Category Archives: Global Travel

Montserrat for St. Patrick’s Day

Below is a story I wrote after visiting Montserrat on St. Patrick’s Day, March, 2010.


Sunshine, Shamrocks and a Smoldering Volcano

Mention a visit to Montserrat and you can expect quizzical expressions. Spanish mountain? Massachusetts college? West Indies island?

The name applies to all three, but only the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean beckons with shamrocks, sunshine and the still-smoldering Soufriere volcano. Travelers savvy enough to venture beyond neighboring Antigua, Guadeloupe or St. Kitts find a tropical throwback to another time. The British-governed territory endears itself to divers, nature lovers and villa vacationers with unspoiled reefs and a unique Irish-Caribbean culture. Montserrat’s people maintain phoenix- like hope, despite the fact that the volcano has rendered two-thirds of their island off-limits.

Outside Ireland, Montserrat is the only place to declare St. Patrick’s Day a national holiday — even passport entries come stamped in the shape of a shamrock. Celebrations honor the 17th-century Irish indentured servants who settled here after fleeing anti-Catholic violence. The festival also recalls a failed slave uprising of March 17, 1789. Resilient islanders merge all traditions and ethnicities for a week-long party.

Fly MontserratMy visit to the 39 square mile island began with a flight to Antiqua followed by a 15-minute adventure on Fly Montserrat’s 8-seat twin engine Islander plane. Upon arrival, I was given an invitation to attend a party at the Governor’s house that evening. Apparently March 16th is when the festivities begin as the honorable Peter Andrew Waterworth met me wearing an orange tee shirt emblazoned with green lettering and a plaid kilt. He carried a pewter tankard of Guinness stout, flown in from Ireland for the occasion. Dublin’s own Martin Healy band entertained with flute and fiddle until local crooner, Shaka Black commandeered the microphone.

Debi and the Governor

Back in the eighties and early nineties, music ignited this tiny (39 square miles) mountainous isle. Sir George Martin, the former Beatles producer, built AIR Studios for recording stars like Paul McCartney, Sting and Elton John. Mick Jagger flew down too, along with Dire Straits and Jimmy Buffett, who recorded his album Volcano here. Arrow, a Montserrat native, sang hot, hot, hot as reggae beats pulsed in discos and nightclubs while calypso simmered through posh villas and restaurants of brightly colored stucco.


Then, on July 18, 1995, a loud rumble, like a jet roar, swept over the tropical landscape. Longtime resident and expat Carol Osborne recalls seeing smoke rise from a green mountain–not wispy puffs but powerful columns shooting skyward. The plumes kept churning and the noise kept pounding, day and night. Plymouth, the capital, and the surrounding southern hills were emptied–no small problem given that the north end of the island had little in the way of housing or other facilities for 10,000 residents.

Finally, the Soufriere Hills volcano went back to sleep, but the temperamental toddler wasn’t through with her tantrums. She acted up again and again, spewing ash, which necessitated masks for breathing and numerous evacuations. Then she blew her top, exploding like a wild child flinging off her clothes, the verdant peak transformed into gray shale.

Today, she continues, a turbulent teen. One day she’s gentle and kind, approaching sweet sixteen; the next day, she rages. Life with teenage Souffi, as I nicknamed her, teeters on the edge, and Montserrat is still without a new capital. Its remaining 4,500 residents will never be the same.

Still, a retreat to her simple lifestyle blesses one with a laid-back escape. Rent an inflatable kayak at Scuba Montserrat and paddle around the corner to Rendezvous Bay, the only golden-hued beach. All the others glimmer with sparkly black sand and typically lie empty, except in the fall when the green and hawksbills turtles nest ashore. Woodlands Beach, which has restrooms and showers, offers views of migratory humpback whales in the spring.

Inflatable kayak

Divers plunge into the slightly warmer aquamarine Caribbean Sea (79 to 85 degrees) due to the volcano, which formed boulders, pinnacles and walls that now anchor new coral reefs. Troy Depperman at Green Monkey Dive Shop guides visitors into caves and rock formations where spotted morays, porcupine fish and octopuses hang. Deep-sea fishing benefits from the lack of cruise-ship traffic. Wahoo, bonito, shark, marlin and tasty yellowfin tuna cavort just two to three miles offshore.

