MONTSERRAT - Clover Lea bursts through the open door of my villa at Gingerbread Hill, the inn she owns on the west coast of Montserrat. She doesn't knock, but that's fine by me. She has a machete in one hand, home-grown citrus in the other.
For $125 a night, I've been renting her two-bedroom, two-bath hideaway, which I've had to pry myself away from each morning.
There's an open-air living area complete with a porch swing, an expansive view of the Caribbean, a hummingbird feeder with more traffic than the Lincoln Tunnel, and a mama dove and her chick roosting in an alcove near the dining table. Victorian flourishes frame the roofline, and a vine with large yellow flowers has wrapped its tendrils around the rails of a fence and is reaching into the house.
From the kitchen, I can see mountains dipping into the sea, but the Soufriere Hills Volcano - the intolerable stepchild that's been reigning over this speck in the British West Indies for more than a decade - is far to the south. Out of sight, but never out of mind.
Clover, a self-described hippie and American expat who has been my island muse for the last few days, places the oranges and grapefruit on the kitchen counter and, as she has each morning, starts questioning me. Did I watch the documentary on the volcano made by her husband, David? Have I tried the fish dinners from the stand up the street? Did I visit the new cultural center?
This time, I have some questions of my own. For two days, I've had the island to myself, and during the peak winter season at that. Montserrat, though, seems poised for a comeback, and during my visit locals have spoken of little else. I look at the Caribbean, devoid of pleasure craft, and strain to hear traffic on the nearby road.
Do you really want more people on this island, Clover? Won't that spoil what you have?
"Oh, we want all the tourists we can get," she says, staring wistfully to sea. "We just want to be sure they're the right ones."
It began on July 18, 1995, when steam and ash starting belching from an ancient crater in the Soufriere Hills. All at once, the scene was set for a decade-long assault on the island, which had just recovered from a direct hit by Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
About a month later, another eruption blanketed the capital, Plymouth, in ash, initiating the first evacuation of southern Montserrat. And so it went for years, an unrelenting barrage of evacuations, dome collapses, ash clouds, pyroclastic flows (fast-moving walls of superheated gas and rock that destroy everything in their path), mudflows - and bad press. For weeks, sometimes months at a time, the population was wedged into the northern chunk of the island before the all-clear was given for the Montserratans to return.
If they could. By November 1997, Plymouth lay buried in ash, and the airport terminal had been destroyed.
Today, about two-thirds of the island has been declared an Exclusion Zone and is off-limits to most locals and visitors. And while the last major outburst was in April 2007, the volcano is by no means dormant. Less than two weeks ago, it spewed columns of ash and glowing red rocks that set vegetation and a few buildings on fire in the deserted capital, scientists said. No one was hurt or evacuated.
That's not helping the tourism trade. Before the 1995 eruption, nearly 24,000 people a year visited the island, according to the Montserrat Tourist Board. Last year, the number had dwindled to about 9,500.
It's not the same Montserrat, for sure, but once I finally control the urge to mutter "liquid hot magma" like Doctor Evil every time I see the volcano, I find that's not such a bad thing.
Near an abandoned home that once overlooked Montserrat's only golf course, a sign rests on its side. That's an odd position, since it's warning passersby of the potential dangers of being in this area. Sunny Lea, my 29-year-old guide and son of Clover, steps over it as we clamber down a goopy embankment and onto a vast plain of solidified volcanic barf.
For hours, we've been crisscrossing his gorgeous little island, all of seven miles wide by 11 miles long. He's been showing off empty black-sand beaches, hiking trails that wind through unblemished rain forest, a new housing development perched on a cliffside, and a soccer field so meticulously groomed you'd swear it was faux turf.
But I've also seen the ruined airport, the buried remnants of what more than one local has called "our beloved Plymouth," and the steaming lava dome of the volcano itself. Nothing, though, has humanized the calamity more than this home in the path of the tyrant's haphazard fury.
Inside, shelves in the second-floor master bedroom are still strewn with wedding photos, paperbacks, toiletries - and, oddly enough, a Montserrat tourism brochure. The front features shots of the Great Alps waterfall, the island's war memorial, and a group of duffers teeing off. On the pages within, vacationers are enticed by ads for the Island Bikes rental shop, the Suntex Bakery, the Etcetera gift shop, and the Montserrat Springs Hotel, all in Plymouth.
The date on the cover: 1993/94.
The waterfall, the war memorial, the hotel are now gone. The golf course - and much of the home I'm exploring - are entombed in layers of volcanic ash and other detritus, which turn into a torrent of muck whenever it rains heavily. As we scramble out of the house, I take another look at the brochure's cover and am suddenly struck by its message to would-be visitors.
Montserrat: The Way the Caribbean Used to Be.
If anything, these words are truer now than they were in the pre-eruption days. Translation: Montserrat may be an untouristed wonder, but it's not for everyone.
No resorts line the beaches, so if you insist on surf-side service and drinks served with little umbrellas, you're better off in Antigua, the much larger island 29 miles to the northeast. Roads are dicey (there are no traffic lights, few shoulders, and an army of itinerant goats that pop up in unexpected places), and dining options are limited. The island's premier lodging is arguably the Tropical Mansion Suites hotel, which opened in 1999, but it's no Breezes all-inclusive resort.
