I doubt very much that had you asked a young Zita Cobb her goal in life, she would have replied that she wanted to create an inn of such singular design and ambition that it would garner international attention and bring visitors from the world over to her remote island home off the coast of Newfoundland. But that is just what she did.
It would have been an improbable dream for the daughter of parents who could neither read nor write. But Cobb had sufficient brains and drive to take her from an obscure island to the world of high tech, where she became one of the wealthiest people in Canada. As she says with extreme modesty, “I was just lucky enough to enter fiber optics when the market took off.”
Returning to Fogo Island in 2005, she found it in a worse state than when she had left, its population down to less than half its former peak of 6,000. The cod fishery that had sustained life for centuries had collapsed, and Fogo seemed destined to be forgotten. Cobb was determined that this should not be the case. So, with $43 million of her own money, she built the 29-suite Fogo Island Inn to lure travelers in search of something utterly distinctive, and established four studios for artists-in-residence. Ancillary efforts, chiefly made possible through micro-grants, would further bolster the island’s visibility and economy. Cobb put these projects under the direction of the community-owned Shorefast Foundation so she did not have to satisfy investors. All profits are now reinvested in the island, an arrangement she calls “entrepreneurial philanthropy.”
There is no easy way to reach Fogo Island. We first flew to St. John’s, in southeast Newfoundland, where we spent the night. Early the next day, we took a 45-minute flight northwest to Gander. This was followed by a two-hour drive to the ferry dock and a 45-minute crossing. (Privately chartered planes and helicopters can fly you from Gander directly to the Fogo Island airstrip.) With each step, however, I felt I was shedding a layer of workaday cares.
As we drove from the ferry to the inn, the wild landscape captured me as the more remote parts of Scotland and Ireland reliably do. Here were shimmering bogs, ancient ribs of rock exposed to the elements, and an occasional village, its mostly white buildings crowded together like a flock of birds huddled at the edge of the sea.
The first sight of the inn comes as quite a shock. In this remote setting, it looks almost as though it has descended from outer space. Cobb turned to Newfoundland native Todd Saunders — an architect now based in Bergen, Norway — to design the inn and the five outpost studios. The main four-story structure is cross-shaped, with one axis supported by angled metal poles. Light gray outside, it is stark white inside except for wooden floors and pieces of painted furniture manufactured on the island.
I was delighted to find that our room — like every other — had a wall of windows overlooking the ocean. Aside from an exceptionally comfortable bed, we found a large walk-in shower with “slip-free” tiles, plus quilts, furniture and wallpapers all handcrafted on Fogo. There was no television, just a panel allowing guests to set a level of white noise if they are disconcerted by the silence.
The interior of the resort flows with an organic unity. The main floor contains an inviting library and a large art gallery, as well as reception, a bar and an extraordinary dining room with double-height windows looking out to sea. Much of the produce used in the kitchen comes from Fogo or nearby areas. (Every morning at breakfast, we saw people from the inn out foraging along the shore.) Chef Murray McDonald’s food is both imaginative and artistically presented. For example, an unforgettable lunchtime dish called “Ocean in a Bowl” was a masterful concoction of smoked lobster broth with local scallops, shrimp and seaweed. My other favorite dish was perfectly cooked island beef with a surprising spruce gremolata, potato purée and a crisp, rich marrow croquette.
The best way to begin a stay on Fogo is to ask the concierge — who, like most of the unfailingly charming staff, is a native islander — to arrange a “host visit,” a tour of the island with a longtime resident. We were lucky to be paired with Roy Dwyer, a teacher, writer and storyteller, and in his company, we met fishermen, craftspeople and everyday folk. All proved exceptionally open, friendly and hospitable.
When the weather allows, numerous water activities are available, such as whale-watching (in summer), punt tours of the harbor close to the inn and iceberg-viewing (March through June). Fogo Island is positioned in what is called “Iceberg Alley,” a stretch of the North Atlantic from Greenland to Newfoundland through which drift flotillas of vast icebergs in colors ranging from white to aquamarine.
We often talk about getting away from it all and exploring the far corners of the earth. On Fogo Island, you can literally do this. The Flat Earth Society, founded in 1956 by a group that adheres to the notion that the world is indeed flat, designates Brimstone Head, a rocky promontory on Fogo, as one of the four corners of the world. This eccentricity aside, I found the island utterly unspoiled and a place of spectacular and elemental beauty. Our visit was during summer, but I can easily envisage a winter stay, with bonfires, ice skating, ice fishing and bracing hikes. Indeed, one staff member told us, “Winter is when we have the most fun.”
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Spectacular architecture; delicious food; imaginative activities; the feeling of being surrounded by nature.
DISLIKE: Very little, aside from the difficulty of getting there.
GOOD TO KNOW: In the small second-floor cinema, you can choose from a series of short films about the island, which provide a wonderful introduction to its people and culture.
Fogo Island Inn 97 Labrador Suite, from $1,275 for two (All meals included); Newfoundland Suite, from $1,675. Fogo Island, Newfoundland and Labrador. Tel. (709) 658-3444.