Tourists, especially the eco-kind, enjoy hiking on the 14 well-marked trails established by the National Trust. At 2,437 feet, Katy Hill requires a guide, as the often-overgrown route easily leads visitors astray. The trail demands a high level of fitness and about five strenuous hours. Oriole Trail, the most frequented, provides 1,287-foot scenic outlooks and, if you’re lucky, a sighting of the endangered Montserrat Oriole. James Scriber, a former forest ranger, leads hikes and recounts local lore. With his thumb, mouth and voice, he mimics their song, luring the melodic creatures out of the bush and almost into his hand.

A boat ride to see the ruins of Plymouth, frequently called the modern-day Pompeii, is a must. Worldwide, no other destination compares with the ghostly apparition of the lost capital. I cannot forget my first sight of the now-forbidden city that stands as if Medusa turned it to stone.

Buried Capital City

Soufriere doesn’t spew lava; she heaves red-hot rocks and boulders over the dome like popcorn, along with blasting steam currents called pyroclastic flow. They travel up to 100 miles per hour, mushrooming like clouds of an atomic bomb. During Montserrat’s rainy season (usually July) gushers gather trees, rocks, ash and mud in a mixture resembling wet concrete, then flow in torrents down the ghuats (ruts) created over time. Gradually Plymouth has sunk deeper and deeper, buried in a cement stew. Sightseers cruise her shores but aren’t allowed to stop. Nonetheless, the outing engulfs the senses with dusty smells, eerie quiet and a stark vision of a once-vibrant village.

Buried House

Plymouth took a direct hit, but her suburbs on the neighboring emerald mountainside suffered, too. The lavish villas and Creole cottages paint a memorable still life in the government-quarantined exclusion zone.

Don’t miss the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, where scientists monitor the situation 24 hours a day. Watch the 3-D documentary of past eruptions to understand the volcano’s dynamic force. An eruption in February 2010, sent ash billowing 40,000 feet and carpeted the last remnants of the control tower at the former W.H. Bramble Airport. Pyroclastic flows create new land, leaving the seawater at shoreline a gorgeous luminescent turquoise and increasing the mass from 39 square miles to more like 41. But no one can use the additional property–temperatures below the ground simmer around 300 degrees.

New Land Formation

Folks have high hopes for the geo-thermal wattage in the volcano’s core. David Lea, a longtime resident and documentary videographer, said Montserrat could become “the breadbasket of power in the Caribbean.” If only the Montserratians could finance and pull off such a grand, eco-friendly project.

Passport entries come stamped in the shape of a shamrock, recalling a distinctive Irish heritage. Outside Ireland, Montserrat is the only place to declare St. Patrick’s Day a national holiday. Celebrations honor the 17th-century Irish indentured servants who settled here after fleeing anti-Catholic violence and recall a failed slave uprising of March 17, 1789. Resilient islanders merge all traditions and ethnicities for a week-long party.

St. Patrick’s Day Parade

A parade starts near Little Bay, the proposed new capital, and marches to the Village Heritage Festival, where replicas of plantation slave huts and traditional African food take center stage. Try Duckna, a paste of shredded sweet potato, coconut and spices, wrapped in elephant-ear leaves (taro) and tied with strands of banana palm. The national dish, Goat Water, reigns most popular despite its less-than-enticing name. It looks, tastes and smells like spicy gumbo with pieces of tender goat meat.

Expats and visitors from other Caribbean islands unite at the Green Monkey Bar. The Martin Healy Band from Dublin plays, while patrons quaff pints of Guinness along with mango rum punch.  But…no green beer. At Soca Cabana, reggae artist and Montserrat native Shaka Black belts a soulful tune. Music once brought prosperity to this island and now it simply unites. Mother Nature bubbles up clean mountain water, breezy trade winds and planetarium-worthy stargazing. But some days she also blows ash in the air. Come see the haunting beauty and listen to her song.

Flute Player

Nova Scotia ~ A Mystical Escape to Oceanstone Inn

When one arrives in Nova Scotia they enter the spellbinding zone of tidal time. On this Canadian province Mother Nature takes charge with clocklike precision, her tides ebb predictably and massively.

