There are things to do in Montserrat for hikers, beach-goers, and history buffs. The island of Montserrat in the Caribbean is a territory of the UK, and not particularly well known outside of the region. Currently, what makes it particularly unique is that it is home to an active stratovolcano, which has made more than half of the island unliveable and dangerous with its rapidly moving pyroclastic flows. This activity began in 1995 and has continued sporadically to this day (although the last explosion as of 2020 was in 2010).
While this is, in fact, very interesting, Montserrat is also home to beautiful volcanic beaches, great hiking paths, and a very friendly community. Much like the other islands that I have visited throughout the Caribbean, this is a very special place, which should be more than a stop on a cruise ship itinerary. No matter your travel style, the island has something for you, and you should plan on spending at least 2-3 days here in order to get a good taste of the country. It might just steal your heart in that time!
2020 COVID-19 Disclaimer: Please do not consider this post encouragement to travel before it is safe.
Like the rest of the world, Montserrat is protecting it’s people by limiting travel and quarantining people that fly in. It shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s no time to travel overseas at the moment. But I do hope this will serve as inspiration to visit the island when it is safe to do so for yourself and when it is safe for everyone living in Montserrat as well. I visited Montserrat in February before the outbreak stopped the world.
(1) Tour the Island and Plymouth with Montserrat Island Tours
Plymouth is the former capital of Montserrat, and the only place that visitors can get a sense for the impact that the Soufriere Hills Volcano has had on this little island nation. If you are silly like me, and think that you can just wander your way on over there by yourself in a rental vehicle, think again.
Zone V, where Plymouth and the volcano both live, are the heart of Montserrat’s exclusion zone, and due to the years and years of pyroclastic flows and floods of ash, it is off-limits. That being said, a visit to Plymouth is definitely #1 among the things to do in Montserrat, because it is a totally unique experience. And you can go… with a local guide who has permission from the government and follows very specific safety rules. While there are many good guides on Montserrat, I went with Montserrat Island Tours, and I absolutely loved them.
Why I had a great experience.
They were extremely kind to me as a solo traveler and managed to squeeze me into a tour with some other visitors so that I could get a nice discount. This allowed me to participate in a full-day tour, which I really appreciated. By exploring the island with them, I learned so much more about Montserrat than I would have otherwise. Sunny, our local guide, also took the time to give me tips on hiking in Montserrat, going so far as to show me where some of the trailheads were. I absolutely would not have found them by myself.
So, basically, if you want to explore Plymouth and learn about the history of the island, Montserrat Island Tours is 100% a company that I would suggest checking out. If you can go out with them, you will have a wonderful time, and if your schedule doesn’t fit theirs, I am sure that they will be able to point you in the direction of other great guides.
Here are some of my favorite highlights from the day tour of things to do in Montserrat that you might consider seeing on your own if you aren’t able to afford the full day tour. Or… these are things you can look forward to if you can!
(a) Hilltop Coffee
Like many of us, I enjoy visiting local coffee shops to enjoy the cozy, chill vibe that they almost all impart. But Hilltop Coffee isn’t just a coffee shop, it’s a history museum as well. This little shop is owned and run by David Lea (the same David Lea who wrote Through my Lens), who moved to Montserrat from the US to start his family and a ministry.
He has since become a photographer and documenter of the Soufriere Hills Volcano, as well as a historian. When you visit, you will have the chance to see memorabilia from Montserrat’s time as a the home of AIR studio (George Martin’s recording studio), pictures from the eruptions, and pieces of Plymouth life that continue to tell their story in this peaceful place. On top of all that, they have coffee, fresh juices, and snacks as well. Hilltop Coffee should be on anyone’s Montserrat itinerary.
(b) Lunch at the Attic
The Attic is a little restaurant that my Airbnb host suggested, and luckily we ended up visiting on our tour. This is an extra expense, but well worth it. This little restaurant used to make its home in Plymouth, and the owner has continued the business in a new location since the city was evacuated. Giving your business to such a resilient entrepreneur is honestly an honor.
Not to mention, the food is very very good. You can get some familiar, Western fare here (e.g. burgers, sandwiches, etc.), but you can also get some fresh Caribbean food. I’d suggest checking out their special for the day and really enjoying all of the beautiful flavors of the island. Of the things to do in Montserrat, trying the food should certainly be on your radar.
(c) Drive to Zone V
This is the one thing on this list that you absolutely cannot do without a local guide with permission from the government, and it’s something that definitely belongs on everyone’s Montserrat itinerary as well. This is where you will get your best views of the volcano, which is admittedly as beautiful as it is dangerous. Zone V is also where you will get to explore a few key spots in the island’s old capital city of Plymouth. As of 2020, there were still many surviving buildings in the city, although they bare the scars of the intense heat of pyroclastic flows.
