SOUFRIERE, ST. LUCIA, West Indies - The Pitons dominate the southwest coast of St. Lucia.
The twin volcanic spires are the iconic image of St. Lucia, the green hulking peaks rising from the sea side by side in dramatic fashion.
Le Gros Piton and Le Petit Piton rise 2,618 feet and 2,438 feet, respectively, above the dark green Caribbean waters of Piton Bay. Today the lava and rocks of the Pitons are covered in vegetation.
Images of the Pitons are everywhere: from shirts to postcards to the labels of the local beer, Piton. They are the most-photographed rocks on the island and a visit to St. Lucia is not complete without a chance to view the Pitons, even from a distance.
Writers have struggled to find the right words to describe them. St. Lucia's Nobel Prize poet Derek Walcott called the twin peaks the "horns." (The name comes from the French word for spikes.) Oprah Winfrey once declared the Pitons to be among five must-see sites around the world.
Gros Piton is 3 kilometers in diameter at its base. Petit Piton is 1 kilometer in diameter at its base. The two steep-sided peaks are connected via a ridge.
They are believed to be the remnants of two volcanic domes from the Qualibou caldera that formed 32,000 to 39,000 years ago.
The Pitons are part of a volcanic complex known to geologists as the Soufriere Volcanic Centre which is the remnant of one or more huge collapsed stratovolcanos. The Pitons are the eroded cores of two lava domes formed on the flanks of the volcano. They also display other volcanic features.
The dominant vegetation on the Pitons is tropical moist forest with small areas of dry forest near the coast and on steep slopes, and areas of wet elfin woodland on the summits.
On the Pitons, small undisturbed natural forests remain because of the steepness of the land. At least 148 plant species have been recorded on Gros Piton and 97 on Petit Piton.
If you are inclined, you can climb the Pitons. But it is a steep ascent that will take three to six hours each way. Local guides are required; find them at the visitor center in Ford Gens Libre on the south slope of Gros Piton. The fee is about $30.
At first, it appears that the peaks are side by side. But as one gets closer, you realize that they are 2 1 / 2miles apart.
The port town of Soufriere sits in a bay just north of Le Petit Piton, the smaller-but-steeper rock. Le Gros Piton lies to the south.
The Pitons plus about 7,200 acres of land and water make up a United Nations World Heritage Site. For information, check out http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1161.
The area is also home to some of the island's priciest resorts, some of which only have three walls so as to not obscure the views: Jade Mountain, Jalousie Plantation, Ladera and Le Chastanet.
The appeal of St. Lucia and its incredible vertical-dominated topography continues underwater.
The island is home to one of the healthiest and most diverse reef systems in the world. Divers and snorkelers may find more than 300 species of fish and more than 50 corals. Hawksbill turtles are seen onshore, whale sharks and pilot whales offshore.
The visibility ranges from 20 to 200 feet underwater. The water temperature is a balmy 79 to 85 degrees.
One of the best diving and snorkeling spots is at the base of the Pitons, and the Soufriere Marine Management Area is one of the most successful marine parks in the Caribbean. It was established in 1995 and brought together local fishermen, landowners and water-sport operators.
It covers 7.2 miles of shoreline from Anse Jambon on the north to Anse Ivrogne to the south, with a steeply sloping continental shelf with fringing and patch reefs, boulders and sandy plains. The coral reefs cover almost 60 percent of the marine area.
The preserve was established to protect the reefs and to promote sustainable management to allow local fishermen to continue to fish.
It includes two terrific snorkeling spots: Anse Cochon (Bay of Pigs) and closer to the Pitons, Anse Chastanet Reef, next to the resort with black volcanic sands, the best on St. Lucia for its marine life.
The shallow part of the reef is accessible from the beach and lies in 5 to 25 feet of water. The reef falls away to 140 feet in a unique coral wall and approaches the harbor of Soufriere.
It features brain and soft corals, sponges and sea fans, plus 150 species of fish. Photographers love the site because of the abundance of bright, colorful sea life and the coral is easily photographed in the clear waters. It is home to large trumpet fish and turtles.
The Coral Gardens at the base of Gros Piton are very special.
We snorkeled at the base of Petit Piton and next to the white sand beach at the Jalousie Plantation, known as Sugar Beach. The sand was imported from Guyana and used to cover up the volcanic black sands. All beaches on St. Lucia are open to the public. Scuba St. Lucia offers trips around the Pitons.
St. Lucia (it is pronounced loo-sha) - once known as the land of the iguana - is a lush, green, natural and still-developing island. The avocado-shaped island has surprisingly wild interior rain forests and mountain peaks that top 3,100 feet. The development hugs the coast, and its roads are slow and winding.
St. Lucia is famous with honeymooners and for its pricey all-inclusive resorts. It is not dominated by a beach culture, like many other Caribbean islands. It is largely rural, with banana and coconut plantations. It was a sugar-cane island in the past.
The first European settler on the island was Francoise Le Clerc, a 15th-century French pirate with a wooden leg.
St. Lucia has a rich history and was a battleground between England and France. The island changed hands 14 times. England won out in 1814. It became an independent country within the British Commonwealth in 1979.
English is the official language, although the French influence is strong.
About 13 percent of the island is protected rain forest with more than 20 miles of jungle trails, secluded waterfalls and volcanic features including boiling mud and steaming vents.
The St. Lucia Forest Preserve covers about 19,000 acres, home to the threatened St. Lucia parrot, also known as the jacquot.
The St. Lucia Forestry & Lands Department can arrange guided rain forest hikes. The Tet Paul Nature Trail is one of the best (( http://www.tetpaulnaturetrail.com ). For other hikes into the rain forest, go to http://www.stlucia.org/activity/rainforest.asp.
The St. Lucia Trust at 758-452-5005 or http://www.slunatust.org also offers guided rain forest hikes. You can drive into a volcano with bubbling mud pots and sulfurous gases near Castries.
Pretty Marigot Bay is where the original Dr. Dolittle movie with Rex Harrison was filmed. Rodney Bay at the island's northwest tip has become a tourist center for water sports.
Anse la Raye on the west coast is known for its Friday night fish parties/dance parties. The village of Dennery on the east coast hosts similar get-togethers on Saturdays.
Two estates near Soufriere - Soufriere Estate and Morne Coubaril - offer tours. There are also botanical gardens, waterfalls and mud baths.
Pigeon Island National Park covers 40 acres with two beaches, the remains of an 18th-century naval garrison and a British fort.
For information, contact the island's travel office at 212-867-2950, http://www.stlucianow.com.
You can also get information from the St. Lucia Hotel and Tourism Association, 758-452-5979 or 758-453-1811, http://www.slhta.org.
Bob Downing: firstname.lastname@example.org