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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

 

Recalling St. Patrick’s Day in Belfast, Northern Ireland ~ March 2005

March 18, 2009 by · Comments Off on Recalling St. Patrick’s Day in Belfast, Northern Ireland ~ March 2005 

Scottish Ladies

Scottish ladies celebrate St Patrick's Day in Belfast

As related in a previous blog, my first trip to Ireland, a two-day adventure in Dublin, happened back in March of 2000.

In 2005, husband Jay and daughter Laura, then a 14-year-old, nabbed an incredibly low airfare to Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland.  (Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are two different countries.) Older son Steve was not on this trip, but we toasted his birthday as we landed– early on St. Patrick’s Day. This time we arrived at our hotel before the parades started.

In fact, this marked the first year, since the end of the “Troubles,” in 1995 that Belfast even sponsored a St. Patrick’s Day parade. It wasn’t a huge event, some floats and bands, but the mood was electric and a feeling of unity filled the air.The concierge suggested we lunch upstairs at the Crown Liquor Saloon, so we walked over. Built in 1828,  the National Trust of Northern Ireland maintains this pub which glows with a gas-light Victorian atmosphere: gilded mirrors, stained glass, old black and white photos, a tin ceiling, and walls that have heard it all.

We passed a seated group of laughing Scottish ladies from the Highlands.  They explained that they gather annually to celebrate, always in a different Irish city. They were imbibing in grand style and had donned hats, supplied when “a drop of black,” or Guinness was ordered. Our waiter topped  Laura with one, too. We ordered and devoured burger-like sandwiches served with “Champ,” a combination of mashed potatoes, cheese, and chive.

When we walked down the hall, I was stopped by a local woman who overheard my American accent. She made a point of welcoming me to Belfast. I liked that.

Then, we squeezed downstairs through cough producing smoke into a room crammed as tight as Times Square on New Year’s Eve, and just as noisy. Everyone turned toward a telly to cheer The Gold Cup horse race. The lengthy steeple chase race runs through mud filled ponds, over hedges and across grassy fields. Strangely (at least to me) the horse in the lead lost his jockey, but ran on. Rather wild compared to our Kentucky Derby. We hired a “black taxi” as suggested by a guidebook to see the West Belfast Political Wall Murals. First we drove to Shankill Road, the Protestant side. Here, the bricks of working class row-homes were painted with large symbolic scenes.

Bobby Sands

Bobby Sands Mural in Belfast

Our driver pointed out the Crumlin Road jail across from the courthouse, which required an underground tunnel for prisoners’ safe passage to trial.  He said cases were heard by one judge, no jury, during these violent times. Then we cut over to the nearby Catholic area, Falls Road. We stopped as I photographed the mural of Bobby Sands, famous for his hunger strike to death. Although we tried to comprehend, our emotions were disquieted by these neighborhoods.  I would find it difficult, to say the least, to live with all the reminders.

Our driver/guide spoke poignantly, recalling his childhood fear of bombs.  He heeded warnings not to talk to certain children or adults, grasping that this division was reality.  “Not a good way, he explained, “it simply was the way.”

Now, he was proud of his capital city, her economic growth and unification.  He envisioned a happy future for his daughter in Belfast and with sincerity, thanked us for visiting and asked us to spread the word. We left feeling grateful for the opportunity.

Recalling St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin, Ireland ~March 2000

March 17, 2009 by · Comments Off on Recalling St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin, Ireland ~March 2000 

-0803_St. Patrick's Day009Even though I’m not Catholic or Irish, my family and I celebrate St. Patrick’s Day -it’s my son, Steve’s birthday. Why, we’ve even gone to Ireland for the special day-twice.

Debi, Jay & Laura 2000

Debi, Jay & Laura in Dublin- March, 2000

Back in 2000 Steve took a job in England. So, my husband Jay and I, and Laura, our then 9-year-old daughter flew to Dublin arriving on a misty morning. Lush, velvety green hills surrounded us, making it obvious why this country is called the Emerald Isle.

Our taxi was forced to drop us blocks from our hotel; the holiday parade swarmed over the streets. I felt self-conscious and out of place rolling my luggage down the jammed sidewalk to St. Stephen’s Green . There, at last, was our hotel.

Like so many other grand dames, The Shelbourne, boasts a salon for high tea and a reading room with leather chairs, which, to be honest, reeked of cigarette and cigar smoke. The hallway leading to our room included a few stairs and some odd turns, making me realize the building had been renovated numerous times.

But the place had an ambiance most welcoming and, on this day, most festive. Families reunited and embraced distant relatives and dear friends. Children scooted under foot and furniture and no one minded.

By the time we freshened up, the parade had disbursed and the crowds were off in the pubs for lunch. We joined them, but the lines now snaked out onto the sidewalk. While we waited, we discovered buffet presentations were the only choice of the day. That became a problem because Laura was, first of all, overly tired and second, not an adventurous eater. She turned her nose up at Irish stew, corned beef and cabbage, leeks and mutton. Surely the Irish cooked something she liked, but we didn’t find it that day.

By evening Steve, naturally, was ready to party but our young one was ready for bed. Jay and I took turns in the hotel bar meeting Steve and mingling with Irish girls and gents, their complexions as pale and smooth as creamy butter. The accents were distinctive to our ears, and charming. And oh, their glorious auburn hair was pretty enough to evoke poetry.

We raised a glass to Jay’s ancestors (his Mother–the former Patty McCormick), Dublin, Steve, you name it; but before long I also gave into sleep. Not what you’d call a St. Patrick’s blow-out.

In retrospect, I was astonished that the holiday centered so much on family, not drinking. I appreciated the honesty of celebration: the men wearing real shamrocks on their lapels, no tacky fake flowers; no green hair, face paint, leprechaun hats or other exaggerated decor. And certainly no green beer. A trusted friend and a pint of Guinness were enough.

Next day we visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin Castle, walked down to the trendy Temple Bar area filled with colorfully painted pubs, and crossed over a bridge on the River Liffey. (Sounds much more quaint that the Liffey River, doesn’t it?) Thankfully Laura found an acceptable item on the menu–salmon.

Sheep in Ireland

Sheep in Ireland

We met chatty locals and whomever we asked for directions or assistance, always answered us with kindness. We departed Ireland with endearing memories.

…To be continued with a trip to Belfast, Northern Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day, 2005.

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