I have had the privilege of a wonderful summer of travel. To celebrate a momentous anniversary, we planned 2 trips. One to Italy to “re-live” our honeymoon, but with our grown kids this time, and the second to Fogo Island with dear friends.
Italy was wonderful. The Art. The Food (simple is really the best if simple is perfect, which of course it is, even if simple can be difficult since there is no hiding behind fancy cover-ups). The Wines. The Architecture. Positano. I am sincere in my love for that country and its people. My husband jokes that I must have been Italian in a past life.
Next…I have looked forward to visiting Fogo Island since I heard about it in 2008. Initially I saw images of artist studios and heard that a woman who grew up there was behind the project. I added it onto a list of places I’d like to visit. I was enamored by the idea, and the images. Fast forward to last year, when we were travel-planning with friends and all completed the sentence “Next Fall, let’s go to….” with “Fogo Island!”
Travel planning was simple enough. Fly, rent a car, and get there. Stay at the recently completed Fogo Island Inn, again a product of “the woman who left and went back.” As our trip approached, I started reading a bit more about our upcoming trip. I realized we were in for a treat. This was more than a beautiful hotel on an island that appreciates art. This project is a model for getting it right, on so many levels.
My life will never be the same. I am now a Canadian who understands my country differently, and am the quickest to say that the nicest people in our country of nice people are Newfoundlanders, and the nicest Newfoundlanders are those from Fogo Island!
I was going to start this part of the story with the basics. How Fogo Island sits off the Northeastern coast of Newfoundland, has a population today of 2800 which is less than half of what it was in the 1950’s when the cod fishery still existed. No, that isn’t a typo. Once the “big boats” came from all over the world and emptied the ocean of fish in international waters, and decimated the inland cod stocks, local fishermen came in with empty nets. The story has a formal end with a moratorium in 1992, directly or indirectly impacting every resident of Fogo Island.
Instead, I am going to quote the Fogo Island Inn’s website, where the following is explained:
Somewhere in-between land and sea is where you’ll find our vision for a better future. More than a place, the Fogo Island Inn is part of a groundbreaking model for community innovation and cultural resilience.
Somewhere in-between this home and its people, is where our strength of character resides. Every decision we make is imbued with integrity.
Every stranger we meet is a welcome guest in our home. Every challenge we face is a source of creative inspiration. This is who we are.
We have a way of doing things here. We find new ways with deep-rooted traditions. We lead with the arts. We seek out new ways of thinking. We are making ourselves home to a new generation.
The Fogo Island Inn has many things to feel good about. It is a gem of contemporary architecture and at the same time is a place that is “made of us”; made of the traditions and lived experiences of the island. It is a place that was created with deep sensitivity to the natural and social ecology of the island; a place that offers guests an exquisite nest from which to feel the harmonizing power of the North Atlantic; a nest with fine linens, creative local cuisine, wood burning fireplaces, a wood fired sauna, a cinema and all of the touches – big and small – for solace, comfort and profound ease. It is a place for adventure; a place from which to explore the rich and varied cultural and natural world of Fogo Island during its seven seasons.
But perhaps the most important thing to feel good about the Inn is its social purpose. The Fogo Island Inn is a trust whose beneficiary is the Shorefast Foundation, a federally registered charity whose mandate is the economic well-being of the local community. All surpluses from the Inn will flow through to the charity and be reinvested back into the community. There are no investors seeking a return on their investment.
This innovative and progressive business model is our interpretation of social entrepreneurship, using business minded ways to create social good. It is a structure that is not-just-for-profit. Money spent at the Fogo Island Inn is money spent for the wellbeing of one of Canada’s oldest rural communities.
Now what I have to say will make more sense.
We arrived at the Inn, pulling up to a building I wasn’t convinced about. We had passed one of the four studios on our drive, and it was magical. The “road side” façade of the inn is not particularly attractive. It looks…big. And kinda institutional. Hmm…what are we in for this week?
But then, we entered through the doors with circles painted on them (more on that later), and it began. The charming hand-hooked cushion (designed by Lilian Dwyer and hooked by AnnMarie Newman) on the bench inside the door.
The luggage carts designed to reflect the wood piles that support the fish-houses known as stages. This same metaphor is successfully used on one end of the inn– it is the most impressive structural detail.
We enter the building and are warmly greeted. We find it hard to concentrate, because the view from the public areas are dominated by the coastline just feet away. We check in and get our keys – each of the 29 rooms has a unique key fob. Relics – fishing knots, bird skulls, tools, rocks… have been beautifully crafted into bronze artifacts.
Walking to our room with one of the lovely desk staff (a non-practicing nurse whose sister runs a great café featuring her mom’s epic tart – recipe ahead – keep reading- and whose father fires an antique musket at weddings) felt like we were on a boat.
Each room faces the ocean. The long hallway has narrow windows looking inland giving glimpses of rugged rocks and sky. Our room… oh, it is hard writing about it from afar. I want to be there. Now! Our view of the ocean and sky.
The brilliant cross-ventilation system that allowed me (for those of you who know me will understand this part) to sleep and sleep and sleep. The furniture was designed by international designers for the inn, and is produced onsite. The quilts were made by women at the craft collective, and each one is signed. The organic mattresses are made in Ontario. The custom wallpaper is one of 4 ( I think) used throughout the Inn. The shower tiles feature tone-on-tone words of a poem used by fishermen to navigate into harbor. The heated toilet seat is just… a treat. Local first, then Newfoundland, then the rest of Canada, then a wider cast. Nothing in the Inn comes from a country without fair labour laws. Books about, or written by Newfoundlanders are on the bookshelf. A warm scarf awaits on a hook. Think it can’t get better? At 6:30 every morning, a box with a thermos of seriously good, hot coffee and freshly baked goodies are placed silently outside the door. Oh yes, re-entry after our visit was painful.
