02/26/2012 11:43 am ET Updated Apr 27, 2012

Volcanic Versus Coral: The Caribbean Throw-Down (PHOTOS)

Like many who live near the sea, I'm drawn to high places. And so it is as I gaze from the Ladera Resort on the island of St. Lucia, near the northern end of the Windward Islands. Beyond the open western wall of my room loom two nearly half-mile-high, perfectly shaped cones -- the Gros and Petit Pitons -- sentries of blue Jalousie Bay. These tropical twin peaks stand near the center of a crater that once measured three miles across. The volcano last erupted 30,000-40,000 years ago, leaving behind these two towers and the mild scent of sulfur that pricks my nostrils as I trek towards the bay.

I begin inching up Petit Piton, illogically, by mountaineering taxonomy, the taller of the two spires by some 200 feet, but named so because it is thinner than its sibling. Up, up this steep relic I slothfully climb -- puffing, drenched in sweat and feeling out of place, out of time and out of shape. A thousand years ago the Arawak Indians worshiped this caryatid as a deity of fertility. Now I pray I won't go limp before reaching the knurled top. (*SEE PHOTOS BELOW*)

Stooping to catch a breath I hear a swoosh, and look up to see a man race by, flying up the mountain. He seems a vestige of some kind of primordial perfection, an Arawak ghost come to life. Then another passes by, and another. I ask my local guide, King Kaya, who these people are.

"Just my friends from town. They come up for a look."

Back in town -- a shanty place called Soufrière -- I wander among the fretted shacks in search of a cool drink. It strikes me that while most of the people are quite poor here, by United States standards at least, they are very, very fit. Many have the chiseled bodies of Venice Beach fitness gurus who spend hours each day working out on high-tech gear. When I ask how it is they are in such great shape, King Kaya simply says they walk a lot. Up and down. It is the terrain of the island.

That night at dinner I sit by a diplomat from Barbados who comments about how unfit the people on his island are compared to St. Lucians. Why, I ask, as both sets of islanders descend from the same peoples -- West African slaves brought to work on sugar plantations during the 17th and 18th centuries. And the two islands are just 100 miles apart. Why the discrepancy? Diet? Weather? Culture?

By the end of dinner, under the influence of perhaps a dram too many of rum, a theory emerges. St. Lucia, like many of the Caribbean isles, is volcanic; while Barbados has no such Dantean basement. It is coral.

There are essentially two types of islands in the Caribbean. The older group -- Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Guadeloupe's Grand Terre, Antigua, Barbuda, St. Martin and Anguilla -- are largely low-lying plateaus composed of billions of shells and marine animal skeletons accumulated on the ocean floor. The younger islands -- those formed by an arc of underwater volcanoes at the points of convergence between the Atlantic and Caribbean tectonic plates -- surfaced relatively recently, and include Grenada, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, Martinique, Dominica, Guadeloupe's Basse Terre, Montserrat, Saba, Statia, Nevis and St. Kitts.

While we today regard volcanoes variously as dangerous sexual, and beautiful, the ancients held them as mythic. The etymology traces to Vulcan, Roman god of fire, forge and hearth. And volcanoes everywhere were the throne rooms of the gods. Volcanoes and their lords could snuff out life on a whim or bless it with manic fertility. But they always conferred a healthy lifestyle to those in its shadows by requiring all that walking. And other factors contributed. The water, for instance. High volcanic peaks, such as those on Dominica, Guadeloupe and Grenada, cause trade winds to rise, generating moist air and heavy clouds over the sea and windward coasts. Currents force clouds up into the layer of cooler air, triggering heavy downpours. The upper slopes of Dominica's Morne Diablotin receive more than 300 inches of rain a year, making it among the wettest places on earth.

So, fresh water is constantly being supplied, aerated in tumbling streams and filtered by vegetation, all of which makes for healthful drinking. And it makes great beer, such as the eponymous local brew on St Lucia: Piton.

