The Fogo Island Inn is 10 years old this year — a luxury hotel that celebrates what's unique and endearing in this remote corner of Canada.
Words and Photos
By CINDA CHAVICH
I recently received a tourism missive via email, announcing that The Fogo Island Inn celebrates it's 10th anniversary this year.
It took me back to some of the most interesting days I've spent reporting as a travel writer, in this beautifully stark, rugged and welcoming corner of eastern Canada.
Though I never did get the chance to see the Inn completed, or stay at the exclusive property, I did visit Fogo Island a couple of times while it was in the early planning and construction phases. The crowning piece of social entrepreneur Zita Cobb's plan to create a sustainable economic future for her community, the Inn has become both a bucket list destination and a new way to imagine sustainable tourism.
Fogo is a rocky little island, almost as far east as you can get while still remaining in Canada. But despite its remote locale—or perhaps because of it—Fogo’s popularity has risen of late, becoming the “it” island according to everyone from Condé Nast Traveller to Oprah.
Fogo Island was Cobb's home until the age of 16. She is an eighth generation Fogo Islander, and her father was a fisherman. When I met Cobb in the tiny community of Joe Batt's Arm (pop. 778 and since amalgamated into the town of Fogo Island), Cobb had returned home and was investing her considerable talents in a plan to revitalize the island by celebrating the people and their collective history in the fishing industry.
Armed with her business degrees, international contacts and a fortune made in the high tech industry, Cobb pioneered an array of social enterprises that are bringing new life to Fogo. Her investments in innovative projects are designed to keep this community viable, one that suffered greatly after the collapse of the cod fishery when she was growing up here in the 1960s.
Cobb first founded the non-profit Shorefast Foundation in 2004 with her two brothers, using $10 million of her own funds and $5 million from the provincial and federal governments. With a charitable and social enterprise arm, Shorefast's initial work centred around the arts, with a series of spectacular, architecturally-unique studios scattered across the island, built to attract visiting artists, messengers who would take Fogo Island's story around the world.
Building on the island's history of co-operative endeavours, Cobb's foundation invested in local projects (including the Fogo Island Workshop for artisan-made goods, traditional boat building, microloans to small businesses like Growlers Ice Cream, and sustainability-focused Fogo Island Fish), to help bolster the community economy, reduce reliance on the fishing industry, and create a new tourism infrastructure.
She then embarked on the business of building the luxe Fogo Island Inn, a place that now attracts A-listers and well-heeled tourists from around the globe.
It's a unique property — also a not-for-profit social enterprise — that reinvests its surpluses into the community (through Shorefast programs and projects) and uses island artisans to create furniture, art and textiles for the Inn. Whether traditional quilts and hooked rugs or hand-built chairs, the spare and modern aesthetic of the Inn reflects local culture at every level.
It's all part of the ongoing effort to preserve the traditional way of life on this remote island and celebrate its many strengths, building on both natural and human capital.
The Inn's website puts it like this: "The Fogo Island Inn was a significant investment in the future of Fogo Island’s economy, and cost $41 million (Cdn) to build. 75.4% of the money used to build the Inn was provided by private individuals, including a majority share from Zita Cobb. None of these individuals are seeking a return on their contribution. The rest of the money used to build the Inn came in the form of government grants."
And so, part community builder, part small business incubator, and part social experiment, Shorefast has put this outport community — literally a remote island off a remote island in the north Atlantic — on the international map and now employs 300 people .
The Fogo Island Inn is the beautiful beacon at the centre of it all, and has been featured in top fashion, architectural and travel magazines around the world, the boxy structure standing dramatically over the island's sparse, rocky shore on stilts, like some space-age fishing stage.
Today, Cobb is the Fogo Island Inn's innkeeper, and her vision continues to support the economic and cultural resilience of the island she calls home. Like the "shorefast"line that anchors a traditional cod trap to the ocean floor, Cobb's Shorefast foundation is giving this island a secure future, melding modern art and architecture with a traditional way of life, in a remote place where people have always relied on eachother to survive .
SERIAL SOCIAL ENTREPRENEUR
Cobb has been celebrated with several awards for her visonary work on Fogo, including the Order of Canada, which she received in 2016. In 2021, Cobb became the first social entrepreneur inducted into the Canadian Business Hall of Fame, and was named one of the Top 25 Women of Influence+ by the Business Development Bank of Canada in 2022.
Cobb saw the "inherent assets" of Fogo Island in the people, the history and the unique local culture of a remote Newfoundland fishing community.
In her recent keynote address to the 2023 Sorensen Impact Summit Zita Cobb said:
“Asset-based community development is essential to every place. Humans often have a very shallow understanding of what economic development is and what our assets are. That has given rise to a world where people make investments, but they are not development. Development is about uplifting the inherent assets of a place.”
