The silence was eerie, broken only by the sound of my sneakers and the boots of my guide as we crunched through a lunar-like landscape that was pockmarked by grit, rocks, boulders, gravel and ash
Ahead were crumbled rooftops of what had once been three-story buildings. In the distance a steeple poked above the rubble, all that remained of an Anglican church built in 1636. Wooden dormer windows and a sagging roof were mute testimony to an appliance store now buried 30 feet below the surface of what had been the charming colonial-style capital city of Plymouth before 1995.
I was on Montserrat, one of the Leeward Islands just south of Antigua in the Eastern Caribbean, but this was unlike any tropical island scene I had ever witnessed.
Norman Cassell, one of 30 certified guides on Montserrat, had brought me into the exclusion zone, the deserted southern half of the 13-mile-long island that was leveled and buried by the eruptions of the Soufriere Hills volcano that began spewing gases and lava on July 18, 1995. Another massive explosion of gas, ash, steam and lava produced more roaring avalanches of mudflow and rubble on June 25, 1997.
No one perished in the '95 eruption, but 19 died in the '97 event. The pre-eruption population of 12,000 has declined to 5,000. Everyone on the southern half of Montserrat had to be relocated to temporary shelters in the north. Many fled permanently to other islands or to the U.K.
"It's quiet now, but there have been rumblings and sporadic eruptions ever since," Cassell said. "The exclusion area was opened to tours last November, but visitors must come with an authorized guide. Before we bring in visitors, we must sign in at the police station, must carry walkie-talkie radios that link us to the Montserrat Volcano Observatory and show authorization at the gate before gaining entry."
• Book island tours, including the exclusion zone, the Montserrat Volcano Observatory and attractions in the north, through Montserrat Island Tours.
• Rates at the six-room Olveston guest house where I stayed start at $109 per night, single or double. Olveston has a bar, restaurant, pool and complimentary (though intermittent) WiFi.
The observatory, several miles from the volcano, was established in response to the eruptions. Scientists and technicians continually monitor the volcano, conduct helicopter flyovers and issue daily updates on the status of activity.
I met Rod Stewart there, a volcanologist who serves as director of the observatory.
"The lava does not flow; it's viscous," Stewart said. "It forms a lava dome, which then collapses and sends avalanches of rock roaring down the valley."
With every dome collapse, the avalanches push the rubble further into the sea, expanding the coastline. At times the ash plumes have affected neighboring islands and disrupted and canceled flights in the region.
I walked the exclusion zone and later viewed it from the sea on a motorboat piloted by Hubert "Buffy" Buffonge, who told me his village was buried in the '95 eruption.
"The buried city is an attraction, but this island has so much more, as well, to see and do," he said.
Indeed, it does. In my short visit, I hiked part of the Oriole Trail in the Centre Hills forest with my guide, James "Scriber" Daley, who hailed from St. Patrick's village, also now ash-covered and deserted.
We were looking for the Montserrat oriole, the national bird indigenous to the island.
I met David Lea, who runs the Hilltop Coffee House and Family Center, known for its waffles as well as its rich collection of artifacts and memorabilia that tell the story of pre- and post-volcanic Montserrat.
His collection includes a photographic timeline of the famous AIR recording studio, built on Montserrat in the mid-1970s by Beatles producer George Martin. Before the studio was destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, Jimmy Buffett, Elton John, Duran Duran and many others recorded there.
The Gingerbread Hill guesthouse on Montserrat offers views of the rain forest and sea. Photo Credit: Gay Nagle Myers
Donaldson Romeo, Montserrat's premier, described the island as "a place of peace and tranquility. We have hiking, scuba and Plymouth, the modern Pompeii. We attract ecotourists who come for the nature, those interested in studying volcanoes and yachters who are relieved to drop anchor at an undeveloped island."
Windstar's SeaDream ship called at Little Bay, Montserrat's northern port, this past season and will do so in the next cruise season. Passengers currently are tendered in, but Montserrat's long-range tourism plan calls for a cruise pier to accommodate larger ships.
"We have daytrippers coming by ferry from Guadeloupe, and we will reinstate the ferry service from Antigua within the next two months once contracts are signed with operators," Romeo said.
Of the 15,000 visitors in 2015, more than 2,300 were from the U.S. SVG Air has several daily flights from nearby Antigua.
The hotel product currently stands at approximately 200 rooms in small guesthouses and villas.
"The volcano, once our greatest enemy, is now our greatest gift," the premier said. "Tours of the exclusion zone and [the observatory] are a solid revenue stream for us; the rubble created by the volcano has given birth to the new industry of sand mining, and we export much of the material to nearby islands for use in construction."
The steam and gases flowing in and under the volcano provide sources of geothermal energy, and Romeo predicted that by 2020 the entire island will be powered by this energy source.
"Many of our people who fled the island after the eruptions are coming back to us now with degrees and training, which will enable us to become a modern island with a green, smart economy," he said.