Montserrat? That about sums up every reply I receive when I tell people the best places I have traveled, and if not for my music tastes, I doubt I would have ever discovered this hidden paradise either. First, I will just give you the basics, Montserrat is a very small British owned island in the south Caribbean, known as the British West Indies. Feel free to zoom in or out on the map to get a better sense of where it is, but Montserrat is as remote as you will get, while still being relatively close to civilization.
Montserrat has a rich history that is much more deserving to be told by somebody more qualified that myself, so I am going to focus on how I discovered Montserrat. I I first became aware of Montserrat way back in 1999 when I bought a concert dvd entitled, Music for Montserrat, with some of my favorite musicians playing a benefit concert for the people of Montserrat. In its heyday Montserrat had about 11,000 people living on the small volcanic island, including Sir George Martin, the Beatles producer who owned the legendary Air Studios Montserrat, perched up high in the Soufriere Hills, where Montserrat’s majestic beauty inspired some of the greatest music in history to be recorded. It opened in the mid 70’s and lasted until 1989, where it recorded heralded artists such as Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffet, Elton John, The Police, Dire Straits, Lou Reed, Black Sabbath, Duran Duran, Rush and too many to list.
If you are a fan of music from the 70’s and 80’s I bet a lot of your favorite songs were recorded in Montserrat. In fact, probably the most recognizable song verse from the 1980’s, Sting’s haunting recurring line, “I Want My MTV” on Dire Straits’ groundbreaking hit “Money for Nothing” was recorded at Air Studio Montserrat. Word has it that while Dire Straits were recording their legendary album, “Brother in Arms” at Air Studios, Sting was back vacationing in Montserrat after finishing the Police’s magnum opus, “Synchronicity” at Air Studios the year before. Being a small island, it was impossible not to cross paths, so the members of Dire Straits invited Sting up to the studio one day for him to record that one verse and the rest is history. In time, thanks to Sir George Martin introducing all these musicians to the beauty of of this tiny, remote, jungle lush mountainous island hidden deep in the Caribbean, Montserrat developed somewhat as a hidden paradise where famous celebrities and artists would vacation to get away from the glare of the spotlight.
The demise of Air Studios, and to some degree Montserrat, came in 1989 when Montserrat was directly hit by Hurricane Hugo, which displaced a lot of the island’s population. A few years later, when Montserrat was finally rebuilding from Hugo, their once dormant volcano’s dome collapsed, which caused years of pyroclastic flows, noxious gasses, and enough ash to bury towns and cities whole. The capital was slowly buried over years of ash and debris falling, the airport was buried along with about half of the island. In all it claimed 19 lives and all but destroyed the old way of life on Montserrat. While Air Studios was not completely destroyed, it still remains in the exclusion zone, but its dilapidated structure can still be visited with proper clearance. The only good news was the side that wasn’t in the exclusion zone was still able to be inhabited and was never in danger of the volcano so it was never completely abandoned, but the population fell to almost 2,000 people during the worst years of volcanic activity. Although the volcano has gone back to being dormant long, long ago, the exclusion zone remains uninhabited, but Montserrat finally feels as though it is making its way back from devastation it suffered by the hands of nature not once, but twice in only a few short years. Recently the population has recently grown to over 5,000 people and they have recently signed on with a cruise line for limited port of calls. Due to their shallow waters they have never been able to have a dock to hold ships bigger than a ferry, so cruise passengers will always need to be taxied to and from their ship, which has always helped Montserrat stay relatively off the beaten path, which is what appealed so much to the celebrities that used to roam its secluded beaches.
Summers and winters scattered like splinters…and 20 more years slipped away – Jimmy Buffet
Maybe not quite 20, but flash forward 17 years to the Spring of 2016 and I was looking for a vacation for my family. We were planning to go on a trip with another family that we were friends with and initially started looking at a Disney Cruise. I started checking the itineraries, and as some of you will discover, I research everything, everything. So in my researching between a few islands I was reading a forum and somebody interjected that the best trip they ever took was to Monsterrat. The name brought me back about 16 years ago watching that dvd with my college friends.