Shoppers are likely to be disappointed once they step ashore.
One of Montserrat's biggest stores is Arrow's Manshop, owned by local celeb Alphonsus "Arrow" Cassell, who wrote the soca classic "Hot Hot Hot." (You probably remember Buster Poindexter's version, which is hard to get out of your head once it gets in there.) It's more of a five-and-dime than a tourist-junk budget-buster, though.
At the Art & Craft Association, unassuming even by this island's standards, there's a bounty of souvenirs with shamrocks, a testament to an influx of Irish Catholics in the 1600s. Montserrat remains the only country outside Ireland where St. Paddy's Day is a national holiday.
Before the Soufriere Hills Volcano began to rewrite the island's geologic history, the British territory was home to about 12,000 and was the Caribbean's pretty little secret.
Plymouth - a hub of restaurants, shops, expensive homes, schools and a new hospital - welcomed yachts and their rich occupants, who found the paparazzi-free streets a welcome respite. Beatles producer George Martin opened Air Studio on a hillside in 1979; Sunny remembers seeing such musicians as Eric Clapton and Jimmy Buffett sucking down beers in Plymouth pubs. Visitors could hop ferries and several airlines, which served the now-ravaged Bramble Airport.
Today, Sunny notes, a little more than 5,000 people remain, many of them Brits and American expats who've scooped up real estate. There's no ferry service, though the $18.5 million Gerald's Airport opened in 2005; its sole tenant is Winair, which can only fly in 19-seat prop planes. As a result, fares are expensive, schedules often change (my flight from Antigua was canceled at the last minute), and luggage is frequently delayed.
The situation on the island, Sunny says softly, "is pretty fragile."
Indeed, islanders seem eager to move on, even though the volcano hasn't made up its mind to do likewise. At the new Montserrat Cultural Center, I look over an exhibit on long-term plans to turn the Little Bay area - now a mash of dilapidated buildings and dirt roads on the northwest coast - into the island's capital. There'll be a marina, a cathedral, shopping promenades, parks, fountains.
Great for the island and these people I've come to adore, no doubt, but I already feel a tinge of loss for this Caribbean the way it used to be.
To get to
, you can fly to
and take a 19-seat prop plane on
) to Gerald's Airport.
American, Continental and US Airways fly to St. Maarten from Philadelphia, with one stop. The lowest recent round-trip fare was about $363. American flies to Antigua with one stop; the lowest recent round-trip fare was about $600.
Last week, ferry service between Antigua and Montserrat was scheduled to resume for the first time in three years. Roundtrip fares are about $135.
The official currency on the island is the East Caribbean dollar, but the U.S. dollar is readily accepted across the island.
Places to stay
I stayed at
), a lovely three-unit guesthouse in St. Peter's. For $125 a night, my two-bedroom/
two-bathroom villa included a full kitchen, a living room, and an alfresco dining area with a panoramic Caribbean view. For $35 extra a day (including insurance), owners Clover and David Lea rented me a car with automatic transmission. A new eco-cottage on the property is $65 a night.
Numerous companies rent villas by the week, including
); check with the tourism office for a list of companies and private homeowners.
Tropical Mansion Suites
; from $119 double), which has 18 rooms with balconies and a restaurant, sits high above the sea in Sweeneys and is the island's sole hotel.
Backpackers can bunk at the
Hot Rock Hostel
; $25 a night), bare-bones lodging not far from the
Montserrat Volcano Observatory
Places to eat
I kept it simple, buying food from small grocery stores and eating dinner in my villa, mainly because driving the winding roads at night - and on the left - gave me the willies. I dined out at lunch to sample the local fare, rarely spending more than $12 or so for a meal, including a beer. I missed trying the national dish of goatwater, or goat stew, but anything from the sea was usually simply prepared and full of flavor.
Most restaurants are unassuming affairs, comprising an inside dining area with ceiling fans and a porch or patio with tables and chairs - and I'd go back to all of them. I enjoyed the fish and chips at
(Olveston), the "fish burger" at the
(Olveston), and the stewed chicken wings and the pan-fried kingfish at
(St. John's). Near Gingerbread Hill, I nabbed the last two rotis (wraps filled with curried chicken) at the
, a popular roadside stand. Ask locals for directions to the eateries, as many are off the main road.
Things to do
Book a tour and get to know the island better. Sunny Lea, the 29-year-old son of Gingerbread Hill's owners, gave me a fascinating six-hour tutorial for $40, including stops I never would have found on my own.
Montserrat Volcano Observatory
), a free lookout provides a great view of the lava dome. For $3.75, go inside and watch a film on the eruption and check out the interpretive displays and video kiosks.
Snorkel and swim at any number of beaches, including the black-sand beauty at
. The isolated
has the island's only white-sand beach; for $15, the
Green Monkey Dive Shop
can help you get there via boat. The company also offers boat tours off Plymouth, sunset cruises, and diving expeditions.
Look at the plans for the island's new capital at the
Montserrat Cultural Centre
). Hike and bird-watch in the rain forest with a guide from the
Montserrat National Trust
Montserrat Tourist Board