Nov. 16, 2008 -- The origins of Montserrat's nickname -- the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean -- are evident as soon as you approach this small, green island. Dramatic hillsides sweep the landscape before dropping sharply into the sea, and place names like Runaway Ghaut hint at the island's Irish heritage.
Montserrat, located in the Leeward Islands of the Eastern Caribbean, got its name from Christopher Columbus, who in 1493 said it reminded him of the hills and valleys surrounding a Catholic abbey near Barcelona called Santa Maria de Montserrate.
After the island became a British colony in 1632, it served as a haven for Irish Catholics who had finished their time as indentured servants on other British islands in the Caribbean.
Today, Montserrat's Irish heritage is evident in its flag, which shows a female figure similar to that on the Irish heraldry, and its food -- the national dish is an Irish stew called "goat water."
"We are very, very Irish," Montserrat Director of Tourism Ernestine Cassell said. "As a matter of fact, [Montserrat] is the only island that celebrates St. Patrick's Day outside of Ireland."
Soufriere Hills Volcano
Montserrat is also known for its Soufriere Hills volcano, which began erupting in 1995 after being dormant for hundreds of years. As a result of the eruption, two-thirds of the island is now off-limits to both visitors and residents.
"This eruption has lasted for thirteen years, and it's in the top five volcanoes that have done that in the world over the last few hundred years," said Jean-Christophe Komorowski, acting director of the Montserrat Volcano Observatory. "It has gone through different phases of activity. Currently ... there's no lava coming out of the summit of the volcano, but the volcano is still active."
Ash and mud from the erupting volcano have covered the former capital city of Plymouth, now known as a modern-day Pompeii.
"People, when they go in to see it … are actually standing on the tops of buildings, that much has it changed," Cassell said.
But still, some can see beauty in the volcano.
"We have a very healthy respect for the volcano," Cassell said. "We know what it can do, but we've decided we are going to live with it. We want to stay here. This is our home, and we're not going anywhere."
Dark and Sandy Beaches
Montserrat's dark sand beaches are also a result of volcanic activity on the island. The volcanic sand is grainer than sand found on other islands, and so dark it appears almost black in places.
"A lot of people tend to be afraid of dark sand beaches, but it gives that much more of a turquoise hue [to the water] than most other white sand beaches," Cassell said. "And you get to see the sea life against that black backdrop, so it makes for fantastic diving as well."
The dark sand beaches, the volcano, the green hills – for the people of Montserrat, these are the things that make their island home.
"If you grow up in a country you love … it's hard to trade it for something else," Montserrat resident Danny Sweeney said. "You know for yourself that this is where you want to be."