After being on Antigua for a short while now, I needed a trip off-island to renew my visa. So I took an “immigration holiday,” as many people call it.
Antigua is in the middle of the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean and is a great place for sailors traveling between the islands. However, without a boat at my disposal, the options of getting away are actually a bit limited. The only options for ferries are Barbuda and Montserrat. Barbuda is Antigua’s sister island and is therefore not another country. To the uninitiated, flights in-between Caribbean countries are extremely expensive, even though the nearest islands are really close – I can see Guadeloupe and Nevis on a clear day. So even though I would love to explore more of the Caribbean and go on lots of island adventures, I opted for a trip to Montserrat for this occasion.
As I was planning a ferry trip, I got talking to some members of the yacht club here and it was a very happy coincidence for me that a couple of boats were planning to sail to Montserrat around the time I needed to leave the island. So after inviting myself on board, we provisioned the boats, I packed a couple of bikinis, we checked out at Customs, and set sail.
Montserrat is 18 miles from Antigua, and it was great to see the landscape of this volcanic rock become gradually clearer, the closer we got. We arrived at Little Bay (just four and a half hours later) where we anchored for the night and went ashore for a simple dinner (and obligatory photoshoot of the sunset).
The following day, we had decided to go on a tour of the island as we were intrigued to learn more. Montserrat is a British Overseas Territory and you can certainly see some British influences (the roads seemed much better than Antigua and there is a new cultural centre and sports facility). According to the 2019 census, the population is just over 5,000 people. However, the country has gone through seismic changes in the last 25 years. The Soufriere Hills volcano became active in 1995 and the largest eruption in 1997 caused two thirds of the population to evacuate the country, many have not been able to return. Currently, more than half of the island, including the former capital of Plymouth, is uninhabitable and considered an “exclusion zone” where there is no public access. The volcano is still active and casts a cloud of smoke over the south. It is quite a sight (from a safe distance).
The Montserrat Volcano Observatory is one viewing spot; alternatively, there are helicopter flights from Antigua. Instead of these options, we went to the marvelous Hilltop Café. A place that Lonely Planet describes as:
“Truly a must stop on any Montserrat visit, this darling non-profit cafe founded by filmmaker David Lea and his wife Clover does multi-duty as museum, art gallery, community centre and de facto tourist office. Have a juice or cuppa on the veranda, then time travel through Montserrat milestones by watching David’s acclaimed documentary on the Soufrière Hills Volcano eruption, paying tribute to soca star Arrow, and marvelling at memorabilia rescued from the buried city and George Martin’s AIR Studios.”
They are not wrong. The owner is full of interesting information, having lived on Montserrat since the early 1980s. Having previously run a youth centre in the south of the island, now in the Exclusion Zone, Mr. Lea set up this treasure trove a couple of years ago. Not only is the coffee amazing (the only Cuban grounds in the country), but the extensive collection of objects saved and scavenged from Plymouth is fantastic. The owner shared stories of life before and since the eruptions, especially the lively music scene and his local art collection.
A particular highlight of mine was his stories about the little uninhabited island of Redonda (another rock that we can see from Antigua). The legends of Redonda are ridiculous and humorous (see the Wikipedia page for some, including the contested title of King or Queen of this tiny rock). I was delighted to learn that the owner of Hilltop Café is the proud owner of possibly the last few Redonda coins, and as a result, has been named the Chancellor of the Exchequer of Redonda! I could have stayed listening to the stories all day.
We continued our journey to visit the former Spring Hill Hotel, just outside the Exclusion Zone, but in an area called Richmond Hills, which has been abandoned. Our guide explained that her mother had been a chef at the hotel and that she had started working there just 4 months before the explosion in 1997. We saw “before” pictures of a grand hotel with swimming pool and magnificent views over Plymouth. What we saw as we walked around was the “after.” A collection of buildings taken over by nature, it was surreal in part, but also an excellent visual explanation of the devastation and destruction the volcano caused. Some of the rooms were almost like time-capsules, with room-service menus and a TV manual left, faded and yellow, from the moment everyone had to leave.
We visited the Montserrat yacht club (although boats are no longer able to moor off the beach there) and we learned about the origins of Cudjoe Head, a place named after a slave who escaped his plantation, only to be caught and killed. We were given fresh mangoes from a tree and drank water from a spring called Runaway Ghaut. Overall, a fantastic tour of the country.
The following day we took our boats to a neighboring secluded bay, spent the morning snorkeling by the rocks, and the afternoon having a BBQ on the beach before returning to Antigua. I’m so glad we were able to explore this island in such depth. Although there are not too many other activities left to do, there are plans afoot to return for St Patrick’s Day, when the mostly-Irish-descendant locals celebrate the only way Caribbeans know how: with a BIG party. I can’t wait!
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