‘Steer by the inn,” says Captain Ane Emberley, at my shoulder as I take a brief turn at the wheel of his tour boat, the Ketanja. I line up the prow with the Fogo Island Inn. It’s easy to navigate by; its intersecting white rectangles rear from a jut of granite on the treeless shore.
The inn, which officially opened on May 15, is like nothing else on this small, rugged outpost off the northeast coast of Newfoundland. Its attention-getting presence signals an attempt to steer the island itself in a different direction. Once fishing culture defined this place. Now visitors arrive, drawn by the lure of a place where old culture meets new.
We arrive after a day’s travel from Toronto and two nights in nearby Joe Batt’s Arm at Quintal House, a restored ship captain’s home turned B&B. By land, approached by winding gravel road, the inn rises as startlingly as by sea. One end, four storeys in the air, is supported on steel legs that echo the wooden struts beneath traditional fishing stages, where cod were salted and dried.
The brainchild of locally born entrepreneur Zita Cobb, the inn brings together luxury and rigorous sustainability. Already a magnet for architectural buzz (it was designed by Newfoundland-born architect Todd Saunders, now based in Norway), the inn is built as sturdily as a ship to withstand the bracing of wind and sea. Everything, from the nails that hold it together to the dining room’s bone china, has been sourced from countries with labour and environmental-protection laws. Its furnishings, including the colourful quilts on the beds, are crafted by local artisans.
On the far side of the lobby, two rocking chairs perch on either side of a wood stove, the ocean making its own moods through the window. In the elevator, a map of island and water surrounds us, with the names of rocks and shoals that fishermen use to steer their boats. Traditions are renewed without being steeped in nostalgia.
We sit down to lunch beneath dining-room lighting fixtures that resemble a white cascade of fishing nets. Unmoored from our non-island life, we are at sea in the best sense, feasting on chef Murray McDonald’s salt-cod cakes, which are deliciously plump and moist. We peer out the two-storey windows, water stretching to Greenland and Ireland, and scan for icebergs. We feel excitingly on the edge of things. Here, remoteness breeds resourcefulness and creative energy. And warmth.
One of the aims of the inn is to make connections between guests and island communities. “We want visitors to feel like they’re guests of the whole island,” Cobb says, “and to find a business model that allows people here to be involved.” With this in mind, the inn offers a series of Fogo Island Experiences that send visitors on a variety of adventures.
Aboard the Ketanja, our group sets off for the Little Fogo Islands, a nearby archipelago of tiny footholds, once home to a year-round fishing community, now populated by puffin and razorbill colonies and summer visitors.
Emberley’s own family once lived on the islet where we dock. We follow him up a hill to a small wooden church, its interior shiny blue and white. He points out his grandfather’s photo in the doorway. Then we’re free to roam this wild place accompanied by Fraser Carpenter, the inn’s resident naturalist who moonlights as a forager of wild sea greens for Chef Murray (as everyone calls him).
Back at the inn, we return to our room and peer through the binoculars helpfully provided at the misty, now-distant humps of the Little Fogos. Every room faces the ocean, each king-sized bed turned to floor-to-ceiling views of sky and water. It’s tempting to settle into the hand-carved armchair and rocker, enticed by the compact wood stove (for how often have we stayed in a hotel room with a wood stove?), but we descend for more food wizardry.
McDonald, who specializes in giving new form to traditional Newfoundland foods, stops by our table to describe the origins of a starter so wonderful we order it two nights in a row: On a winter walk he had a vision of snow crabs on snow. That transformed on the plate into puffs of meringue that accompany morsels of crab.
The midsummer sky is still turquoise when, after dinner, we enter one of the inn’s rooftop wood-fired saunas. A slatted screen opens to reveal another ocean view. Twilight descends as we soak up heat.
The next morning, fortified by scones and tea left on the doorstep of our room and a salt-cod variation on eggs Benedict, we join our “community host” Al Dwyer for a hike from Tilting, the furthest of the island’s villages, toward the now-abandoned settlement of Cape Cove. People used to walk the seven kilometres to Tilting and back for church.
We take a different pace through barrens and woods, pausing to drink in windy vistas, spellbound by Dwyer’s tales of growing up in Tilting before electricity arrived in the 1970s. Dwyer, a retired teacher, learned to play hockey by listening to games on a battery-powered radio. Out on the ice in the dark after supper, “the puck was a shadow but we played.” We break and spread our jackets on a rock and munch on lassie tarts, molasses pastry filled with partridgeberry jam, made by Dwyer’s wife, Millicent. The intimate access to local life is thrilling.
On an island that’s home to two international artists-residency programs, the inn doubles as a cultural centre and houses a gallery and screening room. The afternoon finds us in the Red Shed, a fishing shed transformed into a rustic studio on the edge of Shoal Bay. Artist Vida Simon leads us in a series of exercises sketching beachcombed finds. Back at the inn, we chat with New Zealand artist Kate Newby, about to open the first show in the gallery.
Our days feel like a microcosm of contemporary Fogo Island: a mixture of old and new, where a spirit of reinvention is quick in the air. People with long ties to the place rub shoulders with recent arrivals who’ve been called here, because Fogo Island has a way of summoning people. And, as everyone we meet tells us, once you visit, you’ll yearn to return.
Catherine Bush’s novel Accusation will be published in September. She stayed as a guest of the inn. Her flights were covered by Newfoundland Department of Tourism, additional costs by Adventure Central. Neither reviewed this article.