Soufriere Hills Volcano is Still Active.
From the moment I saw it, I knew Montserrat was a magical island. The waters were deep blue and I could see straight through to the ocean floor. Striped tropical fish scurried about behind the boats; the warm Caribbean sun bakes a smile on my face. A single bird soars, silhouetting itself against a sheer cliff frosted with green foliage, jutting straight out of the water into the sun. I could tell there would be something special about this place, and that was from a few hundred meters out while still on the ferry.
I arrived via Antigua by ferry, one of only a handful of ways to get here. You can also fly in, which undoubtedly would provide a totally different experience since the airport lies atop a plateau with cliffs at either end of the runway. The plane itself is quite small, so only fly if you’re comfortable on a little propeller plane.
Winair flies a scheduled service to Montserrat.
Montserrat is a British Crown colony with a heavy Irish influence. And although each year there is a large St. Patrick’s Day celebration, the island is best known for its awesome and tragic Soufriere Hills Volcano, which violently erupted in 1995 decimating the capital town of Plymouth and burying it in up to 60 feet of ash. The town is still there, but the buildings that remain only peek out above the dark gray matter like concrete skeletons reaching out from a grave. Plymouth was once known as a bustling community; a center of Montserratian culture. Today, it is known only as the exclusion zone, mostly because the Soufriere Hills Volcano is quite active, and could erupt again at any time. But that which had destroyed the capital has also revealed a sense of resilience which is clearly perceptible in each of Montserrat’s 5,000 permanent residents.
Thomas “Fumbo” Lee, a native Montserratian and one of the most popular taxi drivers on the island, lost his home to the eruption in 1995. Despite his loss, he maintains that people are not afraid. “People think everyone is running away from the volcano, but it’s not true,” he insists.
The tragic destruction of the Soufriere Hills Volcano.
Years after the eruption, and with the help of federal aid from Britain, Montserrat is once again rebuilding. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo devastated the island much worse than the damage caused by the volcano. Sustained winds of up to 160 mph virtually erased the majority of houses and structures on the island. So Montserratians are no strangers to revitalizing their land and their culture.
To this end, an entirely new capital city is in the beginning stages of construction in a much safer location where the town will be protected from the volcano. In other areas of the island, new hotels, bed and breakfasts, and private residences have been sprouting up from the ashes as old ones come back to life. One such property is the Olveston House, which is where I spent my days on Montserrat.
View of Olveston House from the pool.
In the early 1980s Olveston House was purchased by AIR Studios owner and Beatles producer, Sir George Martin and his family, who stills owns it today. One of the things that make this particular place so special is that for many years it hosted renowned artists who came to Montserrat to record at AIR Studios.
Linda McCartney photo
gallery at the Olveston House.
In 1979 George Martin completed building AIR Studios Montserrat, which for nearly 11 years became one of the most prolific studios in the world, playing host to stars of the time, including Sting, Paul McCartney, Dire Straits, Stevie Wonder, The Police, The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Ultravox, Eric Clapton, and Lou Reed, to name but a few.
Unfortunately, Montserrat was dealt a devastating blow in 1989 when Hurricane Hugo hit, practically destroying the island. This ultimately led to the relocation of AIR Studios to London, where it still is today. You can still see and even enter the former AIR Studios location on Montserrat, and it ties in nicely to the history behind the Olveston House and George Martin’s love affair with the island.
In 2009, following the third evacuation of The Vue Pointe Hotel in Old Towne, Sir George allowed Carol Osborne and Margaret Wilson (current hotel managers) to rent Olveston House, opening up this historic property to fans and travelers alike.
British styles influence the decor at the Olveston House.
Former Beatles Manager
George Martin’s chair.
Olveston House has six spacious guestrooms, each with a private bath. All are tastefully appointed and include twin, queen, or king-size beds, cable TV, and coffee makers. Complimentary wireless internet is available in the lobby and bar areas, and three of the guestrooms have private access to the spacious porch that wraps around the guesthouse.
The onsite restaurant offers a selection of international and traditional English cuisine with a Caribbean flair. Every other Wednesday night is a Barbeque Buffet, and every Friday night is an informal ‘Pub Night’. Meals may be enjoyed on the veranda, in the main dining room and bar, or in the privacy of your own guestroom. Personally, I prefer the main dining room since that’s where George Martin himself likes to eat. I even requested to sit in his chair, which you may also do.
The formal dining table of George Martin.
Gold, Platinum, and Silver records from many of the artists that have been hosted here adorn this traditionally British-themed cottage. But head outside to experience some peace. In the courtyard I find five acres of lush grounds, regularly patrolled by birds, lizards, and bright green iguanas. At the back of the garden area is a pool in case I get a little too warm. The pool is located in the shade, so the water stays cool even on the hottest days.
Like most hotels, the employees here are happy to refer you to a doctor, restaurant, or make recommendations on what to do during your visit. The major difference between the Olveston House and other places to stay is the family-oriented nature of the referrals. Montserrat only has 5,000 people living on the island, so everybody knows each other, which works out if you happen to stay here. Olveston House has their go-to taxi driver, can organize tours, and accommodate any custom itinerary.
Thomas “Fumbo” Lee stops for
a drink at the Runaway Ghuat.
One thing I absolutely had to do while visiting is to drink from the Runaway Ghuat, a deep ravine that carries rainwater down from the mountains to the sea. The water is incredibly fresh, and if I hadn’t seen it coming directly out of the mountain with my own eyes, I’d swear it was coming out of a water cooler. Legend has it that people drinking the cool spring water at Runaway Ghaut will be drawn to return to Montserrat again and again. The exact wording of the legend is: “if you drink the waters from this burn, to Montserrat you will return”.
I also stopped at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO) in Flemmings. As well as monitoring the volcanic activity, the MVO provides information on the volcano to the general public. The MVO Interpretation Centre is open Monday to Thursday from 10:15 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. There are poster displays explaining the techniques used in monitoring seismic activity, and dramatic videos showing recent events on the volcano. There are also touch screen kiosks and volcanic artifacts on display
The Montserrat Volcano Observatory is along Hope Drive.
Of all the animals, creatures, birds, and other types of life on Montserrat, one of the most interesting is the famed and protected Mountain Chicken. Hilariously, the Mountain Chicken is actually a giant frog, one of the largest of its kind in the world. Apparently, it barks like a dog — or as some say — like a chicken, which is where it gets its name. Montserratians used to eat this frog and integrated it into many local dishes. But after being brought to the brink of extinction by a fungus, it is now critically endangered. You can find them by hiring a guide, or by hiking high up into the mountains and listening for their “bark”.
So with frogs called chickens that bark like dogs, a steaming volcano, and drinking water coming directly out of a mountain, I was uniquely impressed with this little island nation. Adding in a proper mixing of both Irish and English culture, a mish-mosh of resilient residents, and a grand history of music culture, it’s a wonder that more people don’t call Montserrat home.
Stay at the Beautiful Olveston House in Montserrat.
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