Gingerbread Hill would have to be one of the strangest guesthouses on the planet.
It’s tucked down the hill off a little side road branching out from Montserrat’s main thoroughfare; goats amble across the driveway with impunity and the early morning wake-up call comes courtesy of the cockerels. A gate leads to a rough pathway leading up to a cemetery, and from that gate there is a spectacular view of the hillsides, gullies and the Caribbean Sea.
It doesn’t seem so much a guesthouse as a family home in the countryside, and that alone is enough to make for an experience far removed from the stereotypical Caribbean vacation. But this guesthouse also happens to be the best place to immerse yourself in the spectacular, terrifying story of the 1995 volcanic eruption that doused much of the island.
Gingerbread Hill is run by the Lea family — or the FamiLea, as they like to call themselves. They’re American refugees, having decided to leave home when their favourite hippie haunts such as Boulder and Key West started yuppifying. As they tell it, they wanted to live someplace their children could “grow up a little slower, have a treehouse and a rope swing” and they could “pick fruit off the trees.”
David and Clover originally came out to the island as missionaries, but cut the church ties early. David worked as the prison chaplain, ran a youth centre and embarked on a television career selling feel-good programs across the Caribbean. Meanwhile, they gradually did up their house in what was — at the time — the middle of nowhere.
And then the Soufriere Hills volcano erupted. The southern part of the island was evacuated, scientists and media crews arrived in droves, and the Leas were asked if they could help out by putting someone up. They did, and that was the beginning of their guesthouse. There are now four accommodation options, ranging from a surprisingly well equipped backpacker room to a fantastic suite with full kitchen and rooftop sundeck.
With the southern two-thirds of the island now in the volcano exclusion zone, Gingerbread Hill is no longer completely in the sticks. And while there are other guesthouses that are more conveniently located, they don’t come with their very own filmmaker.
You see, putting up tourists is only part of the family business. David is the island’s resident documentary specialist, and he has shot some of the most astonishing volcano footage ever committed to film.
While it is possible for visitors to Montserrat to have a look at Soufriere Hills from vantage points such as Jack Boy Hill and the Volcano Observatory, that doesn’t really give a proper picture of what happened to the island. The free DVD in the rooms at Gingerbread Hill does.
Mostly made up of David’s own footage, the DVD shows what life was like before Soufriere Hills woke from its 400-year-long sleep. Then it launches into the exciting stuff. Captured are scenes of ash storms, the evacuation of the capital city and a petrified David on a nearby hill as the volcano starts rumbling.
It’s played out to the soundtrack of the real life radio announcements that told residents they would have to abandon everything and head for temporary shelters in the north of the island.
What’s more, the family members are more than happy to talk about the island’s experiences, and will even organize tours to spots within the exclusion zone if you wish to go behind enemy lines and see spectacular valleys of pure ash and mud.
Montserrat is slowly getting back on its feet, although the volcano is still highly active. For the visitor, there’s the chance to see things that cannot be seen anywhere else on earth. The views of the buried capital, Plymouth, from either the hilltops or on a boat from the sea are genuinely extraordinary — it is almost entirely buried, aside from a few rooftops sticking out above the debris.
The island’s real asset, however, is its village-like atmosphere. Everyone knows everyone, and newcomers are welcomed in instantly. Drop by at a local bar for a beer, and you’ll be caught up in conversation or a game of dominos in no time.
It’s an attitude that Gingerbread Hill typifies. It’s nothing like the standard Caribbean beach resort, and it’s all the better for it. Montserrat is something completely, brilliantly different.