It's all an inspirational and concrete example of truly sustainable development. To emphasize the social enterprise, non-profit aspect of all of their Shorefast ventures, they add an "economic nutrition label" to purchases, from hotel stays at the Fogo Island Inn to the artisan furniture pieces from their workshop, including financial information that helps consumers to understand how it sustains local communities.
Though I may not be able to afford a visit to the exclusive inn today, I have many great memories of time spent on Fogo Island (and neighboring Change Island), the dramatic outport communities and the resilient people who live there.
The chance to spend time with Zita Cobb, and learn about her ambitious plans, when the Inn was but a dream, counts among one of my most cherished travel memories.
Here's a look at this unique corner of Newfoundland — the people, places, food and landscapes — via some images from my Fogo Island photo library:
START WITH ART
Todd Saunders is the architect behind both the Fogo Island Inn and the four remote studios that make up the Fogo Island Arts residency program. Born in Newfoundland but based in Norway, Saunders is visiting Fogo Island this summer and will take guests at the Fogo Island Inn on architectural walks around the property.
The Tower Studio — black, dramatic and reached by a twisting boardwalk, is but one. More than 100 artists-in-residence from far flung places have already come to Fogo Island to work and interact with the local landscape and people, visually and artistically sharing this remote corner of Newfoundland with the world.
FOGO ISLAND FISH
The commercial cod fishery totally collapsed in Newfoundland due to over fishing in the 1990s leading to a moratorium to protect cod stocks. Today Fogo Island Fish, another Shorefast project, is reviving a tradition of pot trap and line caught fish to supply a handful of top restaurants with sustainable cod, along with crab, shrimp, squid and turbot.
From Joe Batt's Arm to Tilting and Shoal Bay there are lovely fishing villages to explore on Fogo Island, all with salt box houses and colourful fishing stages along the water, where many generations of fishing families split and salted cod, then laid it on outdoor flakes to dry, preserved and ready to ship to Mediterranean markets.
It's fascinating to learn about the inshore cod fishery — cod brought the first Europeans to these shores and was abundant here for centuries, until large industrial trawlers arrived in the 1970s and over-fished off shore populations of cod and other fish in international waters to the point of collapse.
By the 1990s, Atlantic cod had essentially disappeared. The closure of the commercial cod fishery left many Fogo Islanders without their traditional livelihoods. Since then, commercial fishing for shrimp and crab has replaced cod for some locals, and there's a recreational fishery, plus a small "stewardship"fishery.
Ask a fisherman, and they will invite you into their small clapboard fishing stage and share their time to explain how cod has been salted here for hundreds of years.
CELEBRATING TRADITONAL SKILLS
Shorefast is also preserving a number of heritage homes and churches around the island, and has converted some into community spaces, like the Workshop where quilters, small boat builders and furniture makers share their skills.
The Punt Premises is home to Shorefast’s fleet of punt boats, celebrating Fogo Island's boat
building heritage. The interactive space is a place to see an evolving collection of cultural artifacts including cod traps, knots, fishing gear and items associated with their making and mending.
These buildings collectively make up a typical outport fishing "premises" and were occupied by generations of several families in the community of Joe Batt’s Arm on Fogo.
The small wooden boat or "punt" is the workhorse of the inshore cod fishery and at the premises — a restored mid-1800s saltbox house, fishing stage and stores — a punt will always be under construction to keep the local boat-building skills alive.
EXPLORATIONS ON FOOT
You can explore Fogo Island and nearby Change Islands via the footpaths and boardwalks that islanders have long used to get around. Many of the communities are isolated — Joe Batt's Arm, Tilting, Seldom Come By are among 11 on Fogo Island — and all are worth visiting, for their tiny museums, artisans and stark but beautiful landscapes, carpeted in sub-arctic plants and wild flowers.
Change Islands, known as the "Fishing Stage Capital of the World", is rich in heritage buildings with about 200 photogenic stages and stores, dotted along the shore, most of which are still in use.
Look for a coastal hiking route, or climb to the top of Brimstone Head (known as one of the Four Corners of the Flat Earth) to survey the landscape, being careful not to fall off the edge!
FOGO ISLAND FOOD
Food on Fogo is always homemade and local by necessity, derived from the land and the sea.
Freshly baked bread, steamed puddings and pancakes (or toutons), served with locally foraged partridge berries, bakeapple (cloudberries) and crowberries, are often on the morning menu in Newfoundland. And beyond fish, there's moose and caribou from the land.
Shorefast has recently launched its own Foodways Program designed to build on their work connecting to island individuals and traditions through food.
