The scarred island of Montserrat has endured more volcanic eruptions than any other in the region in modern times.
A huge chunk on the southern edge of this small speck in the midst of the Lesser Antilles chain is still demarked by an exclusion zone, deemed too unsafe for both travelers and locals.
The cause? That ash-spewing dome on the horizon; the mighty Soufriere Hills volcano – dormant for hundreds of years but now an unpredictable source of frequent pyroclastic flows and smoke.
But Montserrat is also known as the Emerald Isle, both for its curious Irish-Carib inhabitants (yep, you’ll find Guinness in the pubs here!) and for its deep, lush green backcountry.
This still blooms with the rainforests and the jungles on the north side of the land, topping out on the cliffs around picture-perfect Little Bay Beach, blooming with lime trees and palms.
Today, the sleepy spot (only half-inhabited after many left in the wake of the most recent eruptions) beckons mainly hikers and adventure tourists, while a clutch of secluded coves and luxury beach hotels rounds off the action.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Montserrat:
1. Gawp at the great Soufriere Hills Volcano
The undisputed number one attraction of Montserrat is also – ironically – the thing that’s caused it so much devastation over the years.
Rising to a smoky peak on the southern side of the island, the mighty Soufriere Hills Volcano really is a breath-taking sight to behold.
It’s entirely encompassed by a seclusion zone these days, but travelers can scale to the lookout points of Jack Boy Hill, or make a beeline for the volcano observatory on Cedar Drive, to get front-row seats over the chipped and chiselled mount.
Notice the remnants of lava flows on the southern slopes – these are left from the destructive eruption of 1997, the one responsible for razing the erstwhile island capital, Plymouth.
2. Hit the hiking trails
Despite its southern haunch being almost entirely encompassed by a volcano exclusion zone, Montserrat remains a veritable mecca for hikers and trekkers.
In fact, boat loads of folk with waxed up walking boots head over from nearby Antigua each day, all eager to hit routes like the Oriole Walkway Trail, which weaves through rubber tree groves and overgrown banana plantations.
A more challenging hike is the Blackwood Allen Trail, which crosses steep meadows of ferns between the center of the island and little Salem, while the beautiful Rendezvous Nature Trail offers panoramas over the Caribbean Sea and access to one of the island’s few white-sand beaches.
3. Relax and unwind on Little Bay Beach
Nestled between two headlands of rugged cliffs and a wall of scrub-topped coastal mountains, Little Bay Beach remains one of the most popular seaside spots on all of Montserrat.
It actually buts right up to the eponymous town of Little Bay – the intended onetime capital of the island as whole.
But for now, as the urban area remains under the hammer, this small cove continues to ooze chilled Caribbean vibes.
The sea is shallow and great for swimming, and the sand is soft and glows in hues of yellow as it slopes down towards the lapping waves.
4. Plymouth: The Pompeii of the Caribbean
Although set deep in the exclusion zone on the south side of the island, the former capital city of Montserrat, Plymouth, is just about still visible.
It pokes eerily out of the layers of ash and mud that suffocated it prior to the eruptions of the late 1990s.
Promptly abandoned in the face of the same geological forces that destroyed Pompeii in Italy all those centuries ago, the whole town now lies in ruins.
Although it’s still considered officially unsafe, the spot has been opened for fly-in visits by tourists, who can just spy out the tops of the historic Georgian and Victorian mansions that once made the city such a pretty capital of the Caribbean.
5. Go bird spotting in the Centre Hills
Sprawled out over the highlands of Montserrat, this verdant swathe of primeval tropical rainforest is hailed as one of the most biodiverse birding areas in the Caribbean.
It ranges from the coastal lowlands of the north up to heights of more than 700 meters above sea level, encompassing dwarf forests and evergreen valleys filled with rare fliers and curious animals in-between.
Birders who head here will be able to spy out the rare and elegant likes of Antillean crested hummingbirds, purple-throated Caribs, cuckoos, forest thrushes and more, not to mention a Jurassic array of reptiles in the undergrowth!
6. Hike out to Rendezvous Bay
Sparkling and shining in shades of ivory and cotton white that simply aren’t found anywhere else on the island (Montserrat is more used to black, ash-stained volcanic sands), little Rendezvous Bay remains the highest-rated coastal spot on the island.
Backed by steep scrub-clad hills, it’s wide and accommodating, with powdery sand that edges down to a deep, navy shore.
Rendezvous Bay is hardly accessible though, and everyone who heads here will either need to arrive by boat or take the arduous trek over the Rendezvous Nature Trail, covering high coastal bluffs and clifftop sections alike.
The tricky journey in does mean seclusion, with typically only a few locals to be found for company on the beach.
7. Understand the island’s natural side at the Montserrat National Trust
Complete with an immersive historical section and surrounding botanical gardens, the Montserrat National Trust center is the perfect place to go and get a feel for the island’s unique natural history, its biodiversity and interesting geological story.
The institution has a dedicated exhibition space that hosts changing collections, detailing everything from the mysterious petroglyphs found marking the Montserrat rocks to the growth of the island rainforests and dwarf forests.
