Exploring Montserrat’s new life after a devastating volcano

The air in Montserrat is magical — it’s filled with a sense of danger, raw power, life. When I stood looking out over the old capital of Plymouth, now a ghost town made up of buildings half-buried in ash, I felt humbled. This island gives you the clear sense that it is an island on edge, alive with the intense beauty of nature and the hearts of a very strong people.

I first came to Montserrat at the age of eight. My family had deep roots on the island, and we moved from Toronto so that my father could take over the family business, a collection of dry goods and grocery stores. The flagship store, Charles Mercer Ltd., sat in the middle of Plymouth, the town that is now covered in pyroclastic flow thanks to a series of volcanic eruptions on the island between 1995 and 2010.

I happened to leave just before the beast started spouting its fury, and I never looked back. But as 2014 came to a close, I decided it was time I did. Upon return, everything looked so … different. The store was buried, not a trace of it left. Old Road Bay, where I spent weekends playing in the sand while my dad golfed or fished nearby, is now a completely different place, as the island is literally expanding. The shoreline I once played on is about 100 metres further out to sea, and the hotel that sits perched above looking out at the bay’s blue waters is abandoned, open to anyone who wishes to look around.

I believe that sometimes in life things must be destroyed for better things to grow, so although I was hit with sadness while touring my former homeland, I was filled with a sense of awe. Because in addition to having so much history, it was exactly the type of place I love to travel to — beautiful, off the beaten path, full of places to explore with very few others exploring them, gorgeous weather and an intimate culture. What more could a tourist ask for?

I spent a day trekking into the bush with the best guide on the island — John “Scriber” Daley, an expert in forestry who’s been showing visitors around the island for years via Scriber’s Adventures — who made it his mission to help me find my old school and house. They too are abandoned because they sit in Fox’s Bay, an area much too close to the Montserrat’s restricted zone, which covers roughly a third of the island. To wander into my old bedroom — home to about five centimetres of ash on the floor and a hole in the roof — was worth every scratch I got on my arms and legs getting there.

And I was lucky enough to reconnect with a former classmate I hadn’t seen in 22 years, Vita, who helped to reacquaint me with the vibrant culture. With Montserrat’s annual Carnival festivities happening, we spent our time together whizzing around the hair-pin turns on this tiny jewel of an island getting her costume ready for the New Year’s Day parade, sipping goat water while bouncing along to music at one of the island’s many block parties, and relaxing at her free-diving club Aqua Montserrat in Little Bay, the new capital city.

On my last day there we made the trek to a new beach — not new as in undiscovered, but new as in new. Since the volcano erupted, not only has the island been pushing existing shorelines further out to sea, but new beaches have been created along the coastline. Locals and expats call this particular one Bora Bora Beach: Sitting on the Atlantic side of the island, with a soaring cliff as a backdrop, it welcomes beach lovers with miles of black sand and breathtaking waves.

Two years ago, I ached to go somewhere far away, somewhere that made me feel like I was standing on the edge of the world, so I travelled to Bhutan. It was an incredible trip that I’ll never forget, but I know now that if I ever want to feel the edge, and feel as though I am standing face to face with something much greater than me, then all I have to do is come home to Montserrat.

Read more about Jocelyn’s trip back home to Montserrat at her blog Noted With Love.

Leave a comment