December 2010-January 2011
Montserrat is an Overseas Territory of the UK in the Caribbean. It is a small island of approximately 5,000 people and has an active volcano. A large-scale eruption in the mid-1990s devastated the island – the capital city Plymouth was, and remains, buried under ash.
The island is divided into different zone – the volcano itself and what remains of Plymouth are in the exclusion zone and people are not permitted to go there. Other zones (e.g., Zone A, Zone B) are sometimes evacuated depending on the activity of the volcano. The website for the Montserrat Volcano Observatory provides information on the hazard level and the different zones - http://www.mvo.ms/
We chose to come to Montserrat because we read that it is “like the Caribbean was 50 years ago” – safe, low-key and not overly developed. You wouldn’t want to come here if your idea of a vacation is shopping, casinos, discos, or a surplus of fine dining choices. Nor would you come here if you were looking for long stretches of white sand beaches. Montserrat does not have these things to offer. This is precisely why we came. Few tourists, no cruise ships, no pan handlers, no touts, free from crime, and hassle-free – the people here approach you because they are genuinely friendly and not because they want something from you. Come to Montserrat if you want to explore small winding roads with no real destination in mind; or if you want to hang out with friendly locals; or if you enjoy seeing chickens, goats and donkeys running wild and grazing freely. It is a great place to come if you want the pace of life to slow down for a while. And don’t forget to drink the water from a stream that runs down the mountain (called Ghauts) … rumour has it that if you do, you are destined to return.
What to Take
The two of us brought only carry-on luggage and that contained more than enough stuff for the two weeks that we were here. You don’t need anything dressy. At the time of year that we were there (December), it was quite warm yet not too hot to wear jeans. However, it never got cool enough that we would need even a light sweater. A light rainproof jacket was a handy thing to have though. We also packed an empty duffle bag in our carry-on baggage in case we bought some things and wanted the option of having checked luggage on the way back (in the end, we didn’t need it even though we bought a few souvenirs).
If we had come with checked luggage, there would have been a few additional things which we would have taken:
- Some good wine (you can find some drinkable wines on the island but nothing great)
- Good ground coffee (you can find instant everywhere and in one store we found passable ground coffee)
- Mosquito repellent (we received a small number of bites; you can buy repellent here but if we weren’t worried about fluid restrictions in our carry on luggage, it would have been good to have this handy for the first night)
- Good oil and vinegar (we love our salads and you can find decent greens here but no fine oil and balsamic or other premium vinegar)
We found the grocery stores had adequate supplies and didn’t think it was necessary to bring any other food items. However, we were told that in July and August, when relatively few tourists visit, that it is very hard to find grocery items so if you are coming at that time, you might want to bring some of your favourite foods.
Coming from Vancouver, it took us a long time to get here. We flew the least expensive rather than the most efficient routes. This meant switching flights in Salt Lake City and then New York City before flying on to Antigua.
In Antigua, we switched to FlyMontserrat, by far the most reliable way of getting from Antigua to Montserrat. No matter where you come, you will likely have to land in Antigua. At customs, be sure that you join the shorter line for connecting flights or you will be in line for hours. The connecting line flight takes less than 30 minutes to get through.
Waiting in the Antigua airport, the FlyMontserrat flight was not announced. Instead we were located by airport staff as being two of the seven people on that flight. We were simply walked out to the runway and on to a small 8-seater plane that was refueling there. The pilot then announced to us that the fuel truck did not have enough fuel to fill the plane. So they were going to see if they could find another plane. It was getting dark and we had only one hour left of daylight (they won’t fly when it gets dark because the Montserrat airport does not have lighting for evening flights). Fortunately another FlyMontserrat plane (they only have three) came within a half an hour and we reloaded the luggage on to that plane. Good thing too as the only other option, i.e., taking a ferry was out of the question due to rough seas over the past few days. If you are on a tight schedule, do not assume that you can take a ferry. Ferry crossings are cancelled quite frequently, sometimes for days at a time.
