that you are unlikely to stumble upon it by accident is the charming Ziggy’s,a little inland from Woodlands Beach. Here you will find a small clearing in the jungle where beneath a canvas marquee and pergolas are white-linen draped tables basking in the flickering candlelight and glow of fairy lights.
Definitely one for those who want a romantic hideaway experience, Ziggy’s culinary offerings are also creative and inspired with the blackboard-displayed menu changing on a daily basis along with a great wine menu to choose from. The signature dish butterfly shrimp are a constant favorite but otherwise you may find anything from goat cheese souffle to pasta dishes with at least one beef, chicken and fish dish available every night.
Should you prefer a livelier spot and want to keep it both a little more casual and closer to Little Bay then Soco Cabana may be the place to head. Laid back beach bar and restaurant while the sun is shining, Soco wakes up after dark when islanders and visitors head here for sundowners and to sample the authentic Caribbean dishes such as pelau and goat’s stew along with pub-type fare. Lovely ocean views are yours for the taking whether you dine inside or on the bare wood and blue-painted deck and should you hang around later into the night you will have the chance to work off some of your culinary indulgences with some dancing right on the beach.
An Evening in Little Bay
Liming, as the locals would put it, is the most common after-dark activity on Montserrat –something which basically involves chilling out somewhere with good company and your preferred drink to hand. Music features at plenty of the drinking and dining venues in various forms but if it is live music you are after that typically only happens at the weekends.
Soco Cabana right on the beach at Little Bay is the area’s liveliest spot and the customers here will often end up dancing on the beach as the night progresses with the bar’s karaoke Saturdays particularly popular.
Alternatively, Little Bay’s impressive Monserrat Cultural Centre is part of the island’s push to rebuild and regenerate after the devastations of the volcanic eruptions in the 1990s and has a steady calendar of events. Built with funds donated by Sir George Martin -the Beatles discoverer and producer who set up Monserrat’s famous AIR Studios -the center features a wall hung with bronze hand-prints of some of the global stars who recorded here including Elton John and Sir Paul McCartney.
The official website lists all the upcoming events which includes such things as concerts, pageants, comedy shows and musical performances.