On a remote Canadian island off the coast of Newfoundland, a visionary hotel has brought the local community back from the brink.
Photographs by John Cullen.
In order to understand Fogo Island, it is necessary to first come to an appreciation of the humble cod, the fish that has always dwelt in incalculable numbers in the Atlantic Ocean off the craggy coast of Newfoundland. The people here live for cod, and they risk their lives fishing for it in fierce Atlantic storms. In fact, whenever anyone here utters the word “fish,” what they really mean is cod. And if for some unfathomable reason they want to say, for example, mackerel, then they’ll go ahead and say mackerel.
Seventeenth-century explorers wrote of shoals of cod so thick they slowed the progress of their rowboats. It’s one reason why, from 1750 to 1830, thousands of mostly Irish settlers hoping to better their lot came to Newfoundland in a green wave of migration. Some families still grow vegetables on the same plots of ground once worked by their ancestors.
The Irish Times once called Fogo the “most Irish island in the world.” The town of Tilting, population 200, is 100 percent Irish, with Irish flags on its flagpoles, Irish music in the air, and picket fences around its coveted veggie plots to keep grazing animals at bay. Tilting is Newfoundland and Labrador’s first Provincial Heritage District, its colorful saltbox houses ringing a tiny harbor and clustered together in patches to form neighborhoods in miniature. The Canadian government has also designated Tilting a National Landscape District; I’m not entirely sure what that means, but I do learn that dozens of local volunteers have restored the town’s 200-year-old pathways, traditional gardens, and fences in recent years.
Fogo is habitable, to be sure. But despite its raw, weathered beauty, few would have set down stakes here were it not for its masses of shoaling cod. Nor, for that matter, would the remarkable Fogo Island Inn be here—the hotel in nearby Joe Batt’s Arm described by Architectural Digest in 2014 as “one of the most daring new buildings on the planet.” And my accommodations for two glorious nights.
I want to talk of it endlessly, of how its rectangular X-shaped design (by Newfoundland-born architect Todd Saunders, who also built the four on-site artists’ studios) looms audaciously above the granite, lichen-encrusted coastline on poles that echo the stilts beneath Newfoundland’s innumerable fishing huts. Called “stages,” these rough-hewn overwater sheds are where cod were prepared for salting and drying in the days before refrigeration. And around here, they still are.
I could rabbit on about its 29 suites, all with ocean-facing windows that make the North Atlantic a visceral, ever-present reality; of the wood-fired saunas and hot tubs on the building’s roof; about the cuisine inspired by the fish, berries, and caribou on its doorstep. Newfoundland moose also make for a delicious stew, which the staff will happily prepare for you over a campfire on one of the island’s many deserted white-sand and boulder-strewn beaches.
And if I were in the mood to name-drop, that would be easy too. A veritable conga line of celebrity guests have stayed here, including Gwyneth Paltrow and David Letterman, who arrived in his private jet then loaned it to a staff member for the day so he and his wife could fly to western Newfoundland for a coffee.
But tempting as it is to talk of the inn and only the inn, in isolation to the island’s history, its inhabitants, and its way of life, to merely write a review would border on the negligent. Fogo Island Inn was not built here just because it could be, nor was it intended simply to line anyone’s pockets (100 percent of its operating profit goes back into the community). It was put here because its presence was designed from the ground up to serve a greater purpose.
Zita Cobb, the hotel’s creator and owner, grew up in Joe Batt’s Arm in the 1960s but, as she tells it, like every other kid on the island, she lived in the 19th century. There was no running water and no electricity. Her parents could neither read nor write. Vacations were unheard of. Cod was not only food, it was currency. The small island (35 kilometers east to west and 24 kilometers north to south) had no roads. You left it only to fish.
Each of its 10 communities, segregated by generations of entrenched religious divides, remained stubborn enclaves unto themselves. Zita was 13 when she left Joe Batt’s Arm for the first time to visit Tilting. The towns are a mere eight kilometers apart.
In the 1960s, large-scale fishing and the advent of the super-trawlers threatened to tear the island’s communities apart, a commercial and social juggernaut encouraged by a government that had little regard for Fogo’s inhabitants and aggressively pursued a policy of forced resettlement. The place would be all but uninhabited today if the government had got its way.
But the Fogo Process changed all that. Funded by the National Film Board of Canada in the late 1960s, the Fogo Process comprised a series of short films documenting island life that for the first time gave Fogo islanders a shared sense of identity and purpose. It helped them band together to resist resettlement, and to later create the Fogo Island Fishing Co-op. “Without those films,” Zita told me, “we wouldn’t be here today.”
How can one convey the miracle that, through sheer force of will, has been wrought here? Zita left Fogo at 16, went to university in Ottawa, rose to the top of a successful fiber-optics company, sold her stock options, retired at 42, sailed round the world, and poured tens of millions of dollars into creating Fogo Island Inn. She lives in a typical Newfoundland-style house down the road from her now- famous inn.
Zita also created Shorefast, a charitable initiative designed to facilitate a bright economic future for Fogo and the nearby Change Islands, to develop tools to help rural communities worldwide realize their potential, and to help us all rediscover a sense of place in an increasingly globalized, impersonal world. If you want it, the inn can be as much classroom as hotel, a place to gain new perspectives, to challenge long-held notions that bigger is better. On Fogo small is revered, resilience fostered. The drift of people to big cities and their resultant loss of identity and empowerment need not be a fait accompli.
Every object in the inn makes its own statement about sustainability, practicality, and frugality—statements typical of a people who fashioned virtually everything they had with their own hands for centuries. Most of the stools, tables, chairs, rockers, and settees in its rooms and public spaces are for sale, as are the quilts that grace them (Fogo has an enviable quilting tradition), as well as its hooked and crocheted mats, pouffes, and knitted cushions, all made on the island by local artisans. My favorite is the Puppy Table, designed by Newfoundland-born designer Nick Herder and made with zero material loss. It is cut from laminated wood in such a way that every piece fits into every other piece with no offcuts. All that is lost is the sawdust that falls from the carpenter’s blade. How very Fogo.
There are seven seasons here: a warm summer, a snow-laden winter, an iceberg season (bergs and migrating whales drift down from Greenland in May and June, carried south past Newfoundland on the Labrador Current), a brief spring, trap berth season (the setting of markers above submerged cod traps), a stormy autumn, and—Zita’s favorite—berry-picking season.
And, oh, what a fantastical world of berries can be found in Fogo’s barrens and bogs! Crowberries, crackerberries, arctic bilberries, juniper berries, marshberries, berries with names I’d never heard of and likely won’t again. On Fogo every September and October, you’re literally walking on food.
How can one convey the triumphal nature of this place—the wonderment that lies in the very fact that its people are still here, still making new stories? Sure, a truckload of money can raise up all manner of places, but plenty of buildings cost a lot of money and end up meaning squat. Fogo Island Inn is a beacon, the embodiment of the notion that “small” matters, that there’s an inherent value in tiny places, and that communities and individuals can stand up and make a difference. And thrive.
Urbanization? Industrialization? Commodification? Come to the place that the Flat Earth Society believes is home to one of the four corners of their flat world, then widen your gaze and let Fogo teach you how to thumb your nose at all the stuff our one-dimensional, commodity-driven world has always told you you can’t live without.
Getting to Fogo Island is an adventure in itself. From St. John’s or Halifax, you fly into the small Newfoundland town of Gander (the setting for the Broadway musical Come From Away) then drive for just over an hour to catch the ferry at Farewell, whose name offers the perfect preface to this remote experience. Rooms at Fogo Island Inn start from US$1,448 a night, full board.
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2019 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Small Wonder”).