A very short flight and we touched down just as the sun set! We were met by Winston Telesford, a taxi driver who had been sent to the airport by the owner of the villa that we were renting. On the way to the villa, Mr. Telesford stopped at the police station first. Our rental vehicle, a Toyota Rav4 costing $40US per day including insurance and taxes, was waiting for us at the villa and we needed a local driver’s license from the police station in Salem or in Brades. To obtain the local driver’s license, you only need to show your own driver’s license and pay EC$50. The police station is open 24 hours a day so you can get these at any time. Then Mr. Telesford drove us the rest of the way to our villa where our 4X4 awaited and the owner, Mr. Ken Cassell, met us.
Where to stay
We stayed in a villa while we were in Montserrat. And we couldn’t imagine staying here in any other type of accommodation. The prices of the villas on Montserrat are very inexpensive compared to those on other Caribbean islands. We thought most were bargain-priced, even in high season. Having a villa allowed us to cook dinner at home (which we often did) and go for a swim in the pool after a day of being out.
There are many fine villas to choose from. We stayed at Villa Tropicasa - www.sunislandrealestate.com/villatropicasa/
It is a spacious two-bedroom villa with pool and jacuzzi, powerful A/C in the bedrooms, two bathrooms with showers and bathtubs (one jetted), kitchen with all the basic necessities, TV/DVD, BBQ and WiFi. There was also daily maid service included but we thought that would be excessive and so asked that they just come twice a week. The place could have used a bit of updating – some of the kitchen appliances such as the dish washer were past their prime – but otherwise we were very happy with our choice of accommodation. We were initially concerned that the pool was unheated but the water felt fine once we got used to it.
If you prefer not to stay in a villa, the suites at the Royal Palm Club looked very nice and the food there was excellent too.
Driving is on the left-hand side of the road. The speed limit is supposed to be 20 mph although most of the traffic moves faster. The roads are narrow. And there are often deep ditches on the side of the road so you need to be careful. There is not a lot of traffic but many of the cars you encounter will honk at you. This is usually just a polite “here I am” or “hello” but sometimes it may mean that someone wants to pass you.
They have free maps of Montserrat at the airport (right before customs) as well as at the tourist office in Brades. We were glad though to have picked up a map at the airport as we wouldn’t have been able to find the tourist office without it! A map was also provided at our villa but if you’re driving from the airport, you’ll want the map sooner.
If the map you have shows only one road across the Belham River to get there, do not believe it! We followed the map and ended up in the middle of the river bed and had to traverse roads with muddy holes and piles of sand. The risk of getting stuck was great! We only learned later that there is a direct route across (from Old Towne to Garibaldi Hill) that doesn’t require that you drive down the river bed. None of the maps show this.
The road up to Garibaldi is steep and only wide enough for one car, so you will have to do some fancy manoeuvering if you encounter a car coming the other way. From the top you have great views of both the volcano and the devastated previous capital of Plymouth. Even on a clear day, the view of Plymouth may appear hazy due to gases coming from the volcano.
Jack Boy Hill
You can take the short cut to Jack Boy Hill by going through the road that cuts across the centre of the island. It is a small winding road and you will see houses perched on the hill, with sweeping views of the ocean. Once you are past the town of St. John’s, you will see the turn off for Lookout Village. This is a new village that has been created as the result of the evacuation from the volcano. Beyond this point, the rest of the road to Jack Boy Hill is without houses. The turn off to Blake’s Estate takes you to Blake’s Estate Stadium if you want to check that out. Continuing on the road to Jack Boy Hill, you will see many goats and likely a number of donkeys. The road is wide but filled with pot holes so you need to go slowly in parts.
When you get to the end of the road you will see the turn off to the viewpoint on your right. Pull into one of the few parking spots near the lovely viewing facility. If you continue all the way up the road past the viewing facility, you will encounter the land fill (and watch out because there is broken glass all over the place!). There is a shaded area, some viewing binoculars and a restroom plus a few picnic tables overlooking the view. There is a great view of the area near Plymouth (though you can’t really see any buildings) and the volcano.