Our first afternoon was spent reading and snoozing. That in itself was a new experience! The food at the Inn is remarkable. Not only for what is on the plate (traditional fare done with haut-cuisine finesse), but for how it has positively impacted the island and appreciation of its offerings. Locals now have, and tend, vegetable gardens to supply the Inn. Guests are wowed by foraged plants and berries. They eat fresh when there IS fresh, and pickles when there isn’t!
Local musicians play in the bar every night. Normally not a huge fan of maritime folk, I adored each of the entertainers. They felt right. One of the desk staff commented to me that one singer was a school friend’s dad and that she grew up hearing these same songs. She said it in passing. It made me choke up and my eyes watered. How fabulous to both have that kind of childhood, and to be able to take it for granted.
Mornings offer nature walks with a guide from the Inn. Mona is a forager, runs a small museum on the island, sells jam, has recently learned that she likes building, and sews quilts. She has also taken on a project of marking a walking path around the Inn with stones. Obvious in some places, but Herculean in others. Mona showed us oyster leaf (tastes like a mouthful of oysters), all of the different berries (it is was impossible to walk more than a few paces in September without stopping to take a handful of blueberries) and taught us a bit about mosses and lichens.
At the end of our visit, when I asked if I could pass by to pick up some jam, she agreed. A few hours later, I was stunned to buy warm jam. When asked, she explained that she had been low, but had asked her husband to break into her mom’s freezer to get the last of the partridgeberries so she could put up a fresh batch. Calling islanders hospitable is an understatement!
Locals are available to Inn guests to give them an “orientation”. Clem Dwyer drove us around the Island answering questions, and teaching us local history and customs. Remember the dots on the doors I mentioned earlier? They are on every fishing stage (otherwise known as fish houses, where cod were processed on the water’s edge when they came in). The white circles served to mark the doors when it was dark out! One door? One dot. Two doors? You walk towards the 2 dots! Clem explained that his wife is a nurse who had been the mayor of (my favorite town) Tilting, and was an expert rug hooker who had made the cushions at the Inn. Are you starting to see why this place is so cool? My head was doing a family tree/venn diagram thing constantly. Fogo Island is surprisingly complex for such a small place. There are 5 towns in as many bays, each with a slightly different culture. Families with 5 to 10 children live in tiny, cherished salt box homes. These homes have withstood storms, frozen morning blankets, and are alive with generations of memories. So treasured are the homes that families sooner move a house than buy an existing building in a location they want.
Remember my comment about epic tart? So – Nicole’s Café in Joe Batt’s Arm (yes, that is the name of one of the towns) is a very popular spot, with good reason. Guests of the Inn on the full-board plan are welcome to eat at Nicole’s and it is considered as a meal at the Inn. Nice touch and a good break from “formal” dining. Food at Nicole’s is very good. But the thing that stopped time and made the room go silent for me was “Margaret’s Molasses Partridgeberry Tart”. The crust was similar to a gingerbread cookie. Who needs flaky when you can have this kind of spicy yumminess? The jam was indeed partridgeberry – I know them as lingonberries (at Ikea) – that grow everywhere! One of the best desserts I have EVER tasted.
There’s more, but I will save the one last anecdote for a bit. How does this place happen in the way that it does? How does a place and culture that is destined for eventual extinction become a model of community innovation? The simple answer is vision and leadership. Once again, it isn’t “good government” that saves the day. It is a remarkable person who cares.
Zita Cobb (my new hero) grew up on Fogo Island and watched as her fisherman father became a broken man – a symbol of his time. Like many, she left the island to go to University. Unlike many, she became incredibly successful as the CFO of a tech company, in the good days. And again, unlike many people anywhere, she left and ultimately decided to do something for her birthplace. Zita’s model is centered on art. She recognizes it as a “way of knowing” that mirrors islanders’ “ways of knowing”. She started there, continued by building an Inn that was in fact built by and is staffed by locals and has put the Island onto the world stage of geo-tourism, and has a foundation that offers microloans to local businesses. The model of not JUST for profit” is astounding and simple. There are very few people on the island who have not been touched by Zita’s vision. The amazing thing we realized, is that there is no resentment. People often dislike change, even if it is good for them. Zita’s visual statement was not subtle – it says “Here I am. I am proud and different, but I come from this place”. There have been so many articles written about the project, and Zita, but I really think that hearing directly from Zita gives the best understanding. Watch one of her many Youtube clips. I particularly like this one:
“Nature and culture are the garments of human life,” says Cobb, “and business and technology exist to serve human life. Somewhere along the way, we got it backward.”
And now for my last little story. Our last evening on the island coincided with an annual Irish Festival in Tilting. We were invited to the shed crawl. The WHAT? So – many homes on the island have sheds. Places to keep the ski-doo and workbench and “stuff”. Ok, but they are also decked out with Christmas lights, sofas and decorations. Friday nights they become “the spot” to hang out, have a few drinks and listen to one of the MANY locals sing and play an instrument! It was simply amazing. What a way to lock Fogo Island into our hearts.
I can’t wait to return. In the meantime, I’m planning to “put up” a few of these pies…
Margaret’s Molasses Partridgeberry Tart (found in the Memorial University archives – how cool!)
You will need:
A pie’s worth of partridgeberry (lingonberry) jam
Other ingredients and method:
Cream 1 cup butter (softened)
¾ cup molasses
2 tsp. baking soda
¼ cup tea
4 cups flour
2 ½ tsp. cloves
2 ½ tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ground ginger
Roll onto a floured board. Place into pie plate and fill with jam. Bake 20 minutes in a moderate oven
(I will save some crust to put on top, and my idea of a moderate oven is 350)