From the belly of many volcanic islands font mineral-rich waters, issuing through steam vents and hot springs. These waters, too, have proponents, believers in the curative powers. On St. Lucia and Nevis natural hot tubs have enticed visitors since colonial times to "take the waters." The Nevis pools led to the Caribbean's first resort: the 1778 Bath Hotel, which drew guests from as far away as Great Britain. And on St. Lucia, when Louis XVI heard the waters at Diamond Falls were as healthful as those at Aix-les-Bains, he built bathhouses for the well-being of his officers stationed on the island.

Some claim the sulfurous waters can enhance the mind's fertility. Tiny St. Lucia, for example, has produced two Nobel Prize winners -- Derek Walcott for literature and Sir Arthur Lewis for economics -- both of whom bathed in the Diamond Mineral Baths. This is the highest ratio of Nobel laureates produced with respect to the total population of any sovereign country in the world.

But beyond bountiful minds, the effluence form volcanoes beget abundant plant life. Magma provides the main ingredients -- calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus and sulfur -- essential for vegetal growth. Whether the molten rock is blown out as ash or extruded as lava, fertilization is the by product. Ten acres of undisturbed land on a volcanic island contains as many as 10 times the number of plant species as on a coralline island. This, of course, means the volcano dwellers enjoy more and a wider variety of fruits and vegetables in the local diets. Coral islanders, on the other hand, import most vegetables, the cheapest of which are starchy and of little nutritional value. Barbados, Anguilla and Antigua all import tropical fruit from neighboring volcanic islands, but primarily to feed the tourists.

Volcanic isles also have more plentiful natural resources, such as hard woods and soft stones, materials for art making, an outlet for cultural expression and a societal glue. Volcanoes also lend a spiritual dimension. Many are regarded as sacred grounds, natural temples, harmonic convergence points, while cultures lacking such landmarks sometimes resort to crafting their own lofty symbols, such as the Egyptian pyramids in the flatlands of the Nile desert.

If the rugged terrain and bad roads of volcanic isles bind communities, their demanding geography and dearth of paradisical beaches discourage mass influxes of tourists. The limestone coral motes better fit the romantic notions of vacation utopia and so attract the foreign flocks who too often overdevelop, leak too many pollutants and infuse the local culture with alien mores and values. Rather than try to subdue the earth in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the peoples of volcanic islands tend to adjust to Nature -- and Nature, it seems, often returns the favor. Dominica, once called the "Nature Island of the Caribbean," has still today more mountains than tourist traps. Dominicans claim there are more centenarians per capita than anywhere else in the world.

Yet, of course, while volcanic islands can accord long and bountiful lives to its residents, they can also take them away, on an impulse, in an instant. The Lesser Antilles have endured no fewer than seven volcanic eruptions in the last 100 years, claiming the lives of more than 35,000 islanders.

To further explore the variances in the volcanic versus coral conceit, I hop 20 miles across the water to the neighboring French island of Martinique, and head for the Caribbean's most notorious volcano: Mont Pelée. When Columbus landed here in 1502 his first words were: "This land is the best, the most fertile, gentle and charming in all the world." He was right about the fertile part. The not-so-gentle Mont Pelée meted its own form of Crime and Pumicement when, on the morning of May 8, 1902, it erupted with a force said to be 40 times more powerful than the blast at Hiroshima.

A huge vent burst in the mountain's southern slope, and the air shattered with a sound described by an earwitness "like all the machinery of the world breaking down at once." Rolling and tumbling "like leaping lions," as searing, incandescent clouds of ash and poisonous gasses swept down over St.-Pierre, then the capital and one of the West Indies' most prosperous communities, instantly killing 29,000 people (some 1,000 managed to flee). The town's legendary solitary survivor was a drunk named Louis Cyparis, who fortuitously was locked in a thick-walled dungeon. He emerged three days later, burned but sober.

The event changed not only the landscape but the character of the island's northwest end. Once a busy French port -- it was known as the "Paris of the West Indies" -- St.-Pierre was slowly repopulated by locals after the eruption. Today it is a fishing village harboring about a sixth of its former population.

At the airport just outside Fort-de-France I am picked up by a Mercedes taxi and Luc Martial, its driver. Luc points the cab toward St-Pierre. Along the winding way we pass some of the island's rum distilleries and the ruins of Amerindian villages, buried by Pelée, the god of fire.