Immediately curious, as if I had just remembered an old friend, I started researching Montserrat to see what had become of that island in so much trouble almost two decades ago. The more I read, the more I felt like it was worth suggesting to my family. The thing that really drew me to Montserrat is no matter where I researched, everybody described Montserrat as the same way – that its genuine Caribbean feel was not duplicated anywhere else in the Caribbean. It is the Caribbean before the cruise ships, Club Meds,Sandals, stuffy hotels and Michelin star restaurants. A true tropical paradise in every sense. This was the authentic Caribbean get away vacation. I thought it sounded like heaven.
After talking to our group, they gave me the go ahead for Montserrat. Everybody thought it sounded fun. The next thing you know I am on VRBO, Airbnb, and other local sites looking for villas in Montserrat. After contacted a few of the villa owners, I chose Camelot by the Sea through VRBO. Not only does Camelot have incredible views from the house, it also has a private path to take you to their famous black sand beach made from real volcano ash, but more on the house in a bit. Although Camelot by the Sea was the most expensive villa available through VRBO, I still didn’t find the nightly rate very objectionable (especially compared to a Disney cruise) considering we can sleep two families. and how times in life do you get a chance to stay in a mansion overlooking the ocean, steps from beach for this price? Go search VRBO or Airbnb on another island for a house that has this kind of unparalleled view and you are easily paying well over $1,000 USD per night. The owner, Sam, who lives full time in the United States, but spends every January to May in Montserrat, was great to deal with. Sam has really fast responses to all my questions and when I arrived he even has a complete manual waiting there for you for not only Camelot by the Sea, but of how to figure out life in Montserrat. Very helpful!
Two things that attracted me to Camelot by the Sea was they had a master bedroom, and then an “Ocean View” bedroom that would make it nice for two adult couples. The other reason was a link from their website to the USA Today’s Travel section on the most unrivaled beaches in the Caribbean and Woodlands Beach, Montserrat was at the top of the list. What beach does Sam’s villa sit above, with a private walkway of about 50 steps away? Yep, Woodland’s Beach. Unlike most beaches with sand, Woodland’s is rare black sand beach made millions of years ago as the volcano formed the island. Black sand is soft, powdery and like nothing else you have experienced. Very cool. It has a look of something out of a National Geographic. If you don’t go to Montserrat, I highly recommend to put visiting a black sand beach on your vacation bucket list. The island also features a white sand beach which is magnificent. Are these beaches going to rival the world’s best? No, but considering the size of Montserrat they are terrific and unique beaches.
The one knock I have on Camelot by the Sea has nothing to do with the villa, nor the management, nor the island, nor the wonderful people we met. It is nothing they can help, but it needs to be mentioned that getting to Montserrat can be an adventure in itself. While not anything that requires swimming, rappelling, or crossing rope bridges, but unless you live on the east coast of the United States or parts of South America it is most likely going to require two days to get there, and even if you live in those areas I mentioned it may not be possible in one day. The furthest you can get on a commercially booked flight is to the island of Antigua (airport code ANU) and then you either need to take a 20 minute island hopper plane or take a 3 hour ferry. We took the island hopper and if you don’t like flying, it is very small and you will feel the wind. It will also be very loud as its really just the cockpit and a few rows of seats. You know when you see people flying in a helicopter in the movies yelling at each other, that is what this will be like, but fortunately it is enclosed. Overall, if you have ever taken a small plane, you know what its like. I was told the ferry was over some choppy water and was not some sort of relaxing site seeing cruise but if you have somebody scared of flying or a larger party this may be a better option. So there it is, that is the one negative. Usually the last trip to Monsterrat is early afternoon, so you have to be in Antigua by then, which is usually impossible from most locations.