In the Fogo Island Inn kitchens, they are using local ingredients in contemporary ways, and looking at how to encourage local entrepreneurs to grown more diverse foods on the island. While cabbage has long been a gardeners' staple now they are growing things like fennel for chefs. Shorefast is also working with the local co-operative to investigate the potential of seaweed farming, and working with foragers to learn more about the wild berries and mushrooms found in this sub-arctic landscape.
And don't forget the humble cauliflower — it was the most exotic vegetable Zita Cobb encountered when she first left Fogo Island and now it's this vegetable, with it's strong base and fractal florets, that she uses to symbolize her views on how to sustain all of the small and large communities on the planet.
Beulah's home-cooked breakfasts and breads offer the pure down home Newfoundland experience, while the exclusive Fogo Island Inn has a team of chefs and cooks, turning out a more refined take on island ingredients for visitors.
As a food writer, I hope to someday meet that culinary team (now led by Executive Chef Tim Charles and Sous-Chef Sophie Hall) to see how they interpret the local traditions.
But meanwhile, there are plenty of unique and delicious ingredients and flavours that will forever remind me of my travels around Fogo Island and Newfoundland!
AN ISLAND RECIPE:
STEAMED BLUEBERRY DUFF
Steamed pudding — or duff — studded with wild berries or raisins are a long time Newfoundland tradition. Make one large pudding, in a ceramic pudding mold, or individual puddings in ramekins. Butterscotch sauce and whipped cream adds a finishing touch.
½ cup molasses
½ cup butter
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 ½ cups flour
½ tsp baking soda
1 ½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon, optional
½ cup milk
1 ½ cups blueberries or raisins
Prepare a 7-8-cup pudding bowl/mold for streaming by greasing it well and lightly dusting with flour. Use a metal bowl with a lid or a heat-proof ceramic or glass bowl (with a rim) This recipe may also be used for 8-10 individual puddings.
For the batter, cream the molasses and butter well, beat in the egg and vanilla extract. Combine the sifted flour, baking powder, baking soda and cinnamon, then fold the dry ingredients, alternately with the milk, into the creamed mixture.
Stir in the berries or raisins. Spoon the batter into the prepared pudding mold. Snap on the lid or cover with parchment paper and foil, with a narrow fold in each to allow the pudding to expand while steaming. Tie with string, below the rimmed edge of the pudding bowl to seal.
Place a trivet into a large deep pot, large enough to easily hold the pudding mold, then lower the mold into the pot. You can make a handle out of string or foil to help you place the mold into the pot (and remove it later).
Add about 4 inches of hot water to the pot (it should come up the sides of the mold). Bring the water to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to low, cover and steam the pudding for 2 hours, making sure there's always enough water in the pot (at least 3-4 inches).
Test the pudding with a skewer to insure it's cooked in the middle. Let rest in the steamer for 15 minutes, then turn out and serve warm with sauce. Serves 8-10.
1/2 cup salted butter
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar (light or demererra)
1 cup whipping cream
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
pinch of sea salt
In a saucepan, melt butter with sugar. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until it's boiling then add the cream, vanilla and salt. Simmer for 5-7 minutes.
Remove from heat and cool thoroughly. Reheat to serve over pudding. This sauce keeps in the refrigerator for a week or two. Makes 2 cups.
IF YOU GO:
Getting to Fogo Island is a journey but that's part of the fun. You can fly on a small charter airline from Gander to Fogo Island, but it's better to travel by car and ferry. Route 330 north from Gander to the ferry service that runs from Farewell (via Route 331 and 335). The ferry sails visitors to Change Islands in 25 minutes, while the crossing from Farewell to Fogo Island is approximately 50 minutes. Please check the ferry schedule in advance, as weather can postpone sailings. The town of Fogo Island is the largest community.
EAT, DRINK, STAY:
Growlers Ice Cream Shoppe Main Street, Joe Batt's Arm (709) 658-3663
AROUND AND ABOUT:
Mona's Quilt & Gift Shop Quilts and Crafts Main Street, Joe Batt's Arm
Fogo Island Metalworks 25 Herring Cove Road Shoal Bay (709) 571-4226
Organizations Fogo Island Arts Shorefast Premises, 98 Iceberg Arena Road, Fogo Island Central (709) 266-1248 firstname.lastname@example.org
Wind and Waves Artisans' Guild Tilting, NL (709) 266-1304
Tilting Recreation and Cultural Society The Reardon House Artists Retreat and Jennifer Keefe Studio c/o Mr. Dan Murphy, Tilting email@example.com
ON CHANGE ISLAND:
Host: Beulah Oake
Off Season: (709) 635-2247
The Olde Shoppe Musem
Seal Harbour Road
An extensive collective of the everyday memorabilia of the rural Newfoundland of centuries past with an expert guide who can provide the background.
Reservations & Information: (709) 621-4541