However, one of the unfortunate side effects of a volcano as active as this one is that it releases tons and tons of ash, which also becomes very mobile when suspended by flowing water. This means that over the years, Plymouth has become all but buried in the ash that has moved its way down the mountain- not by fire but by water. That being said, you can still get a feel for all of the wonderful places and memories that this very special city has played host to over the years.
Safety in Zone V
You should notice any guide in this area being extremely careful. In Zone V, they need to be on the radio with the volcano observatory, and all cars must be parked aiming out of the zone- towards emergency roads. Engines should remain running at all times in Zone V. No one without permission from the government can enter this area, and the entrance is marked with a guardhouse and gate.
(d) Visit the Old Montserrat Springs Hotel
The Old Montserrat Springs Hotel is a somber place to go to consider how time has changed the area, and it’s especially poignant as a tourist. Because when you walk through the dusty hallways of the hotel, it is so easy to imagine the kind of place this used to be. When you stand by the pool, you can almost hear kids laughing and splashing. When you peer into the rooms, you can envision where the bed was, and what the enticing tropical air felt like in the cool shade of the open-air lobby.
Now, it sits abandoned and overgrown, a familiar setting twisted in unfamiliar ways. That being said, it remains a beautiful, historic place. So, please make sure that you treat it as such, particularly because this is also where visitors can wander on their own for a little bit. Montserrat Springs is located in Zone C, so there isn’t as much need for caution here. You can take your time looking around. In fact, this may be a place to consider adding to your “things to do in Montserrat” list even if you can’t afford a tour.
(e) The Montserrat Volcano Observatory
The main attraction at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory is actually a small video, which includes shots taken by David Gea himself. It’s a great way to cool off, and learn more about the science behind the otherworldly landscape of the island and the turbulent history of the recent decades. You will also get to see shots of the mountain that you could never get without being a scientist.
The rest of the observatory doesn’t have much to offer to visitors, besides a small gift shop, but it’s still well worth inclusion on your Montserrat itinerary. You can support the good work that they do here and take a break from the sun while learning more about the volcano. All that being said, parking at the Observatory is a bit lacking, so visiting this on a tour is a little bit less stressful than attempting it on your own.
(2) Visit the National Trust and the Botanical Gardens
Of the things to do in Montserrat, the Botanical Gardens are more on the relaxing side, and the National Trust also has some really lovely gifts at their shop. I am a bit of a souvenir fiend, but I do like for my money to go to a good cause- either a local artisan or a good organization. The National Trust gift shop gives you a little of both- money for the Trust, which supports conservation efforts and they source gifts from local people.
Besides the gift shop, and more importantly for your Montserrat itinerary, the National Trust is home to a small museum about the nature of the island as well as the botanical gardens. The museum wasn’t quite my jam, as I am not a big fan of museums fully reliant on reading material for learning, but the botanical gardens are lovely. An employee of a garden myself, I really appreciated the exquisite care and love that goes into maintaining this beautiful space and all of its varied plants. There are some rare plants to admire along the trail as well as more common varieties, so the garden is a great way to learn more about the island while surrounding yourself with the beauty of Montserrat’s flora.
(3) Relax at Woodlands Beach
Beaches are definitely one of the big things to do in Montserrat, but don’t expect the white sand beaches of Antigua here. Volcanic black sand beaches dominate Montserrat, which shouldn’t come as any surprise to you considering the prevalence of the volcano. While I can’t say that I sampled many of the beaches on Montserrat, I can say that little Woodlands beach is a beautiful place to spend the afternoon. The sand itself is a beautiful mix of colors, and the tropical cliffs that line the surf are stunning.
There are also some very beautiful trees to admire while you relax in the sun. For those of us that sunburn easily, that shade is priceless. Furthermore, you will miss out on the super busy Caribbean beaches with their chairs and shade for sale. Here, bring your own towel and just lay back in the sand. Happily, there are also facilities at this beach, so you won’t need to worry about bathroom breaks! All this being said, there are plenty of other beaches to explore on the island, and I think you could easily make a day of visiting them all.
Want to Learn More About Montserrat?
Read Part Two of My Favorite Things to Do In Montserrat which includes a short weekend itinerary.
If you’d like some reading material on Montserrat since none of us can travel at the moment, we also have a review of two wonderful books on the island (as well as some chai tea that you can enjoy at home).
And finally, we have a little thought piece about what the world can learn from Montserrat in this trying time.
Be sure to check them all out!
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