The Sunday Sun March 6, 2005


A jewel beneath the ash 


A visitor gazes at the half-buried courthouse in 
the deserted town of Plymouth

A church in Plymouth

Clouds partially obscure Montserrat's still active volcano, as a tourist gazes at the awesome view

Ash covered footwear at an abandoned 
show store in Plymouth


Special to the Sun

I KNEW almost nothing about
Montserrat before we visited there in January. My husband chose it because of the island's volcano. A friend said that Sting, Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder, and Paul McCartney had
recorded there at Sir George Martin's Air Studio. Were any of these musical greats still around?

I had heard about Montserrat's active volcano that had covered much of this 100-square-km Caribbean island. I checked its Volcanic Observatory website but didn't know what
"4 hybrid earthquakes" or "310
tonnes per day... of sulphur dioxide fluxes" meant for visitors. I went there with some  hesitation.

Our six days there turned out to be one of the best vacation choices we've ever made. Part of the island was beautiful and green with dramatic cliffs; but one half had been covered
by the fury of the volcano.

We felt no earthquakes and just
once for a few seconds smelled sulphur.

After our arrival we learned that
only 19 people had been killed in the1997 eruption, and only because they defied government orders to stay out of the "Exclusion Zone."

We visited the Volcanic Observatory and compared the squiggles on the seismographs with the readings from June 1997. Earthquakes and steam had given warnings months before that eruption.

Caribbean isle's
dramatic cliffs a
striking contrast to
its awe-inspiring,
ravaged ruins

Everyone said the volcano was now on "hold." We felt reassured after talking with some of the 4,000 current
residents living in the "safe" Northern Zone. Everyone on the British colony was friendly, open and unafraid and they all spoke English.

We liked the island because there were few tourists. The Vue Pointe Hotel where we stayed only had a handful but the standards were good. 
Expatriate residents from North America and the U.K. Dining at the hotel were generous with stories of there, 
their volcano adventures and why they felt confident living there still.

The government is planning a new, higher one. From the
top of St. George's Hill
we could see Plymouth, the inundated capital a couple of
kilometres away.

"We are trying to keep this island alive. My husband and I want to retire here," said Carol Osbome, 44, of the Vue Pointe Hotel. "We have never 
thought of giving up."

Every winter the hotel gives Vickie Wilson of Winnipeg a room to hold weekly community folk and ballroom dances. There is also a weekly games night.

We hired a 4x4 to tour the island. We found the door at Air Studio open  and no one around. But what a thrill. 

The place was empty except for one room which still had old tape recordings, and a log book dating from daily to 1988. (The studio had been used for 11 years from 1979.) 

We crossed a river, its bridge covered with several metres of mud and rock. 

For us, the highlight of the trip besides the escape from Toronto's winter weather was a walk through the mud- and ash-covered town of Plymouth with Jim Lee, a Montserrat native and building contractor.

About 3,500 people once lived there, but no one lives here now. Signs at the gate said to stay out, that Plymouth was still in danger of imminent ash falls, pyroclastic flows, mud flows and building collapse.

"Offenders will be prosecuted." But Jim assured us no one had been arrested or hurt there. Still he cautioned, "Don't go there after a rain."

It was a weird experience. Better than seeing Pompeii because we walked into the church and saw its organ and the supermarket's tub of margarine.

We saw the old movie theatre and its projector. We stepped gingerly out on the quay where cruise ships once moored and up to the two-storey-high court house with its half-covered clock tower. In a few months, much more of it will be covered.

Afterwards we felt elated that we had survived. We hadn't fallen through a roof laden with tons of ash. We had had a very special experience, one that the hordes of cruise ship passengers and sun-bathers in nearby Antigua did not have.

We had seen what archeologists and tourists in the future will ponder
over, like they do in Pompeii today. We learned a lot about volcanoes and survivors.

Ruth Lor Malloy is the author of 
China Guide 

GETTING THERE: Air Canada and Skyservice fly directly to Antigua. A ferry (a one-hour ride) and a helicopter (a 20-minute trip) usually leave from Antigua twice daily to Montserrat. The airport should open soon.

HOTELS: The best and only
hotel on a beach is the Vue Pointe, . 

Jim Lee will  take visitors on a tour of Plymouth in return for a donation to the Seventh-Day Adventist school he has started.


Montserrat Tourist Board,
Montsen-at Observatory:


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