Boat Tour of Plymouth
Highly recommended! We went with Green Monkey Dive Shop for the boat tour although there are other boat tour operators. They need at least four people to do this but if there are less than four, just put your name down and there is a good chance more people will join. The tour leaves at about 10:30 and lasts about 2.5 hours. You will see fine views of the island and then pull in very close to the destroyed town of Plymouth. You really feel overwhelmed by the degree of devastation! And photographers will be pleased that at this time of the day, the sun is directly behind you making for great photos of Plymouth with the volcano behind it. The seas can get a bit rough. Two of the ten people on our boat felt some seasickness. It would be a good idea to take some Gravol or some other anti-nausea medication if you are prone to seasickness.
In addition to boat tours, the Green Monkey is a great place to go to organize diving, rent kayaks and arrange hiking trips. The delightful owners are friendly and helpful. And for cat lovers like us, they have at least four or five beautiful cats that they adopted which wander the premises.
The beaches here are very small and have dark sand. And when the seas are a bit rough (as when we were there) some of the beaches are simply washed away. Still there are a few options around the island so be certain to check them out. One of the nicest beaches (outside of the exclusion zone) is Rendezvous Beach which we saw only during our boat ride. Apparently you need to hike to get to it as there are no roads that go that way. We were told that the hike takes about 40-60 minutes and is a mild to moderate hike. Chances are that you will be the only people on Rendezvous Beach after you hike there. We probably would have spent some more time exploring the beaches if the seas weren’t so rough as we were told that there were some caves one could snorkel into from the beaches (some caves you could snorkel into are filled with fruit bats too which would be a very interesting experience). But the water was far too choppy for us to consider this.
Montserrat Volcano Observatory
Drive into Salem and just follow the signs. They are open Monday to Thursday with a video showing every hour at a quarter past the hour (i.e., 10:15, 11:15, etc.). The last showing is at 3:15. The video is 20 minutes long. All “tours” are self-guided – apart from the video, there is not much else to do – there are a few informational posters on the walls and they have a few items on sale (t-shirts, key chains, post cards, mugs, DVDs, etc.) which are not display. The receptionist will show them to you if you ask. The video is interesting and definitely worth stopping by for a visit. Plus there are excellent views of both the volcano and the Beltham River. Try to go on a clear day for the best photo opportunities.
Check the website for the latest information on opening hours (hours were different from the information provided in the guide book that what we had even the guide book was printed in 2010) - http://www.mvo.ms/
We tried to drive up here but the incline was far too steep with loose gravel and many boulders. So we turned back. It may have been that they were doing some work on the road as there were a couple of construction vehicles in the area. The road might be better in a few months. We are guessing that there would be good views from the top but don’t really have a clue as we weren’t willing to risk the drive up.
Shopping for Food
There are several relatively, large sized supermarkets on the island. We went to the following four most frequently:
- Ram’s Emdee supermarket (in Salem)
o We went here regularly and found they had a very good selection of foods. This is the only place on the island where we found blue cheese, goat cheese, sour cream, veggie burgers and tofu. We were also able to buy frozen grouper, kingfish, tilapia and pork tenderloin here. The owner will exchange your $US to $EC for a slightly better rate than you will find at the two banks. There is no sign outside nor are hours posted. It is on your right hand side just shortly after you enter Salem (just around a sharp turn and there are often many cars parked on the road in the area when it is open)
- Ashok’s supermarket (in Brades)
o In addition to a good selection of food, they do Indian Take-Out food. Ask at the check-out for an extensive two page menu. You can order in advance (at least one hour) and then come by later to pick-up your freshly prepared Indian food. Highly recommend the butter paneer! Lots of vegetarian options plus lamb, fish and chicken dishes.
o This is almost at the bottom of the hill when you drive down it. It is on your right hand side, just before the Lyme Bar and Snackette. Look for their sign.
- King’s supermarket (in St. Peter’s)
o Right next to the gas station. A smaller store but still has many items to pick from. Unless you are staying near the airport, the gas station next to King’s is the one that you will be using most of the time.