When you arrive in Montserrat, you will proceed through their airport and just then will you get a sense of the real Caribbean experience you are in for. This is how the Caribbean used to be before cruise ships and all inclusive clubs stripped each island of its exotic and tropical charm and turned them into generic tourist traps. More importantly, the people of Montserrat are not jaded by tourists and actually welcomed us at every turn, all happy to help us in any way, clearly proud of their island and excited to have us. I can’t stress this enough. Whether they are native of the island or people who move from the United Stated, Canada or Europe I have never experienced a more friendly, upbeat and positive community. Sam was kind enough to arrange for a car to pick all 7 of us up and off we went on the most amazing experience you will ever have.
We ended up renting cars as that was Sam’s suggestion. Montserrat does not have what anybody would describe as robust public transportation. Driving through Montserrat it felt like something you would see in a Hollywood movie. Rugged hills and deep valleys covered in a lush green foliage dotted with bright, bold tropical flowers and plants. If you are of a certain age, I couldn’t help thinking how it reminded me of Fantasy Island with this tiny remote green mountainous island with Caribbean villas dotting the landscape sitting out in the middle of the ocean. Since it is a British island, you drive on the “wrong” side of the street to us North Americans. A piece of advice I got from the rental agent is if you are driving just remember the driver is always towards the center of the road. That is the universal truth in driving.
It won’t be long before you and me run to the place in our hearts where we hide – Elton John
Wow, that was my initial thought as I pulled in the driveway and saw the view we were going to be having over the next week. As mentioned earlier, this would be 2 to 6 times more expensive on any other island in the Caribbean. We were literally sitting on the edge of a cliff overlooking a panoramic view of the ocean and colorful rolling coastline. It was nothing short of breathtaking. The house itself was magnificent. This felt like a house that was built to standards you would find on a much bigger island. Everything felt very modern, it had working wifi, modern appliances, tvs in every room, a Sonos multi room sound system, a big screen HDTV (60″ – 65″) and my kids loved that all the tvs had Roku smart boxes attached with a working Netflix account. The rooms all have cable tv also, which surprisingly is pretty robust if you are used to American cable channels. The internet is broadband, but the speed isn’t award winning but you are able to stream a movie without too many issues. The house was immaculate as far as cleanliness goes and the beds and furniture all looked new. Everybody was blown away by the level of care this house has received because it looked brand new. No offense to Sam but his pictures, nor mine, come close to doing Camelot by the Sea justice.
Camelot by the Sea is the definition in indoor/outdoor living. Except for really strong storms, which I never experienced, the home stays open all the time. The villa was a great setup for a family too. The tv room opened into the pool so the entire group could all be in one location if some wanted to stay “inside”. It is very much like a lanai if familiar with Florida indoor/outdoor living rooms. Only the bedrooms are shut off from the outside which is a testament to the moderate Caribbean weather. The bedrooms all have air conditioning, if that is an issue with your travelers, but the rest of the house relies on the trade winds and ceiling fans. We found the temperature to be comfortable for swimming at all times. The kitchen has modern appliances and is stocked with about every utensil you would need. I will say a word of warning, the grocery stores are true old school Caribbean. You can find food, obviously, but they will not be close to the variety or brands you are accustom to. If you are a meat eater, expect it all to be frozen. We did most of our eating out, but if you got picky eaters, grilled cheese, peanut butter and jelly, bologna and most of the staples are all available. Frozen pizzas and snacks you will recognize are available, but if you are looking to cook a gourmet meal, it can be done, but you must be very flexible because it is such a small island. The good news is the restaurants are excellent, but more on that in a bit.
