Far and Away: Visit Newfoundland’s Fogo Island Inn
While getting to Fogo Island might be a bit of a trek, every moment there makes it the adventure of a lifetime.
by : Joanna Fox- Dec 28th, 2021
Bent René Synnevåg, Alex Fradkin
There’s something magical about Fogo Island. The air is crisp, salty and sweet. The rolling rocky landscape is dotted with pristine brightly coloured clapboard houses. And there’s always a spectacular view that can’t quite be captured in a photo, no matter how many you take. It’s hard not to fall in love with this small island off the northeast coast of Newfoundland and Labrador; it feels a world away from everywhere and yet, at the same time, just like home.
And then, of course, there’s Fogo Island Inn.
There are several ways to get to the inn. Some people take a helicopter or a private jet, but most take a commercial flight to Gander, which is the route I took with my partner and our five-year-old son in late September. From there, Aubrey Payne, a community host from the inn, picked us up and took us north to the ferry and then onto the final leg—a 20-minute drive. The lovely community hosts—including Marie (Aubrey’s wife), Eugene Collins and Sean Penton—who escort us throughout our stay are locals whose families have been on Fogo for generations. Spending time with them is an important part of what the inn is about: Their knowledge of the island’s history and their stories about the way of life here are invaluable. Hospitality here is about community.
When we first get a glance of Fogo Island Inn as we drive over a hill, it ignites a childlike excitement. It’s so much bigger than I imagined, commanding the space like a giant ship jutting out over the sea. On arrival, we walk through big white wooden doors and are greeted by name in the reception area, where, with its cozy lit fireplace and contemporary furniture, sipping on a cup of tea or a glass of champagne would feel equally appropriate.
Our room—one of 29 in total, all of whose floor-to-ceiling windows look out onto the Atlantic—makes me giddy. It’s furnished with playful handmade pieces—as is the rest of the four-storey hotel—that combine expert craftsmanship, traditional features and modern design (they’re all made at the nearby Island Workshops) as well as custom wallpaper, handmade quilts and cushions and a wood-burning stove. There’s a pair of binoculars—already in focus—on a side table next to the window. Upping the hotel ante is a hand-knit fox on my son’s bed that’s for him to keep. Every need is anticipated, with details like a built-in white-noise machine, complimentary wool scarves hanging on our coat hook, a warm snack on arrival and children’s books on the shelves.
One could argue that Fogo Island Inn, which was designed by Newfoundland-born architect Todd Saunders, opened in 2013 and then reopened to vaccinated travellers this past July, is the isle’s crown jewel. Inspired by Newfoundland outport architecture (impermanent structures that are built on stilts instead of a foundation) and the landscape itself—and built using ecologically minded construction methods and with the knowledge and skills of local carpenters and craftspeople—there’s no doubt that it’s one of the most striking hotels in the world. But it’s the people and traditions of Fogo Island that truly make the experience remarkable. The hotel and Zita Cobb, its visionary founder, simply amplify the uniqueness of the island and help share it with the rest of the world—and teach us all a little something about sustainability and integrity at the same time.
Cobb, who was inducted into the Canadian Business Hall of Fame earlier this year as its first social entrepreneur, grew up on the island and left at 16 to go to university. Her father was a fisherman, and she witnessed how the traditional inshore cod fishery collapse of the late 1960s devastated the community by taking away its main industry and source of income and forcing islanders to move to the mainland in search of work. She went on to study business and had an incredibly successful international career in high tech, but in the early 2000s, she drifted back to Fogo Island and founded Shorefast with two of her brothers. This registered charity and suite of social businesses (Fogo Island Inn being the best-known one) works alongside Fogo Islanders to help revitalize the local economy, preserve and pass on the island’s cultural traditions (such as boat building, food storage and preservation and textile making) and protect its environment and wildlife. The inn itself, which generates employment for a third of the households on the island (the population is about 2,400), is a 100 percent social business—this means that all operating surpluses are reinvested into the community through Shorefast’s projects and programs. In short, the hotel is a non-profit.
We’re on the island in berry season (one of the seven seasons they experience here, including late fall, winter, pack ice, spring, trap berth and summer). There are gooseberries, raspberries, marshberries, partridgeberries, blackberries and blueberries everywhere we look and on our plates at each meal. Between the blueberry muffins that are placed in a basket at our door in the morning (along with fresh blueberry juice and hot coffee), the gooseberries with scallops for lunch and the blackberry and baby-corn appetizer at dinner, the food on this trip packs a serious antioxidant punch. There are guided berry tours, on which you’re taught about the various types and where to find them, but you can also just wander around and pick them to your heart’s content.
