Caribbean volcanoes: fire down below

Shaped by subterranean forces, the islands of the Lesser Antilles are an arc of volcanoes — some extinct, some dormant, some still active. And among their dramatic forested peaks, crater lakes, and hot springs, amateur vulcanologists (and ordinary tourists) can find ample evidence of our planet’s restless energy

La Soufrière caldera, St Vincent. Photo by Jonathan Palmer/Mustique AirwaysChampagne Reef, Dominica. Photo by Madisetti/Images DominicaSaint-Pierre, Martinique. Photo by De Agostini/L RomanoMontserrat. Photo by Patrick Bennett/Uncommon CaribbeanDiamond Falls, St Lucia. Debralee Wiseberg/iStock.com

La Soufrière caldera

St Vincent

The highest peak in St Vincent — rising to 4,049 feet above the sea, near the island’s northern tip — is also the youngest. Classified as an active volcano, La Soufrière (French for “the sulphur-maker,” and a common name in the Antilles) last erupted in 1979, but advance warning and an evacuation plan prevented any casualties. For intrepid hikers, the challenging climb from either Rabacca on the windward coast or Richmond on the leeward is rewarded by the lush cloud-forest near the summit, and stunning views of mountains, sea, and the huge crater, with a lava dome at its centre.

Champagne Reef

Dominica

It sounds like something out of a sybarite’s imagination: swimming in Champagne? Well, not literally, but the sensation at Champagne Reef — off Pointe Michel, near Dominica’s southern end — is appropriately fizzy, thanks to the volcanic gases bubbling up from thousands of small underwater vents across the reef. And the closer you get to the seabed, the warmer the temperature. Teeming with fish and other sea life, Champagne Reef is one of the Caribbean’s top dive sites, but shallow enough for snorkellers to enjoy too — or even for casual swimmers. When cruise ships are visiting, the water can get crowded, but on a quiet day you might have all this bubbly to yourself.

Saint-Pierre

Martinique

It’s perhaps the best known natural disaster in Caribbean history: the 1902 eruption of Mt Pelée and the abrupt destruction of the town of Saint-Pierre, “the Paris of the Antilles,” once the cultural and economic centre of Martinique. Shielded from lava flows by several valleys and ridges, the citizens of Saint-Pierre thought themselves safe from the rumbling volcano. Instead, their doom was a pyroclastic flow, a racing current of hot gases, ash, and rock, then unknown to science. Famously, a single man survived the disaster, a prisoner locked behind the thick walls of his cell, while more than thirty thousand of his compatriots perished. One hundred and fourteen years later, Saint-Pierre is a sleepy small town, still dotted with historic ruins, and home to the Musée Vulcanologique Franck Perret, which tells the dramatic story of the day that changed Martinique forever.

Montserrat

For a close-up look at how the earth’s subterranean forces are still actively shaping these islands — and the lives of their inhabitants — there’s no better place, or more chastening spectacle, than the island of Montserrat. In July 1995, the previously dormant Soufrière Hills volcano, rising above the capital, Plymouth, began erupting, triggering a mass evacuation of Montserrat’s southern two thirds. Plymouth itself was partially buried by ash flows, as was the island’s airport. Relatively quiet in recent years, the volcano is still considered active and dangerous, closely monitored by the Montserrat Volcano Observatory. But authorities now allow supervised tours of the ruins of Plymouth, billed as a contemporary Pompeii, and both helicopter tours and the vantage point of Garibaldi Hill allow visitors to survey the volcano’s destructive power — visible in the ash-covered expanses — and the regenerative force of nature, as unchecked vegetation returns parts of the exclusion zone to forest.

Diamond Falls

St Lucia

Near the town of Soufrière and the iconic Pitons, Diamond Falls are fed by St Lucia’s famous sulphur springs, which bubble up to the surface of an ancient volcanic crater. As far back as the late eighteenth century, the warm mineral-rich waters were known for their therapeutic properties, and the first baths were built here in 1784, for the benefit of French troops stationed in St Lucia. Today, visitors can soak in the outdoor baths, explore the surrounding botanical gardens, and admire what locals claim is the Caribbean’s most colourful waterfall, plunging nearly sixty feet into a natural pool. Over the centuries, the sulphur, copper, magnesium, and other minerals in the water have stained the rock face, and its natural kaleidoscope changes continuously.