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Montserrat for St. Patrick’s Day: Sunshine, Shamrocks and a Smoldering Volcano

March 1, 2011 by · Comments Off on Montserrat for St. Patrick’s Day: Sunshine, Shamrocks and a Smoldering Volcano 

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

Montserrat

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.


Soufriere erupts

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

 

Enter a Photo Contest to Win a Trip to St Lucia

October 15, 2009 by · Comments Off on Enter a Photo Contest to Win a Trip to St Lucia 

Gazebo on the Beach at Coconut Bay Resort

Gazebo on the Beach at Coconut Bay Resort

I traveled to St Lucia about a year ago and believe me, this island offers more than you can imagine- read my article St. Lucia: Small Island, Big Adventure or about my zipline adventure at Zip Therapy.

All you have to do to win a family vacation at Coconut Bay Resort is send a photo to Caribbean Travel and Life magazine. To entice you I’ve included a few of my own photos taken during my wonderful stay at Coconut Bay.

Palm by the beach

Palm on the beach at Coconut Bay Resort, St Lucia

Just follow all the links below.

Win a 5-day/4-night all-inclusive stay at St. Lucia‘s Coconut Bay Beach Resort & Spa!

Think you have a winning Caribbean vacation photo? Send it to us and you just might find yourself on another Caribbean getaway courtesy of St. Lucia‘s Coconut Bay Beach Resort. The family-friendly resort is putting a 4-night stay on the line–including all of your meals, snacks, drinks and even resort taxes + gratuities for one lucky family of four–and all you have to do is share your favorite Caribbean snapshot!

It’s easy to enter in two simple steps: Just become a fan of Caribbean Travel + Life’s Facebook page–where you’ll enjoy daily Caribbean updates like travel news, hotel and airfare deals, contest announcements and more–then submit your favorite Caribbean travel photo to winatrip@caribbeantravelmag.com.

Official Rules


ENTER NOW

Step 1: Click the link below to become a fan of our Facebook page…

Caribbean Travel + Life’s Facebook Page

Step 2: Email us your favorite Caribbean vacation photo at winatrip@caribbeantravelmag.com!

** Bonus: Become a fan of Coconut Bay Beach Resort’s Facebook page too–Then if you win, you’ll also get the VIP treatment with round trip airport transfers, a bottle of champagne and a fruit platter in your room!

The entry period for this contest is October 12th through November 8th, 2009, and winners will be announced by November 20th, 2009.

Official Rules


Your stay includes: four nights of all-inclusive accommodations at Coconut Bay Beach Resort & Spa in St. Lucia for two adults and up to two children (in same room); all meals, snacks and drinks at the resort; fully supervised children’s center; use of the resort’s water park attraction and other amenities; and all hotel taxes and gratuities.

** If you’re a fan of Coconut Bay Beach Resort’s Facebook page, your stay will also include round trip airport transfers from Hewanorra International Airport; a welcome bottle of champagne; and a VIP fruit platter on arrival.


Coconut Bay Beach Resort & Spa, located in St. Lucia’s exotic southern coast, is a 254-room, all-inclusive casual Caribbean resort that caters to couples and families alike. Mirrored after the island’s most famous landmarks, the twin Piton Mountains, Coconut Bay has its own set of twins, Harmony and Splash. “Harmony” is a tranquil adult-only oasis offering the perfect setting for a romantic escape with a palm-fringed pool, braided hammocks, intimate cabana beds and the oceanfront Kai Mer Spa, while “Splash” offers families a tropical playground featuring CocoLand Kidz Klub, a paintball facility, a watersports complex offering kitesurfing and the island’s largest water park.

View of the famous Gros Piton on St Lucia

View of the famous Gros Piton on St Lucia

Official Rules

Kayaking in St Lucia

Kayaking in St Lucia

View while hiking in St Lucia

View while hiking in St Lucia

St. Lucia: Small Island, Big Adventure

January 26, 2009 by · Comments Off on St. Lucia: Small Island, Big Adventure 


How many activities can one stuff into 5 days on an island only 3.5 times the size of Washington, DC? Well, I found enough on St Lucia to fill my plate, in fact there’s plenty more for super-sized appetites.

From Miami, connect directly to the Caribbean isle. All-inclusive resorts abound; my choice was Coconut Bay. You’ll arrive in time for a drink and a walk along the beach before dinner.

For starters, I decided to explore the island on an All Terrain Vehicle (ATV). Within a few minutes, I mastered the four-wheeled bike. I zoomed through grassy fields and up rocky ledges, peering at the Atlantic pounding the shore. I scooted onto sandy beaches where wild horses were grazing and then over to a banana plantation. Row after row of trees hung with bunches of green bananas. Having satisfied my taste buds, I returned my big-wheeled bouncing cycle.

For my entree, I spent the afternoon in one of the most glorious sites I’ve ever visited– Jalousie Beach. I snorkeled under the shadow of the pyramid-like Petite Piton, gazing up at its nearby twin, the Gros Piton. These famous mountains are St Lucia’s landmarks, rising like textbook drawings of volcanoes out of the sea. They blossom in lush foliage and are often shrouded in mist.

Scuba diving was an option, and St Lucia ranks with some of the world’s best. But the Caribbean shines so clear; you can see to great depths without the hassle of air tanks.

The next day I took the ultimate island challenge: a hike to the summit of Gros Piton, almost 3,000 feet. The trail of treacherous loose and moss covered rocks rises near vertical in places.  The UNESCO World Heritage site requires guides to safely lead groups through the climb.

View from hiking - half way up the Gros Piton

View from my hike - halfway up the Gros Piton

Stop at the halfway point. The view is as gorgeous as I imagine the Garden of Eden. Light crystals bounce off the water like shards of glass. The Pitons, in sharp contrast to the turquoise water, shine in ebony beauty. The arduous hike took five to six hours roundtrip. I returned to my hotel exhausted and aching, but wearing an “I Conquered” tee shirt.

On day four, I chose to kayak. Aah, tranquility is silently gliding by the mangroves in a sleek shell. The sapphire lake permitted clear visibility of the colorful tropical fish. My group stopped at Scorpion Island, and fortunately, we didn’t encounter any venomous arachnids. I did find a spectacular conch shell with a radiating fuchsia interior.

Returning once more to Coconut Bay, I rocketed down the water slides in their CocoLand Water Park, coming up with a big grin. To completely relax, I floated twice around the man-made Lazy River until massage time. Indulgence? You bet, but necessary! The Kai Mer Spa enveloped me in jasmine scents as my body soaked in the therapeutically applied oil.

On the last day I squeezed in my dessert: a morning excursion to the Tree Tops Zipline. Letting loose my inner child, I gleefully traversed the rainforest canopy over majestic rivers and plunging ravines. To soar like a parrot was an exhilarating way to end my island extravaganza.

Ziplining through the rainforest

Ziplining through the rainforest

By afternoon I boarded a plane and returned to Jacksonville at nightfall.

Some travelers vacation to escape life; others seek to engage the physical, mental or spiritual challenges. The tiny island of St Lucia offers a lavish banquet to satisfy both hungers. Her natural wonders are a menu in themselves. And, for those who want soup to nuts adventure, she offers a bountiful buffet of eco-friendly options. Fly away and feast on St Lucia.

Beach Resort & Spa: www.coconutbayresortandspa.com
Tree Top Adventures: www.adventuretourstlucia.com
ATV & kayaking: www.islandatvtours.com
Coconut Bay Resort BeachFull Moon over Coconut Bay

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