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ISLAND STORIES

Text and photography by Esmé Hogeveen

 

On the northeastern edge of Newfoundland and Labrador, Fogo Island’s isolation from the mainland has historically attracted fishermen, caribou, and more recently, celebrities. The Fogo Island Inn strikes a new balance.

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Fogo IslandCountry: CanadaArea: 237.71 km2Population: 2,244Time zone: GMT-2:30

Fogo is the largest offshore island of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. The ancestral home of the Beothuk people, it was settled by predominantly Irish settlers in the 18th century, resulting in a mildly Gaelic edge in the accents of its residents.

 

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“People say everyone is so friendly here, but most of the visitors I meet are friendly, too.” So says Grace, a community host from the Fogo Island Inn who meets me at the ferry terminal in Fogo Island, Newfoundland. I departed from the mainland’s Farewell terminal: the place names, amongst other things, are unusually poetic in the northeastern Canadian province. Grace and I are driving toward the Fogo Island Inn, a famous, or at least Canada-famous, destination that I’ve been curious about for years. In anticipation of the journey, I tried to recall when I originally heard about the inn, which opened in 2013. Certainly, I was aware of the island because of the inn, and I suspect the same goes for most of my friends and family, who were delighted and, in a few cases, openly envious of my trip. For the record, I’d have been covetous, too: at a minimum of $2,875 CAD per night for a three-night minimum stay, it’s a treat and then some to visit this luxury hotel at one of “the four corners of the world”, in the words of Canada’s Flat Earth Society.

Travelling towards the inn’s site in Joe Batt’s Arm, a village or a “community” as the islanders call it, Grace gears down the Land Rover. Grace has been pointing out particularly special views of the island’s rugged coastline and charming outports, another term for harbour communities and one of many pieces of maritime argot I’ll learn during my three-day visit. Depending on where you gaze, the vistas feature 400-million-year-old, orange lichen-covered rocks; jagged shorelines and frothing turquoise waves; colourful clapboard houses; footpaths that wend inland towards berry picking meccas; boats, including Fogo Island’s famous punts, at sea and on shore in various states of mending; and fishing paraphernalia, including processing and storage facilities that I’ll come to learn more about during a rapid-fire education about Newfoundland’s cod fishing heritage.

The scenery is stunning. But frankly, I’ve been charmed by Fogo Island since I boarded the MV Beaumont ferry as a foot passenger at the mainland terminal in Farewell, a forty-five-minute drive from the nearest airport in Gander. En route to our first stop at Change Islands (three small islands west of Fogo), a boy aged about ten moved from booth to booth in the vessel’s retro lounge, chit-chatting with most of the passengers. Many of these people must be family, I suddenly realised, or neighbours. Scanning for an outlet to charge my phone, I discovered a sellotaped poster for the Newfoundland Pony Sanctuary featuring small portraits and biographies of tiny equines such as “Lily of the Cove [who was] the first foal born on Change Islands in 35 years,” and Charlie, “a quiet, gentle stallion who loves attention and would really welcome your visit to the sanctuary”. On the viewing deck, passengers mingle and dogs sunbathe, including one Newfador (a Newfoundland-Labrador mix, as his owner enthusiastically informs me). The ferry’s atmosphere is quaint without being cutesy, though I feel a tad self-conscious travelling alone in a context where everyone, even the ponies, seems to have established local roots.

 

At the time of writing, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Instagram picture of the Fogo Inn boardwalk has received 29,305 likes. Other notable visitors to Fogo Inn have included Oprah Winfrey and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau.

Grace suddenly pulls to the side of the road. Though the landscapes we’ve seen so far have been gorgeous, they haven’t been entirely unfamiliar. I spent the preceding week in Newfoundland’s more southern Avalon peninsula renting a cottage with my father, and I’ve previously lived in Nova Scotia, another eastern Canadian province, which has several features in common with Newfoundland’s Atlantic geography. The horizon that Grace is gesturing to, however, features a surprising silhouette: Tower Studio is one of six off-grid artist studios built by Todd Saunders, the internationally acclaimed, Gander-born architect who also designed the Fogo Island Inn. Located in Shoal Bay and accessible only via a boardwalk from the main road, Tower Studio’s twisted geometric outline, all-black exterior and discreet rooftop terrace give a sense of drama to the coastline, while its modest scale still connotes artistic focus. I ask Grace if I can snap a photo and she teasingly warns that there will be many better vantage points to come, but kindly waits while I disembark with my disposable camera. I imagine Grace is used to Tower Studio’s effect on island visitors. Weeks later I discover a not-dissimilar photo of the studio that Gwyneth Paltrow posted on Instagram – hers was taken from the boardwalk, definitely a superior angle.