- Angelo’s supermarket (in Brades)
o As you begin to head down the hill, this will be on your left hand side. Look for the sign.
There are other supermarkets, e.g., the A&J Supermarket in Davy Hill, and food marts located throughout Montserrat. Some stores simply don’t have signs indicating what they are named. Don’t hesitate to just walk in and check them out. Every store has something different to offer! We only found one store (A&J) that had ground coffee although instant coffee was ubiquitous.
Although not a grocery store, Karishma’s on the Davy Hill Main Road had excellent Indian take-away food in their freezer. Look for a freezer on the left hand side of the store or ask. The vegetarian samosas were fantastic. When we were there, they also had a good selection of veggies dishes and chicken curries. All were very good! The frozen dishes sell out quickly and nothing remains in the freezer for more than a week or so.
All the grocery stores had a very good selection of beer (Red Stripe, Carib, Presidente, Corona, Amstel, Samuel Adams, Guinness, etc.) and some basic cheap but drinkable wines (about 20-30 $EC per bottle – e.g., sauvignon blanc from Chile, rose from Languedoc, etc.).
For a better selection of wines, check out the stationary store near the Government buildings (in Brades just off the main road … going down the hill past Ashok’s look for a left-hand turn indicating the Tourist Office, continue past this down the road all the way to the end). The wines here are about 60 $EC and up and include wines from Columbia Crest, Chateau St. Michelle, Hardy’s, etc. We bought a three bottles of older vintages here but a couple were somewhat “musty” ….perhaps due to the difficulties with wine storage in a warmer climate.
Note that you likely won’t find fresh fish on the island. The fishermen tend to only bring in small catches of small fish that they keep for themselves. You will instead find frozen filets of fish such as grouper, kingfish and tilapia in most supermarkets.
Other places to pick up some food to go include:
- Soft Freeze – a Montserrat man who studied at Concordia University in Montreal makes great tasting home-made ice cream in a number of flavours plus vegetable, cheese, and meat pastries.
- Evelyn’s – a small store on the left hand side of the road (as you head towards Salem) just a short ways past King’s supermarket and gas station. She makes her own baguettes, croissants, doughnuts, cinnamon rolls, meat pastries, plus other baked goodies.
Shopping for Souvenirs
The places with the best selection are:
- Last Chance Souvenir and Gift Shop (drive to the airport and it is just outside of the airport building)
- Oriole Gift Shop (at the Montserrat National Trust in Salem)
There are not a lot of options for souvenirs but some possibilities are the locally made hot sauce, guava jam, dish clothes with the recipe for making goat water, wood carvings and some t-shirts. A good gift for those back home are the Emerald Spa locally-produced soaps made with volcanic ash (good for exfoliation!) which can be found at the Oriole Souvenir shop or you can contact Emerald Spa – http://www.emeraldspaonline.com/
On the way up the hill to St. John’s, the Manshop, previously owned by Arrow, Montserrat’s contribution to the international soca scene, is the best place to go for souvenir t-shirts.
Also, check out the Woolcock’s Craft and Photo Gallery right next to the Soft Freeze in Brades. The lady here makes her own Bread Fruit Crème Liquer, Bread Fruit Cookies, Coconut Sugar Cakes, plus things such as mugs and t-shirts that she decorates herself (you can ask her to make something to order if you wish).
For souvenirs, there is also the Last Coconut in Paradise in Brades, just up the hill from Angelo’s Supermarket but it was never open when we went by.
A local dish is Goat Water (i.e., a type of goat stew) and many places sell this though only on Fridays and Saturdays. We had Goat Water at People’s Place (at the top of the hill with all the hairpin turns), Lyme Bar (in Brades) and Sup’s Bar and Restaurant (in Brades).
Mountain Chicken, the large local frog, was once a national dish but is now considered endangered and so you will not find this on the menus anywhere.
Janeen at Sup’s is from Jamaica but has lived in Montserrat for 19 years. She specializes in both Jamaican and Montserrat dishes. Call ahead and she will prepare some awesome Jamaican dishes which you won’t find elsewhere.
