If you have a bucket list, Fogo Island may not be on it – yet.
Rugged and windswept, Fogo Island offers a different experience than most destinations – a type of salty Narnia that, if you’re still a believer that the Earth is flat, is known as one of the four corners of the world.
Fogo Island is the largest offshore island of the Canadian province Newfoundland and Labrador, which is north of Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia.
Against the dramatic backdrop of the frigid, churning North Atlantic stands the island’s main attraction: the Nordic-style Fogo Island Inn, perched on a small hill of craggy slabs of granite.
With just 29 rooms, the inn achieves the feel of a very luxurious bed and breakfast with small and cozy spaces (most rooms have wood-burning stoves) while still finding a way to be breathtakingly expansive with its own art gallery, 32-seat theater, private guest saunas and roof deck hot tubs. The inn’s restaurant cracked the top three of enRoute Magazine’s best new restaurants in Canada in 2013.
The inn’s most indelible mark, however, is the hospitality – the sense of community that can be seen throughout.
Many who work at the inn are from families that date back generations, English and Irish settlers from hundreds of years ago. Fishing for cod brought them to the island, and some settled rather than making the voyage back.
An English or Irish lilt can still often be heard. If you’re drinking the island’s popular coffee brand Flat Earth, it’s not uncommon for it to be pronounced “flat urt.”
Discovering the island’s simple pleasures
Martin Foley is one of these hospitable islanders.
A true outdoorsman at the ripe age of 72, he has lived on Fogo Island his entire life – not venturing more than a few miles from his family home in the town of Tilting before he was 18.
Foley, once a schoolteacher, works for the inn as a community host, guiding guests throughout their stay on the untouched and unspoiled landscape.
Ambling along beautiful seascapes and cliffs, visiting cemeteries with graves of English and Irish settlers from the 1800s and 1900s and having a traditional boil up of fresh-caught cod and king snow crab are all things Foley grew up doing and is keen on showing to visitors.
The island can be disorientating at first – and it’s meant to be. Everyday conveniences are not close at hand. It’s quiet – no movie theaters, manicured lawns or megamalls. Time is nearly suspended.
The island even has its own curious time zone as well as seven distinct seasons. Each one offers something substantially different – from snow shoeing and watching icebergs to foraging for berries and sitting by bonfires on cool summer nights.
As the Fogo Island Inn defines it, “our seven seasons consist of warm summers, snowy winters, a spectacular ice season, hopeful spring, June’s trap berth season, bountiful wild berry picking in fall’s berry season and a temperamental late fall.”
Striking a balance
There’s no doubt that the terrain is quintessentially rugged. The Fogo Island Inn, however, is able to bring a sense of balance between quiet solitude in nature and a fashionable hotel.
The inn’s challenge is retaining the history of a small sleepy fishing island with a total population of just 2,395 while creating a 21st century enterprise.
The inn’s exterior and interiors strike this delicate balance to perfection with an ebb and flow of new and old. A modern building designed by Norway-based architect Todd Saunders juxtaposed with handmade furniture and quilts by Fogo Island villagers helps give the impression of a hotel working within the ideals of the island, not against them.
In some places, the inn feels like a very large boat – purposefully designed to touch lightly on the landscape. Small vibrations can be felt, at times, as the North Atlantic surges and foams outside.
Floor to ceiling windows display the dramatic landscape. The shape of the actual structure of the building, 300 feet long, 30 feet wide, helps give the sense of a vessel.
It’s safe to say the island is in sort of a renaissance after years of economic decline. Completely dependent on the cod industry that all but disappeared in the early 1990s, villagers were left with scant means to survive.
This is where Zita Cobb, owner of the Fogo Island Inn, comes in.
Once a tech titan, she returned to the island of her birth in the early 2000s after a stint as CFO of a fiber optics company. A millionaire many times over, she made more money than she could ever need for a lifetime.
Her goal? To use the Fogo Island Inn as an economic engine. Employing 153, the inn is one of the main sources of employment on the island, bringing a surge of interest to a place where many have struggled for their livelihood.
Cobb’s mission does, however, come with its own set of fears. She worries that with consumerism comes the flattening of culture, and that if it takes over, every community will look the same, that the hills will be paved over and that the island’s past will no longer be accessible to the next generation.
It’s a delicate dance with the devil, she knows – but worth it to bring Fogo Island back.
Her first effort at helping the community involved scholarships for the younger generation, but then a community member raised an important point: the scholarships were sending young people away.
That led to setting up Shorefast – a foundation she established with her brother Tony to pump resources back into the economy. So far that effort has resulted in six modern artist studios peppered across the island, an artist residency program and countless other projects, including the inn itself.
Surplus revenue from the inn goes back to the community. It’s a daunting balance – creating a future for Fogo Island while retaining ties to the past – but Cobb remains optimistic.
If the community doesn’t strive for this equilibrium, Cobb says, “our past will be inaccessible to us, we need to know it and translate it into new things.”
As the French would say – “qui n’avance pas, recule”… or “those who do not move forward, move back.”
Without losing its identity, Fogo Island is moving forward.
If you go
Fogo Island Inn: Open year-round. Double occupancy rooms start at $1,300 USD. Rates include all meals (welcome snack, daybreak service, breakfast, lunch, supper) and all nonalcoholic beverages, a half-day orientation with a Community Host and full use of all the inn’s facilities: cinema, sauna, contemporary art gallery, gym and yoga space, heritage library.
There’s Wi-Fi throughout the inn, bicycles for independent exploration and storm weather gear, rubber boots and binoculars in each suite.
The Old Salt Box Co.: Eight separate salt box homes throughout the island to rent, most with ocean views and great for families.
Quintal House Heritage Guest Home: Nadine is the incredible host at this cozy bed and breakfast with just three rooms. Rates start at $120 USD.
Other spots to visit:
Nicole’s Café: Located in the small community of Joe Batt’s Arm, Nicole’s is one of the few restaurants on the island. The menu changes daily, but expect fresh fish, pastas made that day and homemade ice cream from Growler’s, the island’s only ice cream shop. (Closed for the season – check website before you make plans).
Quilt and Jam Shop: Set in islander Mona Brown’s family home are jams, handmade quilts and clothing amidst vintage antiques.
Herring Cove Art Gallery: Local artists Linda and Winston Osmond sell traditional paintings, cards, ornaments and quilts. All handcrafted.
Getting to Fogo Island:
Fly to Gander, Newfoundland. From there rent a car and drive to Farewell to catch the ferry to Fogo Island. Note: There are no ferry reservations – first come, first served. Fogo Island Inn also offers transportation from Gander to the inn.