You plan your next Caribbean vacay around a disaster of legendary dimensions, an “active” island of ashes and dust associated with flash jetsetters and celebrities, virtually destroyed by an angry volcano. Right now, it stands ominously as the Pompeii of the “protected” paradise-seeking set.
Much like Hurricane Katrina kicking New Orleans’s ass and Venice’s virtual “vanishing act”–the flood-prone canal-cut city of grinning gondoliers in striped shirts is literally sinking into the sea!—the British Crown Colony of Montserrat must be seen to be believed.
Although the sun never sets on the British Empire, unfortunately there isn’t much of it left. Nothing lasts forever, but with a little elbow grease and a grand plan we can change all that. The future of Montserrat is ecotourism rather than narcissism.
Boy am I glad, though, that I didn’t purchase the villa of my lifetime friends, the D’Amato’s, even though I was a steady winter freeloader at their posh pad for almost five years in a row. Once the perfectly set gemstone villas, complete with Pellegrino-like pools and postcard panoramic views, were full of big-time rock stars, business execs, and drug barons.
The capital of Plymouth was wiped off the map.
Hence, the envious villas crawling with ivy and moss are now eerily empty and awaiting eventual sale.
Even the bulk pop of native black Montserratians, all full bonafide U.K. citizens, have fled the so-called Other Emerald Isle for greener pastures of cloverleaf in Great Britain and Ireland, bringing their peculiar patois of Caribbean English with a vague Irish brogue to the streets of London, particularly Portobello Road .
And despite the destruction and destitution caused by menopausal Ms. Mother Nature, the so-called Dead Zones of blasted land and brimstone dreams, “green” is still the best description for this outpost of isolation: I mean, desolation. Geography is only a state of mind.
But where else can you sit on black-sand schisty volcanic beaches and watch an orange sun go down leaving behind at the last second a flickering Irish-flag-colored “green flash”—an inexplicable natural phenomena unique to the island. It might not be as dramatic as the freaking aurora borealis, but the emerald flash, like a leprechaun paparazzo snapping a photo of the Celtic goddess Erin lying topless on the beach, is certainly nice enough to put down your Planter’s, cut the blarney, and make that awkward first move on your serendipitous date from the stock of local talent.
You’ll feel like a pale Poltergeist at the island’s one resort hotel, with nary any tourists, just “jumbies” (spirits of the donkeys) harshly braying in the nighttime winds. It doesn’t get more lonely than this.
Once, though, the island was one of the most exclusive retreats in the Caribbean.
Once upon a time, I was invited to a cocktail party by the local “white masters,” our amusing slang for the expat Montserratian elite, with nicknames like “Rom” and “Mr. House” (and real names like Neville and Trevor),. I was surprised to meet publishing baron James Truman’s well-preserved good-looking ultra-English mother, who was hosting the event. Nice villa!
“My son is one of the head executives at Condé Nast,” she told me with evident pride.
“Oh, I’m a big fan of Condé Nast Traveler magazine.”
“It’s not just Traveler,” she said, looking slightly offended. “It’s the whole thing: the empire. . . .” It was impossible to tell how old she was, warm and welcoming to this mad revolutionary from the American ex-colonies.
Here I also met the “high society” Brays, surely characters lifted from an unpublished Evelyn Waugh novel, who split their time between their Montserrat “shack” and a 15th-century Gascon farmhouse, where I eventually house-sat for them years later for three months in view of the snow-capped Pyrenees, gorging myself on local foie gras, confit de canard, and Armagnac. Alas, French cuisine beats out conch fritters, I’m afraid, but then again the local “mountain chicken” (large frogs) would dazzle any Michelin reviewer. As would Montserrat’s signature “goat stew.” Mr. Bray, a veteran of D-Day who also used to work for the BBC and “international” (read: offshore) banking, resembled a cross between Alistair Cook and Robert Morley, all bushy eyebrows and broad understated humor.
Mr. Bray told me a way sad story about their previous “paradise lost” perch somewhere in the remote British Virgins, where they had to swim ashore with their groceries to reach their house. Unfortunately, the locals became suspicious of them and burned down their house out of spite, thus driving them off the island.