Today, East Indian Hindus regard the hot-headed peak as a manifestation of the cosmic dancer Shiva, creator and destroyer. Luc says that may believe Pelée blows its top every 100 years. It's overdue, so he's thinking of moving.

In St-Pierre, still blackened from the wrath of Pelée, I walk up the pocked Mont-au-Ciel, the Stairway to Heaven, and cross the Roxelane River. Fed by runoff from Mont Pelée, the stream provides the fresh water that quenches the town and imparts a measure of health.

I wander down the rue Victor Hugo to the Musée Volcanologique, located on the site of a former battery. Here I immerse myself in the down side of living underneath a volcano. On display are melted bowls and oxidized bottles; fused jewelry; scorched porcelain dolls; a welded nest of barbershop scissors and a smelted sewing machine; twisted musical instruments; petrified chocolate, spaghetti and biscuits; Dali-esque clocks frozen at the moment of eruption (7:52 a.m.); and the master bell of the cathedral, which, partially melted by the 1,345-degree-Fahrenheit blast, resembles a huge, collapsed lung. All bear witness to the devastating forces of volcanism.

From the parking lot above Petite Savane I begin the hike up the cone of Pelée into a shroud of shifting gray clouds. I sink boots into the conglomerate of fine cinder sand, pumice, pitch stone and pieces of glass-rich andesite, which crumbles like old cake. A dozen hikers are descending as I plod up slope, and it's easy to tell the tourists from the locals by waist size and speed of descent. When one rather rotund fellow stops to ask where I am from I return the question and am not at all surprised when he replies "Barbados."

Though quiescent for decades now, I can't help but imagine the volcano opening up beneath my feet, fire belching forth. It is at once exciting and terrifying to be on the edge of one of the most potent and destructive of earth's forces. I can visit Pelée of my own volition, but will leave only it if so wills.

The higher I climb, the deeper into Hell I seem to descend. By the time I reach the outer rim I am alone. I dip down into the caldera, cross the bowl-like depression and climb the final pumice steps to the lava-encrusted top called Le Chinois, 4,492 feet high, give or take. (After the 1902 eruption, a lava megalith taller than the Eiffel Tower rose from the point at my feet, then toppled 18 months later.) On this perch the air is cool and the sun washes my face. I look down on what Pelée would have seen at the time of the paroxysm: a rampantly fecund swath broken only by the town four miles distant, and beyond, a sea that merges seamlessly with an aquamarine sky. It is a healthy view.

Tied and famished after the climb I hitch a ride to St-Pierre aboard a candy-colored, canopied tourist tram called the Cyparis Express, an eponymous tribute to the drunkard cataclysm survivor who went on to a career with Barnum & Bailey Circus flaunting his burns in a sideshow tent.

My waitress at the Restaurant Chinois le Royal Bellevue is the well-toned, high-spirited, ever-grinning Marie-Claude. She leaves me to scan the menu of Chinese fare. Impressive as the offerings are, I am hankering for some of the more exotic comestibles -- banana bread, banana wine, banana ketchup, frozen banana daiquiris -- that reward the wayfarer on fruitful volcanic isles.

As I sip my piña colada, Marie-Claude, in her bright, flowered dress, attends to her guests with a radiance that rivals molten rock. When I ask why she is so merry she giggles and says, "Life is good!" When I probe about Pelée, she scrunches her shoulders and says it is a place she goes for picnics.

"Aren't you worried it will blow again?" I ask.

"No," she smiles, without a crack in her contentment. She says the volcano energizes her. She likes her home on its emerald skirt and says she will never move, no matter the mood of the mountain.

Perhaps a mountain like Pelée imbues those in its ken with a sense of mortality, a heightened understanding that the spark of terrestrial existence could be snuffed at any time. This then lends a sharpened appreciation for the moment, for the beauty of life and even for the potential destroyer itself. Paradoxically, it fosters a peace of mind and an accord with Nature unavailable to those insulated from the forces of our planet. There is a liberty in the untranquilness of a volcano.