I’m conscious of living in an era of rampant Airbnb-core aesthetic levelling, price hikes and listings that make zero mention of local communities, let alone their cultural and economic prosperity

Reviewing my packed itinerary for the next few days, I realise I’m about to experience a collision of worlds – traditional maritime culture, practices, craft, and community interacting with an elite set of contemporary design and hospitality principles. Turning off the highway and onto a dirt road, the inn looms ahead – a gleaming white edifice on stilts at the edge of the world. Saunders’ much-celebrated design comprises two 300-feet long and 30-feet wide rectangles that cross to form an extended X-shape, with the eastern side of the inn supported by poles referencing the wooden shores (think Venice) that islanders traditionally built their fishing stages upon to keep equipment and catches safely above high tide. The inn has only 29 rooms and is by no means a monolith, and yet its scale still registers as significant in such a remote context. Opinions vary widely as to whether it looks natural or strange atop the rocks only metres from the waves and the ice during winter. To me, there’s something pleasantly unassuming about the building’s starkness – almost as if the inn is aware of itself as a slightly alien presence and invites the viewer or in my fortunate case, the guest, to make themself at home.

At several points during my trip, I’m prompted to consider the extent to which a luxury accommodation can achieve or evoke self-awareness. In large part, I suspect Fogo Island Inn’s efforts towards self-awareness reflect Zita Cobb’s point of view. If Saunders’ story is of a Newfoundland boy-made-good as a world-famous architect, Cobb’s is of a Fogo Island girl-made-millionaire as a tech CFO turned social enterprise leader. Canadian media coverage of Cobb’s trajectory is another reason I’m familiar with Fogo Island and offers context for the inn’s non-traditional, luxe-meets-handicraft zeitgeist. Born in 1958, and an eighth-generation Fogo Islander, Cobb grew up on the island until the inshore cod fishery collapse led her family to relocate to Ontario. After studying business at university, Cobb went on to major success in the emerging field of fibre optics, eventually retiring aged 42 as one of the wealthiest women in Canada. While sailing the world post-retirement, Cobb reportedly hatched a plan to create more opportunities for people to work, and by extension continue to live, on Fogo Island, while also championing the island’s history and culture.

 

Construction of Fogo Inn. Still from Strange and Familiar: Architecture on Fogo Island (2015). Built upon a frame of steel, the building’s interior and exterior are both made of local spruce, designed to disappear in the enveloping Fogo fog.

 

Cobb’s current titles are innkeeper of Fogo Island Inn and founder and CEO of Shorefast Social Enterprises Inc., the charity that technically operates the inn. In many ways, she is central to the Fogo Island brand, although she consistently foregrounds the island and its historical and contemporary inhabitants in public conversations. Cobb founded Shorefast Social Enterprises with two of her brothers in 2006, and the charity operates several other businesses and projects including Fogo Island Arts, which runs a residency programme inviting international artists to serene seaside studios. Cobb reportedly contributed millions of her own savings towards establishing Shorefast, which commits 100% of the profits back into the community. These business details may seem somewhat dry in the context of planning a far-flung luxury escape, but the inn’s economic model is closely bound to its “community-centred values” and “regenerative design principles”, which include prioritising fair wages and sourcing building materials, goods and food locally whenever possible. These efforts intentionally combine to inform guests’ highly curated experiences and give the impression, at least, of a less extractive approach to tourism. 

 

Works by British artist Maria Lisogorskaya, recently an artist in residence at Fogo Inn, one of 14 who have done so this year. Courtesy the artist.

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Tall windows in this Fogo Inn suite allow for contemplation of the Labrador Sea.

Seen through this lens, the inn’s upfront sharing about its economic model is another integral part of its brand. The website’s “Rooms and Rates” page, for instance, features a large “Economic Nutrition” infographic that resembles the percentage-based content labels on food products. The inn breaks its fees down on a nightly basis: 47% of the total goes towards “labour”; 12% towards “food, room supplies”; 18% towards “operations, admin”; and so on, with a final 12% towards “surplus” that is “reinvested in the community of Fogo Island”. Of course, it’s hard to validate these numbers and the categories are rather broad – how exactly is that 12% directed back to the community? – and yet the website’s copious subpages about Shorefast’s philosophy and business plans combined with the sheer volume of in-person testimonials from current employees is rather persuasive. A tickle of healthy scepticism remains. Having recently watched season two of The White Lotus, I feel obliged to remain cognisant, if not critical, of any superficially smooth facades. However, it’s also rare to have a genuinely humane impression of a business leader – I’m thinking of Cobb again – and I’m conscious of living in an era of rampant Airbnb-core aesthetic levelling, price hikes and listings that make zero mention of local communities, let alone their cultural and economic prosperity. I’m appreciative, therefore, of the inn’s efforts towards transparency and the implicit acknowledgement therein that this is a hella expensive place to stay.

