Newfoundland’s Fogo Island Inn offers luxury, sustainability and social enterprise at the other edge of Canada by Charlene Rooke
The luxurious Fogo Island Inn is worth a trip to the Rock
You may blink when you glimpse the Fogo Island Inn from the gravel service road: a pale slab floating like a rogue iceberg on a stark chunk of rock about 16 kilometres off the northeast coast of Newfoundland. Open the inn’s massive red-knobbed front doors and the interior—and the welcome to come-from-aways—is ridiculously warm. There’s a riot of colours on nubby textiles, a pot-bellied stove, weathered wooden furniture. The lobby smells of wood fire, clean hung laundry, home. I’m handed a hefty bronze room-key fob, cast from a caribou vertebra found on the property. This is not your typical luxury hotel.
The place is so remote it’s on the cover of the book Remote Places to Stay. But obscure it’s not: since opening in 2013, the inn has won global awards and been the subject of an excellent documentary, Strange and Familiar, about its radical architecture. It could only have been created by native Fogo Island daughter Zita Cobb, a business veteran with much more than commerce on her mind these days.
Her aim is to revitalize the island’s economy while creating a world-class eco-friendly travel and cultural destination. A Carleton University graduate who was an executive at fibre-optic pioneer
Uniphase Corp., Cobb cashed out at age 40, and sailing around the world didn’t amuse her for long. The 29-room, eco-conscious inn and its sister organization, Fogo Island Arts, are owned by the non-profit Shorefast Foundation, which Cobb created as an umbrella for her dream. Art and commerce go hand in hand, and together, all their activities create “a kind of heartbeat that gives nutrition to everything else,” she says.
The spinoff jobs and economic activity are substantial. Almost everything in the guest rooms (except the Starck for Duravit heated toilets, presumably) was made on Fogo Island: custom wallpaper, rocking chairs, quilts (signed in stitch by their makers; Rita Penton crafted mine). These items, now made and sold in vintage buildings restored by the foundation, are so popular that fans order them worldwide (Gwyneth Paltrow’s raves didn’t hurt). There are no TVS in the rooms, but Atlantic “television,” endlessly coursing outside your seaside window, is mesmerizing.
Every guest gets a tour of the island from a local: Fergus Foley, a former fisherman and retired “fisheries cop,” is my guide. “When I first heard tell of [the inn] and saw the project in process, I thought the poor woman had lost her mind,” Foley says with an Irish-sounding inflection in his voice. “Many people on the island did.”
Now he’s a believer who proudly shows me Fogo’s sights, from its six communities of painted-wood
houses to 18th-century French cannons to the local wireless station (now a museum) that got the Titanic’s distress signal. Foley points out the trailhead for Brimstone, a rock formation that juts out like a sphinx. I see the handful of arch-modern studios (including that radical white wedge you’ve seen in the Apple ads) that host writers and artists from around the world. We say “hey” to Patrick, proprietor of a popular “shed”—an ultra-local pub, with a cottage-like interior covered in maritime memorabilia, band and hockey paraphernalia, and Irish flags. I wonder aloud if tourists ever stop by this local clubhouse: “Everyone’s welcome,” Patrick declares.
If the idea of taking a plane, a ferry and a drive to get to a luxe hotel in an extraordinary wild place on the outlying edge of a continent brings to mind a certain former logging community on Vancouver Island, it will make sense that chef Timothy Charles worked at the Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino before coming to Fogo four years ago. As we walk the rugged shoreline, still dotted with snow in early summer, Charles points out Labrador tea, seaside plantain and juniper that the kitchen forages. Whenever possible, he sources from island or Newfoundland suppliers. “Every year we’ve been able to increase the amount of Newfoundland products,” Charles says. “Over time, this is growing into something really special.”
Room and board are included in a stay at the inn (with the exception of liquor, but the Nova Scotia Benjamin Bridge Nova 7 rosé is totally worth the $16 a glass). Tipping-fatigued travellers will be pleased that that’s included, too: all staff share in a tip pool created by 15 per cent of the profits. Each meal is special—from the early-morning basket of coffee and pastry left outside your door to thick breakfast pancakes with island crowberry jam, oceanside cookouts at lunch and extraordinary dinners.
One night I order a theatrical pre-dinner cocktail, its heavy crystal tumbler smoked by a wisp of burning birch bark before rosemary-muddled bourbon is added. My starter is crispy breaded cod tongues on braised fennel and celery that looks like delicate sea flora, a poached duck egg flooding the plate like a tidal pool. It tastes as remarkable as it appears. The meal looks like something you’d get at Noma in Copenhagen and feels like the start of a unique Newfoundland Nordic cuisine.
Sometimes tourism ends up destroying what it’s meant to celebrate, when too many people rush to enjoy unique experiences that quickly become common and commercial. The inn feels just-right-sized, bringing new life to this remote speck of rock in the Atlantic, but not enough to change it from the fishing community it has been for more than 250 years. If this is what social enterprise looks like, book me for a repeat visit.
ISLAND HOSPITALITY (Clockwise from left) Fogo Island Inn; the ocean-view dining room; one of the guest rooms; the inn`s distinctive architecture makes a bold statement; businesswoman Zita Cobb, who created the property