There are quite a number of restaurants and snack bars which provide food to go and we certainly didn’t go to them all. Our personally biased reviews are based on a one-time experience. And one of us is an omnivore while the other is a vegetarian so this influences our experience and rating.
Royal Palm Club
A bit hard to find but worth the effort. As you head out of Salem continue past the Runway Ghaut and then just beyond the turn to Woodland’s Beach, look for a traffic mirror on the left hand side (this is before the turn for Palm Loop Road). You are going to turn on the road to your right here. As you go up this road, take the second right. Follow this road all the way up. When you get to the top where you have to turn left or right, go right. Keep going. At the very end of the road is the Royal Palm Club. Best to call in advance to make sure that they are open and can fit you in. They also have some suites available for people who want to stay on the premises – looks like a lovely option!
We went for Sunday Brunch. A great buffet with all kinds of things such as three kinds of thin crust pizza (excellent!), fish and chips, eggs Florentine, potatoes, vegetables, etc. etc. All very well executed. Lots of vegetarian options and you could go back for seconds, thirds, etc. The owners, Trevor and Heather Stephenson, are charming hosts and the place has a wonderful ambience unique to Montserrat. A must do and a favourite hangout for expats!
We went again for dinner and the menu had a range of six different pizzas, ribs and fish and chips. We both ordered the pizzas – one vegetarian and the other Mexican –style. The crusts were thin and the sauce base delicious. A
Olveston House - http://www.olvestonhouse.com/
In Salem, down the hill from Ram’s, and then past the police station on the left hand side. This is the house owned by former Beatles manager Sir George Martin. They have a number of rooms available for accommodation plus a restaurant. You should make reservations for dinner. Olveston has a BBQ buffet every second Wednesday and we selected a Wednesday when the buffet was on. You need to get there by 7 pm and get in line early if you hope to go back for seconds. Even then, there is no guarantee that all dishes will be available for seconds. As expected of a BBQ, lots of meat (ribs, chicken, etc) and a rather limited vegetarian selection (a couple of salads, roasted potatoes and steamed vegetables). They also have a dessert buffet. The setting is very nice and for Beatle fans, there are photos of the Beatles on the wall (taken by Linda McCartney). B
On the main road in Brades, left-hand side as you go down the hill. We went here for lunch. Very limited selection on the day that we were there and they didn’t have many of the things that were on the menu. The choices were pork chops, fish or chicken. The pork chops here were the choice for one of us and they were deemed delicious. A veggie plate (not on the menu) was prepared for the vegetarian (salad, rice and beans, small piece of mac and cheese) and it was okay. We have been told that this is a better place to come for dinner. Pizzas are on offer at dinner but oddly, are not available at lunch. For the pizzas, you can also order in advance and pick up to go (there is a fairly good selection of toppings). C+
In Salem, down the hill from Ram’s and then past the police station on the right hand side. Turn in to the drive way where you see the sign. This is a one woman show. She does everything… cooks, serves, you name it. Absolutely remarkable how she does it all. You can dine outside on the verandah or in. Her cat will likely come by and say hello as you eat The Caribbean pork was nicely spiced and tender. And she made a special dish of noodles and loads of fresh vegetables stir fried as a veggie dish which was tasty, filling and creative. Nice ambience to sit outside in the evening. B+
In Salem, as you go down the hill turn right at the church (before the police station) and travel down that road for a short distance. The restaurant will be on your right hand side. It is open for breakfast and lunch. They have burgers, quesadillas, and rotis among other things. The fish burger with fries was very good but even better was the vegetarian quesadilla filled with cheese, spinach, peppers and onions – yum! They also have quesadillas with shrimp. The quesadillas are huge and while we are ravenous eaters, we noticed other tables split the quesadillas between two diners Great place for lunch! B+