In fact, the miraculous shift of water in Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy is the highest in the world. Twice a day 115 billion tons of water move in and out causing a rise and fall of 20, 30, often 40 feet. During a full moon and high winds, Bay of Fundy tides rise as high as fifty feet as if to emphasize the smallness of man relative to nature.

Upon arrival, I was greeted with beguiling moonlight and the seductive sloshing of waves lulling me to sleep as they broke near my door. The fullness of the beach emerged with morning’s low tide, reminding me of the regularity of the universe:  spring follows winter, rain falls, the sun rises.

If you head in the direction of famed Peggy’s Cove, a tiny fishing village known for its iconic lighthouse, you pass Indian Harbour where the sprawling Oceanstone Inn dons the landscape. Seven maritime cottages pepper the estate creating a private, romantic retreat, one of simple, rustic splendor and homey comforts. You kick-off your shoes and feel at ease, time slows and distractions fade. Nature’s vibes seep through my toes and feet.

Owners Ron and Carole Ron MacInnis manage the establishment with a benevolent spirit. They welcome each guest as family and coax them to relax and enjoy the glorious gardens and magical coast. Ron, the resident Thoreau, is a peaceful environmentalist concerned with discovering life’s spiritual needs. He’ll quote a line of poetry to make a point in the most charming way. Carole, on the other hand, darts about the grounds like a fire-fly. She is Goldilocks delivering baskets of breakfast goodies or offering help whenever needed.

Oceanstone Inn and Cottages from the water's edge.

I decided to venture along the property’s shoreline, negotiating a challenging, tiered mound of rocks.  A torrent of random thoughts entered my head: be strong and tenacious, withstand the gusty storms just like these stones. But at the same time, be free to wander akin to the pebble I tossed in the ocean. I picked up another and rubbed my fingers along its smooth worn edges, perhaps a reminder to soften my own. Then, I simply sat, breathed, absorbed the sun’s warmth and began to feel radiant.

Next morning, I awoke before sunrise and slipped out on the upper deck of my two-story cabin, the Crow’s Nest. I stared to my right at the stalwart beacon of a tiny dilapidated light station. Paddy’s Head Lighthouse shined brightly within the vibrant, planetarium-clear night sky. I tiptoed down the cottage stairs to a small kitchen and brewed morning coffee. Sinking into a dreamlike stupor, I surrendered and relished the nothingness of the moment.

At dawn, my group and I departed to photograph the famous red and white lighthouse of Peggy’s Cove. Ghostly filaments of mist gradually evaporated as lavender skies awakened the coast. We carefully crossed over massive granite slabs; their elemental strength bespeaking ancient age. The Cove thrives as a stopping place for tourists, the most photographed destination in Canada, but also offers a pause for inward reflection. I listened and heard the repetitive beating of my heart as it matched the rhythm of the sea.

The wonderment of a new day emerged with gulls flying and squawking a cheery greeting. The treacherous taunts of the Atlantic turned more playful, frolicking and shooting salty spray over the gray behemoth boulders, only to retreat with a whimper. Again, I aligned with the ebb and flow of the tides.

Waves crash below the famous lighthouse at Peggy's Cove.

Nova Scotia is home to some fabulous fishing and luscious lobster beckons as a decadent treat. After indulging in the savory crustacean, I practically dove onto a bed of yellow-green kelp to capture a picturesque shot. As kelp sustains sea life, I found  it nourished my soul.

Kelp covers the Cove

I returned to the lighthouse in the late afternoon and eyed purple hues and shades of mauve glittering off the water. They danced a sensuous bolero that I longed to join. The wind’s chill bore down on my skin stealing my concentration and resisting my attempts to stay warm.

Suddenly, low angled rays hit the windows of a small house reflecting a fiery golden glow. The scene looked so hauntingly dramatic and surreal. Was I actually in such a mystical place?

Eventually the sun set and an ancient Celtic ballad rose in the air sounding like a bagpiper’s lament. It’s been said there are thin places where the dividing line between the spiritual and ordinary come closer. Indeed, Nova Scotia is such a place and I lingered betwixt and between.

Afternoon sun in Peggy's Cove

If you go:  Oceanstone Inn and Cottages