Checking in, I think of Cobb and Saunders’ appearances inthe documentary Strange and Familiar: Architecture on Fogo Island (2015). I learned that their intentions were for the inn to highlight Fogo Islanders’ aesthetic and design traditions, and to emphasise the specific impacts of place. No matter where you are in the hotel, you almost always have a sightline to the ocean. As the inn’s managing director, Amanda Decker-Penton, tells me, “Fogo Islanders’ lives have always been dictated by the sea.”

 

 

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The three-buns-to-a-loaf Newfoundland dinner bread is a reference to the Christian Holy Trinity. More traditional bakers will cross their bread as it bakes. Ungrateful children were warned of the Crust Man, a folkloric figure who would come to kidnap those who did not eat their crusts.

It’s late afternoon by the time I roll my wheelie bag into mythird-floor “Newfoundland Room”, which features a wood stove, a bathtub and an incredible floor-to-ceiling view of the horizon. I’m delighted by the whimsical, but never overwhelming, decor details. All of the furniture and textiles – from the bespoke wooden “Bertha” chair, inspired by a traditional Newfoundland barrel chair design, to the Ineke Hans-designed “Get Your Feet Up” reading chaise, to the colourful circular crocheted rug beside the bed, to the wallpaper featuring vignettes of regional caribou – were created by makers who worked with international designers in advance of the inn’s 2013 opening. I giddily remove my shoes and plop down upon the king-size bed topped with an enormous quilt featuring the petal-like “Tea Leaf” pattern. I text a photo to my friend Sophie, who replies, “Ugh those quilts <3.” I’m pondering what to do next when I hear a knock on my door announcing the delivery of a wooden basket with a teapot, milk and a warm white bun with pats of butter and molasses, the latter a popular Newfoundland flavour. I open the window wide (something rarely possible in standard hotels) and pour myself a cup of tea, taking a moment to appreciate this unique experience of cosiness so close to the wild, windswept outdoors.

I hear a knock on my door announcing the delivery of a wooden basket with a teapot, milk and a warm white bun with pats of butter and molasses

On their first mornings here, guests are encouraged to meet with a community host – someone from the island, like Grace who met me at the ferry – who can advise on sightseeing options, including hiking, biking, swimming, boating, museums, concerts, and workshop and artist studio tours. My community host is Clare, a friendly retired teacher from the historically Irish community of Tilting. Before we meet, I rise early for a solo rooftop coffee, sauna and hot tub session and then make my way downstairs for breakfast – eggs and toast with local blueberry juice – featuring, you guessed it, a glorious view of the ocean. The inn’s restaurant is airy, featuring a vaulted ceiling, massive windows and custom light fixtures made from looping white ropes that evoke the island’s fishing history and its myriad wildflowers. I briefly peruse the “Fogo green” library (picture a slightly mintier seafoam) after breakfast. It’s a sunny day, though, and I’m anxious to feel the wind on my face. Admittedly, the air inside is also quite lovely. This, I later learn from a fellow guest, is because the inn uses an energy-efficient heat recovery ventilator system to pull fresh outdoor air inside for a complete exchange every 15 minutes, leading to a presiding freshness.      

I’d rate myself as having an amateur-at-best knowledge of Newfoundland that’s been 80% informed by consuming fiction, much of it historical, by the province’s famously talented crop of writers, including Lorrie Moore, Michael Crummey, Michael Winter and Wayne Johnston, and 20% supplemented with news coverage from CBC, Canada’s national public radio. Among the many gaps that I’m conscious of is knowledge of Indigenous communities’ historical and contemporary presence. Currently, Newfoundland and Labrador –  the latter being a vast mainland part of the province – is home to Inuit, Innu, Mi’kmaq, and Southern Inuit of NunatuKavut (formerly the Labrador Inuit-Metis) people. Present-day “Newfoundland” was once also home to the Beothuk people, who went extinct due to violent European colonial expansion. The last of the Beothuk, a woman named Shanawdithit, died in 1829. There is little reference to these people’s experiences or interactions with Fogo Island at the inn, which is somewhat noteworthy given its educational prerogative. The Shorefast website does, however, include a territorial acknowledgement and information about Beothuk fishing, hunting, and berry harvesting during the summer months prior to European incursions during the 16th and 17th centuries.

