Fogo Island Journal: At the edge of a continent, a melding of design and nature

Fogo Island Inn (photo Alex Fradkin)

Fogo Island Journal: At the edge of a continent, a melding of design and nature

“By January it had always been winter.”
― Annie Proulx, The Shipping News

By Ron Bernthal

On brisk winter mornings guests at the Fogo Island Inn take long walks on foot trails that meander along the rocky coast, trails with names like Joe Batt’s Point, Oliver’s Cove, Little Seldom and Brimstone Head. After lunch in the glass enclosed dining room overlooking the Atlantic, afternoons may be spent in ocean-view guestrooms, relaxing in hand-crafted armchairs. A wood stove will keep the room toasty (although electric heat is available), a fierce wind will blow outside, snow will move sideways in blurring white lines. The ocean, a heaving gray mass just beyond the window, will become indistinguishable from the horizon.moonwalk bounce house

In spring the winds will decrease a bit, the snow may stop flying and icebergs will start to appear on the sea, drifting past Fogo Island on their way south to warmer climates as the slowly melting mountains of blue and white ice pass the coastal communities of Newfoundland and Labrador. The seasonal migration down “Iceberg Alley” is enjoyed by year-round residents as much as visitors.

In spring giant icebergs will float quietly past Fogo Island (photo Paddy Barry)

The Fogo Island Inn, a not yet three year-old, a stunning architecturally designed property, is reached by a 45-minute car-ferry from Farewell, itself a small Newfoundland community an hour north of Gander. The Inn is partially raised off the rocky beach on sturdy stilts, from a distance it looks like a huge, white bird about to soar off into the sky. Even visitors who have seen photographs of the building are taken aback when it first comes into view. Compared to the small, wood structures guests pass as they drive to the property from the ferry landing eight miles away – saltbox houses, fish drying stages, waterside storage sheds called stores, small churches — the four-story, ultra-modern Fogo Island Inn is like a mirage on the landscape.

In any other place the presence of a modern architectural gem next to a rural fishing village would be somewhat controversial. (photo Alex Fradkin)

In any other place, at any other time, placing a 43,000 square-foot, multi-million dollar, design-driven, deluxe inn on the beach of a tiny, isolated fishing community, population 700, would be controversial to say the least. And with room rates of $700-$2,000 per night (including all meals and services), it is doubtful that many Fogo Islanders will be spending romantic weekends at the island’s only upscale accommodations. But island residents, skeptical at first, are now enjoying the new revenue and employment opportunities the hotel has brought to the area, and are now proud the project was conceived by an 8th generation Fogo Islander, and designed by a Newfoundland-born architect.

The back story to the opening of the Fogo Island Inn is as interesting as the building’s design. The collapse of the northern cod fishery marked a profound change in the ecological, economic and cultural structure of Atlantic Canada. The cod fishing moratorium in 1992 marked the largest industrial closure in Canadian history, and the results were felt throughout Newfoundland, where the heavily fished continental shelf lay just off shore. Over 35,000 fishermen and plant workers from over 400 coastal communities in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador became unemployed.

Fogo Island, 15 miles long and eight miles wide, was settled by the English and Irish in the early 1700’s. These settlers braved the harsh seas and living conditions for the profits gleaned from cod, and the bounty lasted for more than 250 years. When Newfoundland fishing boats were prevented from hauling in their daily catch of cod the men turned to other species, like crabs, shrimp, char and salmon, but the loss of the cod catch was devastating. Unable to support their families under the strict commercial cod fishing regulations, the population of Fogo Island dwindled from 5,200 to about 2,500 today, many of the men left the island for jobs in the gas and oil fields of western Canada. The 11 small “outport” fishing communities on Fogo Island, including Joe Batt’s Arm, where the Fogo Island Inn is now located, managed to survive despite the much decreased fishing revenue and a short summer tourist season. Unemployment was high, the winter’s always long.

