What makes Montserrat a unique Caribbean travel experience is what it does have -- the only active volcano in the region -- and what it does not have: hordes of tourists and the infrastructure to support them.
The chance to get up close -- but not too close -- to the steaming and sulphur-spewing Soufrière Hills volcano and the destruction it wreaked on the capital of Plymouth and surrounding area -- now abandoned and half-buried -- is both exhilarating and eerie.
Soufrière Hills began erupting in 1995, killing 19 people and causing the island's southern half to be evacuated. Much of that exclusion zone is still off limits. The devastation resulted in the population dropping from 15,000 to 5,800. It also devastated tourism by burying the original airport, leaving only ferry and helicopter service until a new airport was built on the north end in 2005. But other tourist infrastructure is still pretty basic.
The beautiful mountainous vistas and the lack of high-rise hotels and chain businesses other than a few British banks are what give Montserrat its charm.
Montserrat offers great mountain hiking with lots of wildflowers and exotic birds, although the trails tend to be overgrown and muddy. Scuba diving with Troy Deppermann of the Green Monkey Dive Shop revealed a large ray, turtles, barracudas, lobsters and clouds of fish, although some of the coral has been killed by runoff.
POMPEII OF THE CARIBBEAN
The main reason to visit Montserrat is the volcano.
You can see the smoking dome from a viewpoint on the eastern side of the island called Jack Boy Hill, overlooking the now-buried airport. Another good view is from the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, which has a few sparse exhibits but a good video about the eruption.
A better view of Soufrière Hills and Plymouth is available from the top of Garibaldi Hill. That requires fording the usually shallow Belham River and its ash-covered riverbed -- best done in an SUV. The old river bridge is still there, buried under 30 feet of ash washed down from the volcano in mudflows called lahars. The riverbed features several houses buried up to their second floors in ash and mud -- very spooky.
The closest and best land view of the volcano and Plymouth is from the northern suburb of Richmond Hill. That community was recently opened for daytime visits, after being closed for five years, now that Soufrière Hills has done nothing but smoke for the past two years.
TAKING A TOUR
After signing in at a police checkpoint, you're on your own to explore what is known as Zone C. The day we made the trip, we were the only ones in the zone and the solitude made the trip even creepier.
The road is overgrown and washed out in some places, requiring you to drive through weeds to get around the gaps. Eventually, you arrive in Richmond Hill, once a community of expensive homes overlooking Plymouth and the Caribbean but now in ruins. Metal roofs exhibit holes from the corrosive effect and weight of the ash.
Many of the homes are open, presumably from looting, and looking inside is surreal.
Six inches of fine ash coat the floors, so walking leaves footprints like Neil Armstrong's on the moon. Even stranger is where the holes in the roofs have allowed fern gardens to sprout in living rooms or bedrooms.
The only better way to see the capital is from the water on excursions offered by Green Monkey and the island's other dive shop.
The ruined buildings make great photo opportunities but also are sobering reminders of the power of nature.
IF YOU GO
STAY The 18-room Tropical Mansion Suites (tropicalmansion.com) is the only hotel. Rates range from $99 to $160. Most people stay in guesthouses and villas. The two-bedroom Bunkum Beach Guest House starts at $1,015 a week in season. (bunkumbeachguesthouse.com).
RENTAL CARS There are only local companies and most don't take credit cards. U.S. currency is generally accepted. Prestige Rentals (664-496-1842 or email email@example.com) is an exception that lets you charge the car so you can be fully covered by your credit card insurance.
RESTAURANTS No chains, but a number of good local spots. Olveston House, an old plantation house that is owned by former Beatles' producer George Martin, has a varied menu with entrees around $25 (olvestonhouse.com). Ziggy's is widely considered the premier eatery, with entrees $28 and up (ziggysrestaurant.com). -- Joe Catalano