There’s also a gift shop for those colourful Caribbean souvenirs, along with a series of outdoor areas laden with waxy orchids and banana trees, rubber groves and blooming tropical flowers.
8. Wonder at the Runaway Ghaut
Carved and chiselled from the landscapes of northern Montserrat in a medley of steep-sided cliffs and vertical ravines, gushing streams and waterfalls, the great Runaway Ghaut is one of the top destinations for hikers and outdoorsy types here.
It cascades all the way down from the highlands of the Centre Hills to the coast, and is perhaps the single most beautiful and dramatic example of one of the run-off water valleys that connect the Montserrat highlands to its shore.
Legend has it that the spring waters of the Runaway Ghaut will enchant visitors to return to the island one day, while that Runaway Ghaut Trail is simply beautiful hiking from the get go!
9. Dive between Redonda and the reefs
Thanks to the fertile, mineral-rich ash and magma that has been spewed into the ocean over the last 20 years by the mighty dome of Soufriere Hills, Montserrat is now home to some of the Caribbean’s most up-and-coming coral reefs.
Meanwhile, the northern and Leeward shores are a home for older, more developed coral gardens, where the mature marine life has migrated and thrived since the eruptions of 1995. These sprawl out at the bottom of the ocean in a medley of great sea sponges and colourful parrotfish, running all the way to the Antiguan island of Redonda to the northwest.
It’s all prime diving country! (SCUBA packages and excursions are widely available around Little Bay and Rendezvous.)
10. Go green on St Patrick’s Day
With Montserrat famed for its curious Irish-Carib inhabitants (Irish folk have been settling here since the 1600s, when many were expelled from the British Isles during the English Civil War), it should come as no surprise that March means one thing and one thing only: St Paddy’s.
Yep, this tiny speck on the map of the Caribbean hosts some of the most raucous Irish celebrations in the tropics.
The locals reconstruct versions of the old market towns built by the first Irish settlers here; they sell arts and crafts with a Gaelic theme; they dress in green and, of course, sip Guinness aplenty!
11. Hit the Sunday BBQ at Ponts Beach View
Sizzling shrimp and skewers of the Caribbean’s freshest snappers smoke and crackle on the BBQ grills at Ponts Beach View every Sunday, signalling in one of the island’s bona fide culinary highlights.
Taking place each week, this humble version of the Carib fish fry is curated by the perennially-smiling John Ponteen, who’s been specialising in simple, tropical foods in his seaside eatery for years.
And while the salty seafood and breadfruit salads are top-notch, it’s the setting here that really comes up trumps: You’ll be dining just a few meters back from the lapping waves of Little Bay Beach!
12. Unravel the island’s past at the Montserrat National Museum
Having been transferred to the capital-in-waiting at Little Bay after the destruction of Plymouth town in the 1990s, the Montserrat National Museum is once again offering travelers a glimpse at the long and interesting history of the island and its people.
Exhibits are varied and informative, dealing with everything from the pre-historic Amerindian tribal times, when those eerie petroglyphs were scrawled into the rocky backcountry here, to the colonial struggle over Montserrat between the British and the French in later centuries.
There’s also a truly eye-opening section dedicated to the destructive eruptions of Soufriere Hills.
13. Beachcomb at Woodlands Bay
The jungle clambers over the cliffs and rocks at Woodlands Bay, draping down towards the brown-beige sands and the frothing Caribbean Sea.
Meanwhile, pieces of washed-out driftwood bob along the shore and the footsteps of former visitors fade as the sand blusters over the beach.
Secluded and empty and with a shoreline that’s often peppered with the pods of migrating whales, this little enclave on the west coast of Montserrat is a fine place to settle down for some sunset viewing or a spot of beachcombing.
One drawback: The waters and rip currents can get rough here, so swimming’s not the best idea.
14. Have a brew at the Hilltop Coffee House & Family Center
Part coffee shop, part community youth project, the Hilltop Coffee House & Family Center can be found set between the swaying palms on Fogarthy Hill in Virgin.
The joint is a fine reward for hikers attempting to conquer the walking route that runs right next to the establishment, with that on-site café serving up some of the most acclaimed cappuccinos and espressos on the island.
There are also chess boards and ping pong tables to enjoy (mainly for the young ones), along with oodles of interesting retro paraphernalia – the heirlooms of the uber-friendly Lea family that run the place!
15. Enjoy pastries and chatter at JavaLava Art Café
A menu of cinnamon-packed Danish pastries, crusty flatbreads and stacks of pancakes doused in fruit and syrup beckon passers-by at the JavaLava Art Café in St. Peter’s.
Those tempted enough to drop in will discover a lively little Caribbean shack-style eatery, where the a la cart bursts with curried chicken and jerk, saltfish patties and even all-American burgers to boot.
The drinks are a real pull too, with healthy fruit smoothies and blended mocktails infused with the fresh fruits of Montserrat itself.
Oh, and then there’s the local following: always smiling, happy and ready to chat!