They now preferred the comforts of Montserrat, thank you, to the vagaries of their former “sauvage” sandtrap, but still, come on!
To reparaphrase Milton’s famous line associated with Satan, “Better to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven,” I offer this consolation prize for people looking for nearly deserted islands in the Caribbean: “Better to live well in Montserrat than to be snubbed in the Virgins!”
Even though I played my part well: American Mayflower descendant, part owner of an oil concern based in Houston and New Orleans (America’s oldest “personal holding company”), and travel writer, I still felt like an angry vengeful dwarf from the dark pages of Swedish Nobel Prize Winner Per Lagerkvist up against such overt wealth, privilege, and prestige.
Even so, the local African Montserratians, looking like monied rap stars in their tennis whites, treated me like a celebrity, naturally assuming I was one: a musician, which I was once–a mean bass player whose main claim to fame was that I once played in a garage band with Jammie-award-winning PHISH keyboardist Page McConnell, surely now one of the best piano players on the planet.
Most of the locals claimed to be good friends with Elton John, a frequent visitor to the island.
Other rock stars who have come to roost include Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney, and, while I was there, the lead singer of Ultravox (a band I had never heard of), dressed all in black and looking distinctly uncomfortable in the tropics, but who came alive after perpetual shouts of lager and who aught me how to “stomp” the floors of Plymouth pubs like a fierce Scot out of “Braveheart.”
All the yachties hanging around resembled aging Mods and Rockers from bands less successful than the Who or the Clash. More along the lines of Supertramp and Toto. Indeed, as a Mayflower descendant directly related to William Bradford, Plymouth Town brought out the “Puritan” in me, which to me combines merry Maypole paganism with open Christianity. In other words, it was time to partay!
I really knew I was in the land of volcanic VIPs and Caribbean chic, though, when I bumped into part-time resident George Martin at a local grocery store, one of the great geniuses of classic wobbly 33 rpm vinyl. We do live in a Yellow Submarine.
What the? George Martin?!
Which makes sense when you remember that Air Studios was located on the island.
My hands full of limes (none left), I didn’t know what to say to the so-called Fifth Beatle.
“Mr. Martin, I’m a big fan!” I managed.
“Oh, limes!!!” he said with a whimper, envious eyes upon my clover-leaf-colored fruit, absolutely worshipped here in Montserrat. “Could I have some?” he said with false ecstasy, obviously trying to put me at ease. I dropped two in his hands and one on the floor, like a beginning juggler auditioning for “The Gong Show.”
With that, Mr. Martin wandered off, dropping some Ting sodas into his cart. He looked so tanned and healthy that he was positively glowing. An aureole of fame, similar to that found in a bright Byzantine mosaic, radiated from his unfathomable Freemasony soul.
But there was something strange about his eyes, yes.
I could tell he knew things.
On second thought, don’t go to Montserrat. (Maybe Mustique?)
It’s gone, mon.
About the author:
John M. Edwards has traveled worldwidely (five continents plus), with stunts ranging from surviving a ferry sinking in Thailand to being stuck in a military coup in Fiji. His work has appeared in such magazines as CNN Traveller, Missouri Review, Salon.com, Grand Tour, Islands, Escape, Endless Vacation, Condé Nast Traveler, International Living, Adventure Journey, Emerging Markets, Literal Latté, Coffee Journal, Lilliput Review Kit-Cat Review, ,Poetry Motel, Dark Horizons, Artdirect, Verge, Slab, Stellar, Glimpse, Big World, BootsnAll, Hack Writers, Trips, Travelmag, Vagabondish, World Hum, ForeWord, Richmond Review, Borderlines, Go Nomad, North Dakota Quarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, and North American Review. He recently won a NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association) Award, a TANEC (Transitions Abroad Narrative Essay Contest) Award, and a Solas Award (sponsored by Travelers’ Tales). He lives in NYC’s “Hell’s Kitchen.” His future bestsellers, Move and Fluid Borders, have not been released. His new work-in-progress, Dubya Dubya Deux, is about a time traveler.
photo by rachel_thecat on Flickr