Newfoundland inn gives hope to struggling locals. You get a culturally rich experience.
Hands jabbed in a fleece jacket and cropped hair covered by a knit cap, Zita Cobb springs from rock to rock on the jumbled granite shore with a child’s sureness. “We grew up feral,” she laughs, a stone’s throw from her simple childhood home on Fogo Island, a remote speck in the chilly North Atlantic off the distant island of Newfoundland in Canada’s easternmost province. But when she moved away in 1974 — first to Ottawa for college, then to jobs in Alberta and the U.S. — she earned a fortune, eventually leaving a fiber-optics company as one of Canada’s richest women.
Now the 55-year-old has moved back to the island of 2,395 people, one bank, and a caribou herd, investing $25 million to reinvent the local economy via the Fogo Island Inn, which opened in late May after three years of construction. On pillars drilled deep into the rock pile, the modernist, 29-room inn rests like a 21st-century ship run aground on a 19th-century shore. The obliquely X-shaped white clapboard building dwarfs its modest neighbors, local communities named Barr’d Islands and Joe Batt’s Arm. In these villages, white-trimmed red fishing shacks perch on log piers over the water where, beginning in the 1700s, fishermen caught cod, salted it, and sent it abroad until the government banned this commercial industry in 1992 due to overfishing, decimating rural Newfoundland’s economy.
But it’s the residents of these very neighbors that Cobb believes culturally curious travelers will want to meet. Stays at the inn pivot around a “community host program” in which a local — perhaps an ex-fisherman or shopkeeper — spends days showing guests around the island, hiking to remote ghost towns, visiting boat builders and storytellers, or touring a wharf restored to illustrate how fishermen did their work.
“I think Newfoundlanders are genetically predisposed to hospitality,” says Cobb, explaining her business model in which affluent visitors come to a remote island for cultural immersion based on a people-to-people exchange. “The culture here has been under assault. Now islanders can imagine their lives in a different way. But nothing should feel foreign. It’s a reframing.”
In addition to the 65 or so locals the inn employs, the project supported island artisans during the construction phase. Boat-builders and carpenters made nearly each piece of wood furniture in the lodge, including desk chairs with curved ribs inspired by local boats called “punts.” Dozens of knitters and rug hookers created cushions and floor rugs. Quilters stitched the bedspreads based on patchwork designs Fogo forebears typically made using scraps of faded housedresses and work shirts.
As historically self-reliant islanders navigate the new economy, the woman who set it all in motion keenly guards the destination’s authenticity. Wary of turning the island into “a theme park or all things Newfoundland,” Cobb aims to balance tourism with an arts foundation, established in 2008, that offers one- to three-month residencies to painters, filmmakers, and authors. Visiting artists reside in rehabbed houses and work in one of four unique studios designed, like the inn, by Newfoundland-born, Norway-based architect Todd Saunders.
“The studios and the inn were conceived together to support one another,” says Jack Stanley, director of programs at Fogo Island Arts. The inn introduces collectors and the curious to the artists. Local communities, presumably, gain from exposure to these temporary residents. “Artists support the island in ways that you can’t always measure.” But in at least one measurable example, Mexican filmmaker Yulene Olaizola came to the island and used three nonactors to make a film, titled Fogo, which she screened at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. One of its stars now makes his own movies.
In many ways, Fogo Island Inn resembles a safari camp — a warm landing in a wild, intriguing place, where the service, design, and location all boost the sense of luxury. Staffers leave a carafe of coffee in a wooden toolbox outside each door at daybreak. Guest rooms blend Scandinavian asceticism with rustic Fogo accents; think custom wallpaper, handmade furniture, and wood stoves. On the rooftop, bake in the sauna or stargaze from the Jacuzzi. In the window-wrapped, two-story dining room, chef Murray McDonald, another native who returned home after 12 years abroad working at esteemed resorts such as New Zealand’s Huka Lodge, marries sophisticated style to the local larder. “Almost everything on the menu, I know where it was from and who touched it,” says the chef, who forages for caribou moss and juniper berries, and preserved 900 jars of vegetables last fall.
On the last of my three days on Fogo, community host Helen Broders and I climb the island’s highest point, Brimstone Head, a bald headland. “It’s not just jobs the inn has created, but hope,” says the former teacher, surveying the tidy town below us and Arctic terns circling above the cobalt sea. She takes a deep breath, as if drinking it all in for the first time. “It’s so lovely to have all this space.” 709-658-3444; fogoislandinn.ca
Getting there: Fly into Gander, the closest commercial airport to Fogo Island, then rent a car for the 60-mile drive north to Farewell, where car ferries to the island depart regularly. Direct ferry crossings take 45 minutes. www.tw.gov.nl.ca/ferryservices