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The Soufrière Hills volcano on Montserrat is still smoking.

I don't know whether Sir George Martin would be dismayed, or quietly pleased, to learn that I trespassed at his famous recording facility in Montserrat, now an abandoned ruin that was once a magnet for A-list rockers.

I do know that the pilgrimage my family and I made to AIR Studios – a temple of rock music where the legendary Beatles' producer enticed deities of the genre to record some of the world's best-selling albums – was the highlight of our annual trip to the West Indies.

Montserrat has not had an easy time. A British territory that was once a playground for the rich, the 16-kilometre-long island was devastated by Category 4 winds in 1989 when Hurricane Hugo stormed through. It took another blast in 1995 when the Soufrière Hills volcano erupted, killing 19 people.

The airport and the capital city of Plymouth were buried under metres of ash, mud and rock – and the fate was sealed for AIR (Associated Independent Recording) Studios. It operated for just a decade before hurricane winds, water and humidity reduced the then state-of-art facility to scrap. Never again would it be the favourite recording getaway for legends such as the Rolling Stones, the Police, Rush, Lou Reed, Elton John, Black Sabbath and, well, you get the picture.

Folks could be forgiven for thinking that Montserrat remains a dead zone. The volcano is still active.

Two-thirds of the island, encompassing the hill on which AIR Studios was built, is an "exclusion zone" that has been deemed uninhabitable and "not safe for travel."

Except that it is travelled. I travelled it – along with my husband, my mother-in-law, my sister and my brother-in-law.

For several years, my husband and I spent a couple weeks escaping the harsh cold of Canada in Antigua. Three of the villas we rented looked west where we could just barely make out the hills of Montserrat. The story of the volcano, and the long-abandoned studio, intrigued us. What was it like over there?

So last year, we decided to pay a visit.

Our day trip started with a ferry from St. John's in Antigua, a voyage of nearly two hours over a choppy Caribbean Sea in a boat that had no outside seating. Needless to say, it was not for the faint of stomach.

We emerged into a lush, tropical jungle. Bob, our guide, met us at the ferry dock. He had already intended to take us to the exclusion zone – that's what tourists want to see – but we insisted that the first stop be AIR Studios.

We drove along winding hills and through dense green forest, until we came to a steep and well-maintained lane. The van's bald tires spun up the drive.

A sign out front of the studios warns that it is private property and that the premises are unsafe: Those who enter do so at their own peril. But, perhaps because Sir George recognizes the emotional value the building holds for a generation of rock fans, it does not say "Keep Out." So we went in.

A caked layer of mud, formed by volcanic ash, coats the broken floors once walked by Eric Clapton. Vegetation has overtaken the courtyard where Sir Paul McCartney pressed his hand into a cement tile. Sludge fills the pool where, perhaps, groupies once lounged or Sir Elton John took a dip after a long session. The electronics in the recording studios where the Police danced in the video for Every Little Thing She Does is Magic are gone, except for a few stray wires.

But one can still envision Mick and Keith checking their bags into the now grey and empty bedrooms. Or Boy George and the Culture Club partying in adjacent rooms. And, even though McCartney's tile has been removed from the garden, prints of the Climax Blues Band and the band America remain.

We walked quietly through the ruins for the better part of an hour – imagining the ghosts of still-alive musicians who seem to haunt the place.

When we were done dodging broken glass and loose floorboards, Bob made a quick dash through the normal tour of the excluded zone.

A valley that was once a golf course is now a wide sea of hardened ash and boulders. At what was once a hotel, the hardened spew from the mountain is more than a metre thick; the detritus of a thriving tourist business – bills and guest chits – litter the floor, frozen in time. Derelict mansions cling to the hillsides, and what remains of the town of Plymouth sits grey, ashen and deserted. The smell of sulphur permeates the air.

We also stopped at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, which monitors the seismic activity of Soufrière Hills and will sound a siren should the volcano show signs of another catastrophic explosion. A video designed for tourists shows a bustling town centre before the eruption and the aftermath, when a river of lava and rock scorched the capital and ash fell like snow for weeks.

The north part of the island was largely spared the devastation and today, with the financial help of Sir George, the habitable region is undergoing a renaissance. Volcano-related tourism provides jobs for many residents. There are now places to stay – mainly villas and guest houses where tourists who want nothing more than to spend a few days or weeks in a warm and beautiful paradise will find some bargains, along with a burgeoning restaurant business. You can spend days exploring hiking trails and beautiful beaches.

But for me, nothing compares with AIR Studios – where Duran Duran recorded The Reflex, Dire Straits laid down Money For Nothing, Mike and the Mechanics captured All I Need is a Miracle and the Stones immortalized Mixed Emotions.

It's easy to find good tanning spots in the Caribbean. But where else can you worship at the remnants of a rock 'n' roll shrine?


For day trips, a ferry service is available from Antigua. The cost is about $145 return. You will have to arrange a taxi on the Montserrat end.

What to do

Jenny Tours in Antigua offers day trips, by ferry, that include a guided tour and lunch for $155 a person (U.S.). If the ferry ride is not to your taste, she will fly you from Antigua for $295 (U.S.).

If you want to see the volcano from the air, Caribbean Helicopters will fly you over Montserrat for $285 (U.S.) a person.

Where to stay

The Tropical Mansion Suites, opened in 1999, after the volcano erupted, is the only hotel on the island. Rates range $139 to $160 (U.S.), for double occupancy.

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