Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Helicopter Tour Around Volcanic Montserrat

Out of the flying pan into the fire!

When I was offered the chance to go on a nice relaxing helicopter trip around Antigua I was delighted. I didn’t have any fear of flying ... until I learnt I would be flying towards an active volcano that had blown up just a few weeks before!

Being a seasoned flyer I have to confess I don’t pay much attention to flight safety demonstrations. However with the prospect of flying at a volcano I can assure you I was glued to the 15 minute safety DVD at Caribbean Helicopters. They explained that the helicopter we were to travel in was statistically the safest single engine aircraft in the world .... and what better way of tempting fate that flying straight at an active volcano I thought. We were handed our yellow life jackets (I would have preferred asbestos underpants) and headed to the helicopter.

We departed from Caribbean Helicopter’s helipad near Fort James. You can see the take off video above. We started by buzzing the cruise liners moored at Heritage Quay and then flew out to sea over the crystal clear seas which surround Antigua. We were at around 2,000 feet but the water and sky was so clear we could see the reef and even sea turtles below. From February until April you can be lucky enough to see whales.

The flight takes about 15 minutes but you see Montserrat as soon as you leave Antigua. It’s hard to miss an island with a 10,000 foot high column of steam and ash spewing out of it!

The volcano had been dormant for millions of years and then a couple of thousand years ago it woke up…. with a bad case of indigestion. We arrived and swept around the volcano trying not to become its next meal.

As we arrived it was almost too much for my senses to take in. There was the size of the volcano to absorb and the brilliant contrast between its light, brown dusty appearance and the lush green mountains that surround it. It’s ironic that the ash that has caused so much destruction over the years actually gives life to the rest of the island as a super fertiliser. It wasn’t just the sights that assaulted the sense as all the time we had that distinctive sulphur smell fill our nostrils. It was incredible.

On the other side of the island I saw a sight that I had never seen before and will probably never again.

It was the former capital of Plymouth which had been destroyed by an eruption in 1997. We flew low over houses that had been overcome by mud, lava and ash. It was as if mother nature had decided to put a facial mud pack on the whole town!

We spent around 20 minutes touring the island, all the time we were being updated with interesting facts about the island’s history including the options to leave that the British had given the residents after the last major eruption. Half decided to leave and the other half decided to gamble and stay!

We had an amazing trip and as a postscript, a few days after we visited the volcano it erupted again. This time engulfing the former airport! I can only imagine the departure board “Sorry – flight delayed by volcano!”

If you are lucky enough to visit Antigua while Montserrat is still active then this trip has to be on your list of things to do. It is simply stunning. Just remember to pack those flame proof pants!

Charles Duncombe is an Antigua Holidays expert at UK travel company, Holidaysplease. He flew with Caribbean Helicopters.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Lounge by FBO 2000, Antigua Airport

You could begin to feel a bit like James Bond doing this. After arriving at the mysterious Gate 10 somewhere at the rear of Antigua airport, we speed across the runway in the middle of the night, hazard lights flashing. We draw up next to a large private jet.

‘Will you go straight on board, sir?’

‘Er, I’m not sure that’s such a good idea, given that it’s not our jet.’ I ponder where we might end up. Wichita? …El Salvador? …Afghanistan?

Instead we are taken into a white creole building to the side. It is the Lounge by FBO 2000. The company generally offers airport services (clearing private jets in and out, meet and greet for the smarter hotels etc), but as Antigua airport is due for a fair bit more renovation over the next few years, they have also decided to offer a lounge as a more comfortable alternative to the main departure hall.

It was a little empty when we were there, with just one other family, who, curiously lived just a few miles from us (fly 4000 miles to meet the neighbours…), but then you probably wouldn’t want it to be crowded. So we settled in (actually turned in, in the case of my two children, who spread themselves across two benches), ordered a drink and enjoyed the wait.

The Lounge has sitting areas, a snooze room, wireless coverage, internet access and magazines to keep you distracted, finger food, drinks on request and a couple of shower rooms. There is an outside deck surrounded by bananas if you wish to catch the evening warmth on your last day in the islands. There is even what they call a VVIP room if you want additional privacy, with a recliner and your own television.

It is certainly more comfortable than the regular terminal, which although it has improved a bit recently is still mayhem. And the Lounge would be particularly good if you had to transit in Antigua from one of the other islands, and therefore have five or six hours to kill before your trans-Atlantic flight home.

Our flight was delayed a little and so it was the dead of night by the time we were called to the plane. Our passports were returned and we were taken to the small departure area with its x-ray machine. And again, we loaded up into a 4x4 and, hazards on, we sped across the airfield.

Squawk. ‘Permission to cross Runway 7… Granted.’ We scooted off. The acid lights of the main terminal came into view and we drew up beneath the BA flight bound for London.

The Lounge by FBO 2000 costs US$95 per person (13 and up, children under 12 free). The Lounge is currently restricted to passengers flying on British Airways. Contact +1268 562 7056, thelounge@FBO2000.com.

For more information about the island itself, please see The Definitive Caribbean Guide to Antigua.
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