Included in the cost of a stay at the inn are all meals, snacks and non-alcoholic beverages, most of which we enjoy in the dining room, with its dramatic vaulted ceilings, wall-to-wall windows and distinctive flower-like chandeliers by Dutch designer Frank Tjepkema. It also offers insane views of the sunsets, which literally get all the diners in the room on their feet to watch in awe as the fiery sky changes from pink to red to orange and gold.
Sustainability and supporting the local economy are top of mind at the inn, so most of the food is local and seasonal: 80 percent of the ingredients used come from the island and the surrounding region. Executive sous-chef Timothy Charles’ dishes are showstoppers: salt cod with pollen and spiced honey; turbot with kelp, chickpeas and tomato; lobster with juniper, sunchoke and aronia; lamb with potato, radicchio, fennel and gooseberry; and always a choice of custom kid-friendly options.
During our stay, we are invited to “the shed,” a small contemporary building next to the inn, for a convivial communal snow-crab dinner by candlelight and lantern with a handful of other guests. After 18 months of social distancing, sharing a meal with (double-vaccinated) strangers is unnervingly intimate, but it turns out to be just what we need. Sitting side by side with people from coast to coast and hearing stories about their lives makes me realize why the inn hosts this dinner. Partaking in the Newfoundland tradition of “kissing the cod” and officially getting “screeched in” is an added bonus. We all leave feeling connected not only by this enchanting evening but also through our shared experience of this one-of-a-kind place.
Activities here change seasonally, and you can choose to do everything (a guided or unguided hike, a visit to the furniture workshop, a film screening in the hotel’s cinema, an afternoon reading in its library, a dip in the rooftop hot tub or a wood-fired-sauna session) or nothing at all—although I do highly recommend going to meet Break, the local Newfoundland dog, for a cuddle. Fogo is all about slowing down and taking in the beauty of your surroundings.
On our last day, we head to Joe Batt’s Point via a captivating walking trail that winds its way along the shoreline and past the Long Studio—one of the four workspaces that make up the sought-after Fogo Island Arts residency program—its dramatic jet-black paint creating a stark contrast against the cloudless blue sky. It’s a crisp sunny day, and we’re alone, walking in silence and listening to the roaring sounds of the ocean waves crashing onto the shore. The terrain is a combination of rock, low brush and earth that has a distinct softness, giving a slight spring to each step. It’s the island’s way of teaching us that here on Fogo, there’s a gentler, kinder way.
Plan your trip to Fogo Island:
From June to October, you can head out on a boat for some whale-watching (although I saw one breach from our room), fishing (complete with a cod-jigging lesson) or puffin spotting. If you prefer to stay onshore, there are more than 200 kilometres of paths and trails to explore year-round, whether you’re hiking, biking, snowshoeing, snowmobiling or cross-country skiing. Not for those who are wary of heights, the climb up to Brimstone Head—a rock formation in the town of Fogo that’s considered one of the four corners of the earth—is via a combination of wooden walkways, steep staircases and rocky paths, but it all leads to a spectacular view. For something more relaxed,explore the Joe Batt’s Point trail, which starts in a park next to a baseball diamond on the ocean—a literal field of dreams—and follows the stunning coastline. Those who like to roll up their sleeves should head to the Fogo Clay Studio for some pottery lessons, while contemporary art lovers will enjoy a visit to the inn’s first-floor gallery, which showcases the works of some of the artists who completed residencies through the Fogo Island Arts program.
Aside from Fogo Island Inn, there are plenty of wonderful spots to grab a bite, a coffee or something sweet. In the town of Fogo, Bangbelly Café serves brunch, lunch and dinner, offering a mean fish and chips, crispy fried chicken, handmade pizzas, burgers, salads and a kids menu. Over in Tilting, grab a table at the aptly named Tilting Cup for some direct- or fair-trade fresh-roasted organic coffee, sandwiches, soups and pizza on a Friday or Saturday night. For dessert, Growlers Ice Cream Shop in Joe Batt’s Arm is a must for a couple of scoops of local seasonal flavours like blueberry, partridgeberry jam tart and date square.
It’s hard not to fall in love with every quilt, piece of furniture and knitted cushion at the inn. Thankfully, whether you’re a guest there or not, you can wander down the road to Fogo Island Workshops and purchase a little piece of the island’s craftsmanship to take home with you. Make no mistake: These are investment pieces—handmade works of art—that combine quality, contemporary design and cultural heritage, and they’ll last a lifetime. A few kilometres away in Joe Batt’s Arm, Mona’s Quilt & Jam Shop showcases perfect souvenirs like aprons, placemats, hooked rugs and hand-knit clothing. Winds and Waves, located in the old firehall in Tilting, is an artisan guild that provides opportunities for the people of both Fogo and the neighbouring Change islands to build on their skills as well as produce and market arts and crafts.
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