The day following I make a pilgrimage to the Observatoire Volcanologique de la Montagne Pelée, built in 1935. There I meet Research Engineer Jean-Pierre Viode, whose proudest claim is to have swum in Dominica's Boiling Lake (heavy rains following a hurricane briefly left the crater lake cool enough for a dip). Jean-Pierre, even as an elder statesman, looks to be in peak physical condition, which he cites as one of the benefits of residing on a volcano.

He describes the conundrum of volcanic islands: Yes, the people are generally healthier, but they are also poorer and consequently have less access to health care. Most money in the Caribbean is made from tourism dollars, and tourists traditionally flock to the coral islands with their sugar-white beaches, not the gray and black strands at the feet of volcanoes. Ecotourism, with its relatively small number of practitioners seeking environments of a certain integrity, has not lived up to promises and has made but a dent in the economic well-being of those living in the scared but hyper-fertile volcanic islands.

As we sip on a locally bottled mineral water tapped from the foot of the volcano, Jean-Pierre elaborates: The same volcanic forces that have destroyed so much also renew, sustain and often augment life. The rich soil produces not only food, but plants for medicine, habitats for wildlife and wood for buildings and boats. Volcanoes produce aggregate and clay for bricks and tiles and pumice for soap.

On Guadeloupe, a small geothermal energy plant provides power to the people. Dominica's volcanic spine allowed construction of a vast hydro scheme that powers the island for a mere fraction of the cost of diesel -- and with no particulates spewed into the air. Still, the hard truth remains that any of these multi-million dollar projects could be rubbed out in seconds if a host volcano blows, and of course that makes it hard to convince investors to back such ventures. Though the observatory instruments record between 20 and 100 quakes annually on Martinique (and an average of two per day throughout the Lesser Antilles), these are not generally publicized. A few years ago, Jean-Pierre says, the local newspaper arbitrary reported one of these small quakes, and a few hours later dozens of locals were on their knees praying to the mountain.

Nevertheless, most islanders feel a strong bond with their mercurial landscape and with the spirits of ancestors who established their farms and villages on the slopes. Little wonder, then, that many forced to evacuate during past eruptions return soon thereafter to reclaim ancestral lands.

This is what happened on St. Vincent when tantrum-prone La Soufrière blew in 1979, displacing more than 20,000 people. And in 1976 the phreatic, or steam-fueled, explosion of the same-named volcano on Guadeloupe prompted the evacuation of 72,000 people, including the entire population of Basse-Terre. Then in July 1995, Montserrat's Soufriere Hills volcano, dormant for centuries, rumbled to life and began an eruption which eventually buried the island's capital, Plymouth, in more than 39 feet of mud, destroyed its airport and docking facilities and rendered the southern half of the island uninhabitable. More than half of the population left the island due to the economic disruption and lack of housing. After a period of regular eruptive events during the late 1990s, including one on June 25, 1997 in which 19 people died when they were overtaken by a pyroclastic flow, residents, against all reason, began to come back. That is the unbreakable allure of the volcano.

That evening I move back down to Fort-de-France and check into a small hotel off La Savane. After dinner, I venture out for a beer and step up to a great mahogany door marked "Bar." As the door slams shut behind me I hear a click echo down the hall. I walk up a flight of steps and face another door, locked, with a sign that reads "Fermé le lundi" -- closed Monday -- which day it happens to be.

So, around I turn and head back down the stairs only to find that the big front door too is now locked. From the inside. I am trapped in the hallway with no phone, no connected device, no company. I begin yelling for help and pounding on the massive portal (which was, no doubt, cut from the rain forest, which, in turn, had been fertilized by the volcano).

At last I hear muffled French and scratching sounds from the other side of the door. A heavily accented voice tells me I will have to wait until 8:00 in the morning, when the proprietor will return. I yell back that this will not do as I have a 7 a.m. flight.

Finally, after an hour of pounding and hollering, I hear a screwdriver turning the lock. Suddenly, the heavy door is lifted off its hinges, and I am free. An enormous man, rippling with muscles, arms like columnar basalt, grins as he holds the thing aloft. I thank him profusely and silently thank the volcano for helping to shape such a man.

Unable to resist, I ask where my rescuer is from. "Barbados, mon."

And with that, I toss all my theories out the door.