There is vegetation, edible herbs, and colorful moss along the rocky beaches near Joe Batt’s Arm (photo Ron Bernthal)

Zita Cobb, an 8th generation Fogo Islander, left the island to attend college in the 1980’s, eventually becoming the CFO of a high-tech company in Ontario. When the company merged with a big U.S. firm Cobb was able to exercise stock options and retire, becoming a multi-millionaire. Missing her island home, and looking for a way to contribute to Fogo Island’s declining economy, Cobb moved back to Joe Batt’s Arm and founded the philanthropic, family-run Shorefast Foundation in 2003. A “shorefast” is the line and mooring used to attach a traditional cod trap to the shore, and a strong symbol of Fogo Island’s cod fishing heritage. To Zita Cobb it also symbolized the link between the cod moratorium and Fogo Island’s stagnant economy.

Traditional cod trap and its “shorefast” line symbolizes the history of fishing on Fogo Island

After the Foundation was established an idea was developed to create an inn that would represent the culture of the island, and benefit as many islanders as possible. The Fogo Island Inn would be constructed of local materials and Fogo Islanders, many of whom were descendants of the early English and Irish settlers, would be hired to produce locally-crafted furnishings. A well-known Newfoundland chef would be found to serve regional cuisine, and almost a 100 residents would be trained for hospitality work, and encouraged to share their history with tourists who would “come from away.” Zita Cobb even convinced a Newfoundland-born architect, Todd Saunders, who was happily designing buildings on the west coast of Norway (similar climate and terrain), to return to the province and design a structure on Fogo Island that would wow the sophisticated, high-end travelers from Toronto, Boston and New York. Then everyone kept their fingers crossed.

Fast-forward to the present. Todd Saunders’ white, oblong building has attracted worldwide attention. The Inn is a highly insulated steel frame building, the windows have the equivalent rating of triple pane glazing. Rainwater is collected in two cisterns, filtered, and used for toilet and laundry water. Solar panels supply hot water to the in-floor radiant heating. Photos of the Inn, its dining room, duplex suites, and the amazing views have appeared in all of the best architecture, design and travel publications, and the awards have been piling up, including being placed on Condé Nast Traveler’s 2016 hotel Gold List.

Despite, or because of, the Inn’s remote location on the edge of the North American continent moneyed travelers from Toronto, Boston, New York and Europe are flying to Gander or St. John’s, Newfoundland, renting cars and finding their way to Joe Batt’s Arm, where they are assured of an ocean view (all guestrooms face the sea), deluxe accommodations, excellent cuisine, and an opportunity to visit a destination not yet spoiled by fast food outlets, theme parks, stop lights, or traffic. The only obstacles on Fogo Island’s roads are the occasional caribou.

Punts (colorful small work boats) on Fogo Island (photo Barrett and MacKay for Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism)

All the furniture used at the Inn is designed by professional Canadian and European designers, and constructed at a small wood shop nearby by local men and women who have experience building their own homes, boats and fishing stages. The fabrics for the chair and pillow covers, quilts, and woven rugs are hand-stitched by the women of Fogo Island, a tradition that dates to the 1700’s when the wife’s and daughters of fishermen would make the gloves, sweaters, hats and clothing for the family. Art gallery space is created within the public areas of the inn, where the work of Newfoundland artists is displayed. The Inn’s dining room, with its double-ceiling windows overlooking the sea, is rated one of the top ten restaurants in Canada by Enroute magazine, and executive chef Murray MacDonald, a Newfoundland native, has been using locally sourced root vegetables, fresh caught fish and seafood, and traditional ingredients like sea buckthorn, spruce tips, caribou moss and dried chanterelles.

Chef Murray MacDonald uses local, organic ingredients for his award-winning cuisine (photo Alex Fradkin)

On the Inn’s second floor the 24-seat cinema, created in partnership with the National Film Board of Canada, is designed with movie theater-style seats, and is a guest favorite. There is also a fully equipped fitness center and conference room. The fourth and top floor includes additional rooms and loft suites, sauna and steam rooms, outdoor hot tubs with views of the ocean, and a roof-deck for summer sunbathing. The Inn will not turn Fogo Island into another Nantucket (no one on the island wants that), but young people who left are now returning, and local shops and cafes are seeing an uptick in year-round business.

