Fogo Island Inn: Newfoundland’s Sustainable Success Story
FOGO ISLAND, N.L. – The patchwork quilts at the renowned Fogo Island Inn are made by local ladies honouring time-worn tradition. The striking, modern-meets-old-school wooden furniture is crafted at a studio down the road, which also provides income for local residents. And when you stay the night, they give you a local guide to show you around this most beautiful and ruggedly handsome island in what I think is Canada’s most singular province.
Local, sustainable tourism is the name of the proverbial game at the Fogo Island Inn, a truly remarkable property that was built by Zita Cobb, who grew up in a simple, clapboard home a few metres down the road and made a fortune in the tech industry. Rather than retire on a yacht in Tahiti, Cobb decided to make a difference at home, an island that’s had more ups and downs than the Nasdaq stock she used to follow with regularity.
The decline of the cod fishing industry devastated Cobb’s little community of Joe Batt’s Arm, as well as other parts of Newfoundland. But Cobb is helping her hometown and other island communities by operating a super-luxury property on the edge of the ocean and plowing profits back into Fogo.
Cobb also brings in artists from around the world – top painters and photographers and writers and sculptors – to interact with locals and live in isolated cottages so they can learn to appreciate this sometimes harsh but always striking and fascinating land.
We took a tour of the furniture factory one morning, which is housed in the old Fishermen’s Union hall and has great photos from the old days and other historical bits. Manager Nathan Ball, who recently moved to the island from Ottawa, told us they’ll make furniture for people that’s just like what you see at the Inn, but that they’re pretty backed up.
“We have five full-time workers,” Ball said. “One fellow we just hired said this is his first-ever job on the land.”
Across the street is a shop called Wind and Waves. One of the workers, Millicent Dwyer, told me there are 70-plus artists who send their wares – quilts, socks, jewellery and more – to the shop on a consignment basis. Some are as young as 15, others pushing 100.
“Sometimes the ladies in their 90s miss a stitch on a quilt,” she tells me in a low voice, lest anyone in the shop hear. “If they do, we just fix it right up for ‘em.”
“So,” I reply, “they’re not perfect.”
“No way,” she says with a laugh. “If you want perfect, buy it from a factory in China.”
I only spent a few minutes in the shop, but I loved chatting with Dwyer and her co-worker, Violet Cumbden. They’re got tremendous spirit and commitment and a clear love for their island.
The Inn itself is magnificent; made to look a bit like a giant ship plowing the Atlantic, and partly perched on stilts that mimic the supports under a fisherman’s shed on one of the island’s craggy, rock-strewn bays. Rooms are beautifully furnished with a mix of old-style touches and modern amenities, including a white noise machine, great Wi-Fi and a beautiful shower with locally made bath products. Oh, and a sleek electric toilet with bidet-like sprays and a lid that goes up and down with the push of a button.
There’s very little on the walls, which focuses your attention on the handmade products and the quilts and the view out to the Atlantic via large picture windows.
My wife sat on one of the “Bertha” chairs, a low affair with a wide back and a huge, thick cushion, and pronounced it the most comfortable she’d ever sat on. I had to agree, and I heard at least one other guest say the same thing.
The food also is sensational, and it’s all included in the price (except for alcohol). The restaurant manager has worked at top spots in Toronto, including Richmond Station and Splendido, so he knows how to make things work. We had magnificent and beautiful meals at every stop; lush, sweet, perfectly cooked (and sustainably farmed) cod, local mussels, Newfoundland chanterelle mushrooms and so much more.
Even the oatmeal at breakfast was beautifully presented and topped with a mound of fresh, local berries; Newfoundland being at its berry-season height when we visited in early September. There’s no charge for coffee or snacks during the day, and they bring you fresh pastries and coffee every morning before 6 a.m. in a gleaming wooden “tool box” and leave it outside your door. The cranberry scones we had one day were sensational.
And how’s this for helping the community? If you don’t want to dine at the Inn, you can go for dinner in any of the island’s restaurants and the hotel will pay the bill.
There’s a lovely sauna and two hot tubs on the roof, with beautiful views of a nearby fishing village. They also have a spacious, well-lit library and on-site art gallery. They have a full gym, but why stay indoors when you can take glorious hikes around the island hills and rugged coast?
There are only 29 rooms, so you never feel overwhelmed by the crowds. They also have bikes you can use, and every night they trot out two massive Newfoundland dogs (named Make and Break) that you can pet or, as some guests were doing, roll around on the floor with.
The highlight of our trip, other than the food and the room and chatting with Cumbden and Dwyer, was our three-hour island tour with retired local teacher Clem Dwyer. He hails from the community of Tilting, a fishing village that until recently was entirely Irish Catholic. Instead of that clipped Newfoundland accent, Dwyer speaks as if he just disembarked from a flight from Shannon.
He shows us pretty homes on the water in the community of Barr’d Islands and talks about the impact of the Fogo Island Inn and the history and people of the island. He still lives in Tilting, and can see the house where he was born from his front window.
I comment on the higgledy-piggledly arrangement of homes, and he nods.
“A fisherman would build his house near the water. But then if his son or daughter wanted a house they’d build one nearby. Sometimes there might be a rock in the way or something like that, so they’d have to put it [on] an angle.”
We pass the island’s medical centre, and Dwyer explains all the doctors come from Libya these days. We cruise past the town of Seldom and also gaze up at what’s called Brimstone Head, a massive rock formation that guards the harbour in the town of Fogo (it means “fire” in Portuguese and was named by roving bands of sailors who came here centuries ago in search of fish).
We also get a ride in an old “punt” boat with a local Tilting resident, who helps steer us around the harbour despite tricky winds. A punt is like a rowboat, but instead of big, rounded oars, you get long, thin oars that are meant to just skim the surface of the water.
Folks who stay at the Fogo Island Inn can watch a movie that talks about how the place was founded. In it, owner Zita Cobb talks about the “flattening” of people and the earth, and how one country starts to look much like another.
She doesn’t want that to happen to Fogo Island or to Newfoundland. There are new B&Bs popping up, thanks to the stimulus her inn has provided. But I don’t think there’s any danger of anyone mistaking Fogo Island for trendy English Bay in Vancouver or posh Hilton Head Island in South Carolina any time soon.
As I finish my trip and type out my notes, I think back to a joke Clem Dwyer told us on our tour.
“How do you spot a Newfoundlander in heaven? They’re the ones who complain that they want to go home.”