Travelling to the edge of the Wild North Atlantic
There is an energy about this place that is indescribable. A force that’s inexpressible. It’s like nothing or nowhere I have ever been or am likely to ever go again.
I’m not even sure how to describe the style of Fogo Island Inn, or ‘The Inn’ as it’s fondly know here on Fogo – an island off Canada’s most easterly province, Newfoundland & Labrador, and accessed only by boat. Certainly referring to it as a hotel feels like an injustice. Yes, it has 29 rooms, a restaurant, bar, cinema and a rooftop terrace with a sauna and hot tubs, but the vibe at The Inn is much more native than a hotel could ever feel.
The decor is minimalist, yet it feels like something has rebelled against it by adding colours, conflicting patterns and textures that anywhere else, wouldn’t work against the white walls, light wooden floors and large, open, airy spaces. But here, at The Inn, every element works in harmony together.
In fact, nothing else would work in this edifice that has been ingeniously designed by one of the world’s leading architects Todd Saunders, who was born and raised just across the water in the town of Gander.
The Inn is playful yet sophisticated, but not in a pretentious way. It’s chic and elegant, yet incredibly homely and humble. It goes against everything the Western world associates with luxury. There is no oversized lobby or ornate marble reception desk. Don’t expect to be greeted at the door by a well-turned out doorman in polished shoes and brass-buttoned overcoat.
The front-of-house staff, all of whom live on the Island, wear a casual, comfortable uniform, although it’s apparent that their attire is not supposed to be first and foremost clothing that makes them identical or to have them conform to some ideal of staff who work for a luxury hotel.
I expect it’s just to allow people to make a (discreet) distinction between the staff and The Inn’s guests. However, individuality is encouraged. Beautiful Amanda, whose face beams with a wonderful blood-red lipped smile, crafts us the most incredible cocktails on an evening and serves us the most delicious, fresh and healthy breakfast in the morning with sleeves rolled up, displaying an enviable collection of tattoos on her lower arms. Amanda’s body art fits right in. Just another humbling Fogo Island Inn paradox.
The Inn isn’t about conventional luxuries, it’s about experiential magnificence. The physical elements are first and foremost anchored by tradition. Rooted in by requisite for sustainability. Fogo Island Inn radiates an energy and feeling of place that no amount of money could ever buy.
Google The Inn and you’ll be met with the iconic image of the dramatic double storey dining room. An exquisite, calm space filled with light streaming in from the floor to ceiling windows where, depending on the season, you can expect to see icebergs bobbing in the waves and whales breaching offshore.
The focal points are the striking chandeliers that hang from the ceiling. But only when you sit beneath them, do you realise that they are in fact made from ropes that would have been used by the fisherman to drag their boats ashore. The ropes have been hand-tied to represent wildflowers from the Island and feature dozens of bulbs that provide delicate, atmospheric lighting. Each one reflecting off the glass windows and giving the impression of hundreds of twinkling stars.
I had to wear my sunglasses the first time I sat down to eat there. My eyes needed time to adjust to the intensity of the light, made even more extreme by the dazzling white of the snow and ice that covered the Atlantic Ocean outside. By day two of my stay my eyes had acclimatised to the luminosity but when the time came to leave, the world beyond Fogo Island looked somewhat dismal in comparison.
Fogo Island Inn is the dream child of Zita Cobb. Born and raised here, she made her millions in the fibre optics industry in Ottawa. She returned home to give something back to the island’s communities that were suffering from the impact of consumerism in the millennial era. It’s an era that sees huge fishing trawlers sail within five miles of the shore, fishing for the cod that once provided economic stability. This has had a huge impact on the sustainability of Fogo, forcing islanders to drag their fishing boats onto dry land, unable to compete with the enormous trawlers.
Zita saw the impact this was having on communities and decided that Fogo Island Inn was going to be a project that would re-establish the lost sustainability by creating something that would be entirely reliant on the island and its people.
The furniture is all painstakingly handmade by The Island’s carpenters who would have once used their expertise to make fishing boats.
Women apply their needlework skills to hand-stitch every single bedspread, cushion and rug using traditional Newfoundland quilting and sewing techniques. Each bedspread is personalised and dated by the lady who made it.
The location of The Inn, part of which sits on dozens of narrow columns that support the protruding end of the building, is also something else. The structure ensures minimal impact on the rocks and plants that make up the uneven, dramatic landscape right on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.
The captivating design of Fogo Island Inn isn’t just about minimal impact on the natural surroundings. Saunders took inspiration from the fishing stages – huts made of wood, that sit on stilts perched on the water’s edge where fisherman would fish for cod before laying it on the long wooden stages in the sun to salt and dry.
My morning ritual throughout my stay, before anything else, was to open my bedroom window to the vast expanse of ice and snow. I’d lean out as far as I could possibly get without causing myself any damage. Wearing nothing but a sleeveless vest on my top half, I’d gaze as far into the distance as my eyes would allow and I would breathe. Cognisant breathing. Deeply and slowly, inhaling the freezing sub-zero Atlantic air deep into my lungs. Mindful of the glacial winds rushing through my hair and slapping me round my cheeks until I was wide awake.
It didn’t take long, 30 seconds maybe before I had to shut out the bitter Arctic air. But in that 30 seconds, a zest for life and an overwhelming feeling of privilege and appreciation swept over me. Not just for being given an opportunity to spend time at The Inn, but to be alive. Stood looking out over nothing but ice and snow as far as the eye can see, listening to the sound of silence broken only by the wail of the wind. I can only describe that view as what the edge of the world might look like. If there was an edge, it would be right here.
