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(Theresa Gawlas Medoff for the Boston Globe)

In the shadow of a volcano, Montserrat's draw

Email|Print| Text size + By Theresa Gawlas Medoff
Globe Correspondent / October 20, 2006

OLD TOWNE, Montserrat -- Phil and Ingrid McCarty of Natick considered themselves well-seasoned Caribbean travelers, but they had never even heard of Montserrat until another Bay Stater clued them in. Yet there they were on their first trip to the island, staying at a hotel owned and run by Natick native Carol Hillberg Osborne.

To the McCartys' surprise, as they explored the island they ran into more and more people from Massachusetts. There was Harriet Peakes, formerly of Lexington, who lives in Montserrat, painting watercolors and running her weekly Let's Go Limin' Tours of island nightspots. Singer -trumpeter Nancy Hildegarde of Cape Ann winters in Montserrat and performs occasionally at Osborne's Vue Pointe Hotel.

Last summer Osborne's daughter Amanda -- who taught at Framingham's Fuller Middle School and Dover-Sherborn Middle School -- returned to Montserrat to help run the family hotel.

``Expatriates from all over the Boston area live in Montserrat," Ingrid McCarty said. Once she and her husband retire, they plan to join that group by wintering in the villa they bought on that first trip two years ago.

``Phil and I had always wanted to buy a house in the Caribbean. When we came to Montserrat, we just fell in love with it. We've been to 15 or 20 islands, but none of them is like Montserrat. It's just an untouched, unspoiled place," she said.

Those familiar with Montserrat recall that in 1995 the Soufrière Hills Volcano rumbled to life and violent eruptions in 1997 flattened villages, destroyed a gricultural lands, and buried the capital of Plymouth in ash and rubble. Some 8,000 Montserratians, two-thirds of the population, fled the island.

Nearly 10 years later, much of the 39 1/2-square-mile island, a British overseas territory, remains uninhabitable because of continued threat from the volcano. But part of the island is thriving.

In May 2005, Montserrat opened a new airport to replace the one destroyed by the volcano. A cultural center, financed in part by Sir George Martin, the former Beatles producer and a part-time Montserrat resident, is set to open later this year in the Little Bay area on the north side of the island. A recreation facility, government offices, and public market are also in the works.

Ironically, the volcano that destroyed so much of the island is now its chief tourist attraction. Though its dome continues to grow and there is a snowfall of ash occasionally, the northern, inhabited portion of Montserrat is ``as safe as any other Caribbean island with a volcano, which is all of them," said Sir Howard Fergus, a local politician, historian, and poet.

The volcano is under watch by seismologists and volcanologists at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, which offers guided tours of its monitoring facilities on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.

During the day, visitors (a guide is highly recommended) can drive on a rubble-filled road across the Belham Valley, once the site of a beautiful golf course, into the Daytime Entry Zone for a closer view of ``Madame Soufrière," as the locals have nicknamed the volcano. ``Madame has her skirt down today," means that the top of the volcano is obscured by ash and steam or cloud cover.

St. George's Hill offers a panoramic view of acres of wasteland (and a whiff of the volcano's sulfurous smell). The once-bustling Plymouth has been covered in repeated volcanic mudflows that have nearly obliterated evidence of buildings.

Elsewhere in the Daytime Entry Zone, areas that were once lifeless are now lush, green, and wild. Abandoned homes are overgrown with weeds.

The curious can venture into the former residential district of Richmond Hill to view eerie scenes of a modern-day Pompeii: a tennis court where ash and rubble nearly cover the net and the deserted Montserrat Springs Hotel, where papers and pens lie covered in ash on the front desk, just as they were when the eruption caught people by surprise.

The observatory at Jack Boy Hill on the northeastern side of the island has picnic facilities and a telescope for viewing the volcano. The facility provides excellent views of the destroyed W.H. Bramble Airport, an old estate house, and villages covered with the boulders, rocks, and ash propelled by the eruption. On clear nights, glowing rock falls can be seen streaming down the side of the mountain.

Expatriates refer to Montserrat as ``the Caribbean the way it used to be" because it remains nearly untouched by commercialism. The island has only two small hotels. Most visitors stay in guesthouses or rent villas. There are no casinos, no shopping complexes, and the restaurants are small and owner-run.

Tourists come to the island to relax and enjoy its natural attractions: hiking, bird- watching, fishing, snorkeling, and scuba diving.

The Centre Hills region has a number of walking trails and more strenuous hiking trails. One of the more popular is the Oriole Walkway, named for the island's national bird, the Montserrat oriole. The rain forest is home to numerous other birds as well as tree frogs, lizards, iguanas, and geckos.

The beaches -- most of them deep gray volcanic sand -- are small and uncrowded. On a late afternoon at Old Road Bay Beach, the fishermen outnumber the swimmers, and there are far more pelicans than humans. The one white-sand beach, Rendezvous Beach, is delightfully secluded, accessible only by boat or by a hike up and over a mountain.

Those who like it quiet and slow consider Montserrat an ideal Caribbean destination, McCarty said.

But why the Boston connection?

Montserrat's Irish heritage might be a draw for some, particularly in mid-March when the island throws a bash to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. Many of the original European colonists on Montserrat were Irish, as evidenced by surnames and place names even today. Montserrat is nicknamed the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean, and it is the only country besides Ireland where St. Patrick's Day is a national holiday.

Most of the islanders are not primarily honoring the Irish saint on March 17; instead, they are recalling the bravery of their slave ancestors who rose up on St. Patrick's Day 1768 in a rebellion that ultimately failed. Most of the tourists, however, are celebrating the St. Patrick's Day of shamrocks, leprechauns, and Irish culture.

And perhaps the Irish temperament still lives on Montserrat. ``My brother-in-law is Irish, and he said he felt very comfortable in Montserrat, that the pace and the laid-back feeling reminded him of home," McCarty said.

Then again, the island's popularity with people from the Boston area could be proof that word of mouth is the best advertising.

Mary Page of Gloucester went to Montserrat in March at the urging of her musical friend Hildegarde, but she needs no convincing to return. ``I like the relaxed lifestyle, the flowers everywhere, the tree frogs at night," Page said. ``I hope to come next year and rent a villa and stay for at least a month."

And perhaps she'll also tell a friend or two about the little island in the sea.

Contact Theresa Gawlas Medoff, a freelance writer in Wilmington, Del., at tgmedoff@aol.com.

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