I’m eager to learn more about the island’s past and present, and Clare offers a wealth of knowledge about its 19th- and 20th-century history, which she relays as we drive east towards Tilting. I’m broadly aware of the island’s historical dependence on cod fishery, an industry that’s informed almost every aspect of later human development here. The island didn’t have roads or electricity until the 1960s and communities were strictly divided in terms by religion – “the United Church, Anglican, and Roman Catholic ”, as Clare confirms. Traditionally, Fogo Islanders summered on Little Fogo Islands, an archipelago northeast of Joe Batt’s Arm, so that fishermen could be closer to their fishing grounds, which was especially useful pre-motorised boats. “What you really need is a lesson in vocabulary right off the bat,” says Clare, revealing her pedagogue pedigree. Later, she gently corrects me as I struggle to differentiate between fishing stores, stages and sheds and their distinct functions. When I meet Clare’s cousin Maureen in Tilting, the two women educate me about the island’s wide variety of berries. There are 20 edible berry species here and Maureen lets me sample homemade partridgeberry and cloudberry, or “bake apple” as the islanders call it, jams on another homemade bun.

 

Crochet rug workshop. Still from Strange and Familiar: Architecture on Fogo Island (2015).

 

While Maureen and Clare’s welcome is obviously brokered in part by their affiliation with the inn, their sincere warmth is one of many truly charming elements of my visit. At times, Shorefast’s island dominance conjures a slightly Truman Show-esque undertone. In addition to the inn, the charity operates multiple restaurants, an ice cream shop, furniture and textile workshops, as well as The Punt Premises, a traditional boating museum. There’s something bizarre about recognising some of the same employees working in multiple locations and one wonders what the locals make of this apparent monopoly. That said, I’m appreciative of a hospitality context that encourages locals and tourists to mingle in a way that, from my perspective at least, doesn’t feel forced. At a crab boil dinner on my final night, I notice how the inn staff’s and islanders’ friendliness seems to have rubbed off on the guests, who converse convivially at a communal table. I feel like I’m in the dining room scene from Titanic, cracking crustacean legs alongside a cancer surgeon, a corporate biotech lawyer, retired Washington politicos (these two I especially love and we exchange emails at breakfast the next morning) and an interior designer and journalist from Brooklyn, whom I bond with on the ferry ride home. During the crab dinner, the sunset dyes the sky an unearthly sherbert orange, and I recognise that the inn’s ultimate success lies in sharing the raw beauty of this place.

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Maureen and Clare brandishing some baked treats.

At a crab boil dinner on my final night, I notice how the inn staff’s and islanders’ friendliness seems to have rubbed off on the guests

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Painting by Maria Lisogorskaya. Courtesy the artist.

 

Fogo Island Inn is the engine of the economic machine that affords the island community staying power here. Reflecting on my trip, I recall that the inn and Shorefast aren’t the island’s first collectivist success stories. In 1967, a Change Islands local named Fred Earle made valiant inroads towards establishing a Fogo Island cooperative to acquire provincial support for boat building, fish processing facilities, and other job-creation projects during a period of extremely bleak economic prospects and island community longevity. Though there was significant community interest in Earle’s cooperative proposals, energy began to flag in large part due to, as Jay McGrath writes in a Newfoundland Quarterly article titled “Fogo Island Co-operation: 1967” (2020), “inconsistent communication coming from the provincial government.” As McGrath explains, the fate of the cooperative changed when “in late summer [1967], with the fishing season winding down, the National Film Board (NFB) sent a film crew under the direction of Colin Low to Fogo Island. Their presence, and their work with Earle, reignited the community discussions,” contributing key momentum and opportunities for intra-island discourse that finally led to cooperative approval and provincial funding.

Looking through my own photographs of the stunning natural environment and built structures in 2023, I’m struck by this place’s rich and ongoing relationship to the arts and to craft. As McGrath writes regarding the island’s cooperative history, “the Fogo Project of Extension and the NFB was founded on two beliefs – that film had a vital, yet underdeveloped, role to play in community development, and that they had an opportunity to explore and develop the use of film in community development work. The partners hoped to enhance communication and understanding between those affected by poverty and social change.” While the NFB’s films promoted the creation of cooperative fishing and boat-making infrastructure, an investment in cultural preservation and dialogue as a path towards collective economic sustainability is arguably still at work today.

 

Still from The Children of Fogo Island, Colin Low, National Film Board, 1967.

 

Cobb’s present-day commitment to putting traditional Fogo Island culture in dialogue with international art and design discourses isn’t that different to Earle and Low’s use of documentary to encourage dialogue amongst the islanders in the 1960s. Of course, tourism requires attracting strangers who might prefer not to engage with psychogeographical and economic challenges. My suspicions that Cobb is well aware of the balancing act required to provide authentic context and luxury perks are confirmed when I meet her in the dining room. I was surprised to encounter her – the warm, gnome-like woman-cum-business giant had been quietly dining with friends just out of sight across the room. During our brief chat, she mentioned the title of a talk she’d be giving at an upcoming travel conference: “A Dance With The Devil.” Cobb gets it, I think, and the inn’s not trying to bullshit anyone either. Sure, it’s wildly expensive, but aren’t all luxuries? At the Fogo Island Inn, at least, a reverence for the history and care required to maintain traditions into the future is clearly what you’re paying for. ◉