The people who work for The Inn (and many Newfoundlanders as a whole), have a profound, humble and sincere quality about them that is a rarity in the consumer driven Western world. They want to share their stories (and they have lots of stories to tell!). They insist on inviting you to their houses for tea. They are proud, genuine, kind hearted folk. Thankful for what little they have, for their families and the community spirit that empowers them. And of course for this beautiful place they call home.
There is no negativity here. Kindness, compassion and grace underpin the people of Fogo Island. It’s these people who form the foundations of Fogo Island Inn. They are the fundamental reason why The Inn is such a unique and special place to stay.
Those who choose to stay at Fogo Island Inn are not driven by possessions and wealth. At CA$1,500 a night with a minimum two-night stay, one needs a certain amount of wealth behind them. However, The Inn’s visitors are driven by experiences and the environment. Some save for a considerable length of time for the experience, others come back year on year. Designer heels and cocktail dresses would look completely out of place here. This is a totally different kind of luxury. Luxury at The Inn is defined by location, a sense of calm, an overwhelming energy and the love that has been meticulously sewn into every hand-made quilt and every hand-carved and hand-painted piece of furniture right through to the bespoke coat hangers all made by the Islanders, on an Island that is made up of endless fascinating stories.
These stories are best told by the islanders themselves. Visitors to The Inn are encouraged to explore the island with a community host. There are around 20 in total, and each and every one of them has a hundred beguiling stories about the island and their life on it.
Roy, a slight, weathered man with a wirey beard who must be knocking on 70, was our host for the day. He drove us around the small fishing town of Tilting, one of the communities near the Inn, and in his soft singing, Newfoundland accent, which is somewhere between Irish and Canadian, he regaled us with stories about the history of the Island, its culture, his childhood and what life was like when the fishery was thriving versus island life today.
Stopping here and there to point out colourful little houses, fishing stages, and the remains of overturned fishing boats all of which have their own story. On a couple of occasions Roy burst into song. The distinct Irish undertones in his soft, somewhat haunting voice were as enchanting as the lyrics. Lyrics that reminisced about life here. Lyrics he’d written himself. We sat and listened to him, captivated by the intensity of the moment. His eyes shut and a sadness etched on his face. A sadness that comes with a longing to be back in that moment – a happy memory from years gone by. Time almost stood still for the few moments that Roy sang to us. It was nothing short of beautiful.
On snowy days, and my time at The Inn was made up of several of them, guests can wander round the Inn in their slippers. Curl up by the wood-burning stove with a pot of tea served in a vintage tea pot and nibble on a homemade blueberry scone made fresh that morning. Grab a pair of one of the many sets of binoculars, cuddle up in a hand-crafted rocking-chair by the window and look out for wildlife and birdlife. Only last year a polar bear was spotted roaming on the sheets of ice outside. Sit in the well-stocked library and read a book about the island or play a game of chess. Or marvel at the pieces of art that are on display in the Inn’s gallery.
Put an hour to one side, ideally at the beginning of your stay, to visit the small cinema and watch Strange & Familiar – a documentary about why and how Fogo Island Inn was developed. A fascinating and uplifting film featuring Zita and many of the islanders, including Roy.
The film gives an even deeper understanding of the spirit of the Island and the important part that The Inn plays in how the island and its people have evolved.
Art comes in many forms at Fogo Island Inn. There’s a fine artistic skill in every component from the food through to the decor, soft furnishings and even Amanda’s tattoos. It’s understandable why artists from all corners of the earth would want to come to this little corner. For some, the experience could even be considered a pilgrimage. Creative artists, include painters and writers, can apply for residency and spend weeks, even months in one of the studios on the island also designed by Saunders. Drawing their inspiration from the dramatic landscapes, peace and unique energy that radiates from it.
The room keys, all of which are unique, are made from all sorts of bits and bobs one might find by the sea. A crab claw, a peg, a bit of rope, even a small fish skull have been dipped in copper to create the most incredible key rings.
The kitchen serves up the most beautifully presented and equally delicious dishes for lunch and dinner. Most of which derive from traditional Newfoundland recipes such as salt cod and beans, moose sausage and colcannon, and salt beef and peas pudding prepared with ingredients from across the island all served on pretty kitsch crockery more fitting in grandma’s house than in a luxury hotel. But of course it works perfectly.
Juices, cakes and pastries made with delicious indigenous berries foraged from across the island to include wild blueberries, bakeapple and partridge berries are baked fresh daily. Possibly the highlight is the pre-breakfast box that is left outside your bedroom door at 6am, with fresh juice, a warm, fresh muffin or a scone and fresh coffee.
In a world where greed, consumerism and commercialism result in communities being driven from their homes in order to lay gas pipes and build multi-million pound golf courses. In a world where social media creates antisocial behaviour and gives the sinful a platform to commit their sins. In a world where towns and villages use Facebook to provoke and propagate negativity. Zita and the people of Fogo Island are a breath of fresh air and an inspiration to us all.
GETTING THERE: Air Canada & Westjet fly daily into St. John’s (the Provincial capital of Newfoundland & Labrador) from London Gatwick and London Heathrow. Flight time is just five hours. Fly on to Gander in 45mins (the nearest Airport to Fogo Island Inn) and then drive for 1hr to the ferry. Altenatively, drive from St. John’s direct to The Inn (via the Ferry) drive time is approx 5hrs.
DISCLAIMER: Thank you to Fogo Island Inn for hosting me. Fogo Island Inn is in the Canadian Province of Newfoundland & Labrador just a 5 hour direct flight from the UK and Ireland. Destination St. John’s, supported by NL Tourism contracts my Tourism Marketing & Comms Agency All About the Story to represent them in the UK & Ireland. For more information of All About the Story and our services please CLICK HERE.