Dining room at Fogo Island Inn with view of North Atlantic (photo Alex Fradkin)

For Zita Cobb and others, the grand idea of helping the island’s economy seems to be working. Almost all of the 80 employees at the Inn are Fogo Islanders, now earning salaries that are considerably more than the $20,000 annual average income for island residents. The few local cafes, ice cream shops, music pubs and small island art galleries and museums are all benefiting from the influx of well-heeled Inn guests that arrive every week, year round. Many islanders –painters, quilters, fishermen, shipbuilders, writers — have also signed up to be part of the Community Host Program, and are always available to give Inn guests complimentary island tours, showing them how to fish in the local bays, forage for wild berries and mushrooms, watch boat builders at work, or listen to Newfoundland music in local homes. Roy Dwyer, a former school teacher and fisherman, spent several hours showing a visitor the various communities on the island, including his own home in the quaint village of Tilting.

Fogo Island resident Roy Dwyer in his fishing stage in the community of Tilting (photo Ron Bernthal)

As part of Shorefast’s Fogo Island Arts project architect Todd Saunders also designed four ocean-front studios which are occupied during the day by visiting artists who were accepted into the Foundation’s Artist-in-Residence program. The studios are beautifully designed, self-sustaining, one-room buildings perched on the rocks at the ocean’s edge, complete with solar panels for heating and lighting, mini-kitchens for cooking and small bathrooms with chemically treated toilets. The four studios include the Long Studio (constructed in 2010) and the Tower, Bridge and Squish Studios, completed in 2011.

Artists who apply for the residency come from many countries, and as part of the program they receive accommodations in one of Fogo Island’s fishing communities, a vehicle, and a weekly stipend to offset the costs of materials, shipping and living expenses for periods of one to three months. Most travel expenses are also covered and artists-in-residence must give one public presentation, performance, workshop, or lead a similar event during their residency. Selected artists are invited to present their work in exhibitions at the Fogo Island Gallery. Other Shorefast projects include a micro-lending fund for small businesses on Fogo Island and the nearby Change Islands, various academic residency programs, heritage building preservation initiatives, the New Ocean Ethic, and a retail furniture business, the Fogo Island Shop.

Long Studio, Fogo Island, Todd Saunders architect (photo Ron Bernthal)

Squish Studio, Todd Saunders architect (photo Ron Bernthal)

“When the Canadian singer, Alan Doyle, visited a Fogo Island museum a few years ago he was shown an artifact called a gaff, a fisherman’s wooden-handled tool with a hook on the end of it,” said Paddy Barry, the Inn’s friendly and informative Guest Ambassador. “In April, 1917, four young men including the three Jacobs brothers, walked out on the ice floes off Fogo Island and got stranded, unable to get back to shore when the ice shifted. They were terrified, knowing that their wives and family would never know what had happened to them. On the gaff they had with them they carved their names and dates, along with the desperate words, “laying down to perish,” and sent it adrift, hoping it would eventually wash ashore and be found by the families, which did happen several months later, when it was a found on a nearby island and returned to Fogo Island.” This is a true, often-told story, and the song that Alan Doyle wrote following his visit, called

Laying Down to Perish

was recorded in 2014. The song should be downloaded onto every visitor’s mobile phone before they arrive on the island, and listened to as they walk the trails of the island. It is evocative of Fogo Island’s history and the resilience of its people, living on the edge of a continent.

Jacobs gaff on Fogo Island, the inspiration behind Alan Doyle’s song “Laying Down to Perish”

The feature film “Strange and Familiar: Architecture on Fogo Island,” is an award-winning, one-hour film by David Craig and Katherine Knight which documents the story behind the design and construction of the Fogo Island Inn, as told by Zita Cobb and Todd Saunders. Directed by Katherine Knight and Marcia Connolly, it has been presented at various U.S. and international film festivals, including the 2015 Architecture and Design Film Festival in New York City.

Info to Go:
Fogo Island Inn
Newfound and Labrador Tourism