On the top of the hill with the hairpin turns between Brades and Salem. It is a very small hut with only a couple of tables inside. You can order to go or eat inside. Limited menu and no vegetarian options. But very popular with locals (we saw no tourists here other than ourselves) and a good place to get Goat Water. They also often have fish and chicken. The curried mutton is very good. And get the stuffed rotis if they have them … very tasty and filled with curried chicken and potatoes. Excellent value. B
Lyme Bar and Snackette
In Brades, one day a week (usually Fridays and/or Saturdays but best to ask inside), a man comes here in a taxi and serves Goat Water as well as BBQ pork from about noon to 2:00 pm or so. Very popular with locals and it is a good open-air central place in town to stop to have a drink. C+
Small place in St. John’s. As you head in from Brades you will see this past the gas station on the right hand side. No vegetarian options were offered except for French fries. The only other food on offer was burgers and chicken curry. One of us had the chicken curry which came with an excellent selection of vegetarian side dishes, e.g., pumpkin. Our server was not particularly friendly or helpful. In retrospect, we should have spoken to the chef who could have prepared a full vegetarian meal. But the server ruled out this option. C-
Ziggy’s - http://www.ziggysrestaurant.com/
See instructions for getting to Royal Palm Club. But instead of turning right at the end of the road, turn left. The restaurant is right there in your face as you drive up the road and bear right. Many consider Ziggy’s the finest dining in Montserrat. We concur. Make reservations. We went for New Year’s Eve. There were plenty of vegetarian dishes on the list of appetizers but not on the list of mains. Nonetheless, Ziggy’s was willing to make up a special vegetarian dish which was superb. The omnivore had an excellent duck confit as appetizer, watermelon with goat cheese as palate cleanser, oxtail stew as a main, and chocolate sludge as dessert. The food was as good as anything we’ve had anywhere in the Caribbean. Dinner for two (appetizers, mains and desserts) plus a bottle of wine with service charge and tip came to $EC350. Higher priced than most but good value in our opinion. The setting was very nice and service was good although lagged a bit at the end of the meal. This was the only restaurant on the island that we encountered which took credit cards. They have a friendly cat named “Girlie” who will likely greet you. A
Other bits of Info
- For some of the best fresh veggies on the island, do visit the people selling on small stands along the roadside. They had cucumbers, potatoes, breadfruit, lettuce and a number of other veggies while we were there include Jamaican red sorrel (i.e., fresh hibiscus flowers) which you can use to make a tasty drink.
- While we were able to get phone service on our iPhone here, we were not able to get data via 3G. This wasn’t a problem given that our villa had WiFi.
- Remember that electricity is 240 Volts so check any electrical devices before coming (plugs tend to be the standard North American type).
- Don’t bother to load down your luggage with books. The Montserrat Public Library will give you a card for a $EC25 deposit and they have a great selection of books!
- Some restaurants include a 10% or 15% service charge. If service was very good and you want to show your appreciation, you can top this off with an additional 5-10% tip but don’t feel obligated to do so.
- The island was settled by Irish Catholics escaping English persecution in the 1600s. Montserrat is the only country in the world, other than Ireland, where St. Patrick’s Day is a legal holiday. Visitors to Montserrat receive a green shamrock in their passports upon arrival.
- Montserrat was a major world source for limes in the 1800s. The British navy came by regularly to get their limes (to prevent scurvy) and the term “limey” is thought by some to have originated here in the 1880s to describe the British seamen.
- There are two banks on Montserrat, both with reliable and functional ATM machines: The Bank of Montserrat and the Royal Bank of Canada. We used the Royal Bank of Canada which provided a very favourable rate if you are exchanging $CAN to $EC. Royal will also exchange Euros and Pounds Sterling to $EC. If you have $EC left over, the Royal Bank of Canada will exchange them back to your currency of choice at a very good rate so don’t feel that you need to spend everything that you exchange.
Montserrat Tourist Board - http://www.visitmontserrat.com/
Montserrat Tourism Information - http://www.montserrat-today.com/
Montserrat Reporter weekly newspaper - http://www.themontserratreporter.com/
Montserrat Volcano Observatory – http://www.mvo.ms/
Montserrat on Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montserrat
Montserrat National Trust - http://www.montserratnationaltrust.ms/