Camelot by the Sea’s best feature could be the deck, but we couldn’t agree from there. Some believed it was the arched bridge spanning over the pool, others thought that it was the witch peaked gazebo equipped with a gas grill and working bar overlooking the Caribbean and a black sand beach and others said it was the winding pool that ran the length of the expansive deck. Personally, I think it is the blue Caribbean sea background stretched out as far as your imagination will take you. I can’t explain the dramatic view clearly enough, but I know that as we all got into the house and saw the rear of the house open up to us, our jaws dropped over the view. It was breathtaking.
As for what to do? Sam leaves a list of restaurants and excursions in his welcome manual. According to Sam you can hike, go scuba diving/snorkeling, play tennis, go to the many beaches, go on boat tours, go fishing, or turtle and bird watching. We swam a lot. You have a black sand beach less than 100 steps from the house, and often you are the only people on the beach. Even better, Camelot by the Sea has an outdoor shower, perfect for quickly rinsing off the black sand and salt water when you return. Montserrat has some really great hiking and Sam directed us to Scriber Daley for a guide. Scriber was a great guy and knew absolutely everything about Montserrat. We explored our way through the hills and saw some amazing wildlife. Due to its remoteness, Montserrat is home to a handful of birds only seen on that island that were pointed out to us by our guide. Although we didn’t have a chance, there are two shipwrecks (told you about the shallow waters) that can be explored if you like to scuba. We spent a day chartering a boat and went to the pure white sand beach, Rendezvous beach, and spent a few hours laying out and playing on one of the most remote beaches in the Caribbean. Mostly though, we spent a lot of time relaxing, reading, swimming, drinking, watching movies and enjoying the views at Camelot by the Sea because it had everything we needed, but the magic of the island and the spirit of its people help make this the perfect vacation.
Just a word on the restaurants. The restaurants are not what you are going to get at (throw a dart at any island in the Caribbean) like Trader Vic’s or some splashy modern dining boasting a celebrity chef. What you will get is a real authentic Caribbean lifestyle experience. The owner, sometimes with an assistant, will usually be the waiter, chef and barkeeper. The real appeal to Montserrat is the atmosphere. All the restaurants are what I would consider open air. Most likely you will have views of the oceans or the lush mountains I would like to personally thank Trevor from Watermelon Cottage as being our favorite host/chef we encountered. He has an infectious personality and strives to make sure all his guests are having a great time. Just one of the many amazing locals we met, but it was one of the highlights of our vacation. We tried going back, but ran out of time. At night. sitting way out in the Caribbean, the outside is pitch black, the sounds of the waves, the tables all lit by candlelight, the gentle sea breeze blowing through the warm tropical air. Its the way the Caribbean should be. The restaurants are small and intimate and your party will most likely be dining alone, or with one other couple in the restaurant. It is like having an island all to yourself.
The nightlife is small, local and looked fun, but due to our family setup we didn’t participate in most. They even have a local nightclub called Mystique, but we never made it. I was also told if you go during St. Patrick’s day they have one of the best celebrations on earth. Due to their Irish roots, they take St. Patrick’s Day very seriously, and the parade and week long celebration get everybody out. My hope is someday I can make it back to experience it.
These mist covered mountains are a home now for me – Dire Straits “Brother in Arms”
Overall, Montserrat might be a bit of a challenge to get to, but it is an island surrounded by pure untouched beauty and inhabited by people that match. I say that with all sincerity. We all loved the vacation. If you think this reads more like a love letter than a review, I can respect that. The people of Montserrat won us over and that little island community deserves all the economic help it I can give it. It is an island on the move so don’t miss your chance to see it before more and more cruise ships and nightclubs become the norm.
It was truly an unforgettable vacation for all of us and Camelot by the Sea will go down as one of the most luxurious places I have ever been. Hanging out with your family and friends, out back when it is so tranquil at night with the tiny orange glow of the lights from the villas that dot along coastline with the moonlight shimmering off the vast Caribbean sea. The light ocean breeze gently blowing across the deck with the sound of the sea softly breaking against the cliffs below, thousands of miles away from any worries proves there might be a heaven on earth.