Art, architecture, exclusive accommodation and local culture propel Newfoundland outport’s move into geotourism.
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Fogo Island is a rocky little fishing outport (small coastal Newfoundland community), almost as far east as you can get while still remaining in Canada. But despite its remote locale—or perhaps because of it—Fogo’s popularity has risen of late, becoming the “it” island according to everyone from Condé Nast Traveller to Oprah.
The road to this new-found cachet has not been easy; in fact, Fogo’s revitalization is a work in progress. But thanks to an influx of creativity and cash from Fogo native Zita Cobb, the world is beating a path to this rugged corner of Newfoundland.
After a five-hour drive from St. John’s and a ferry crossing from Farewell to Fogo Island, the road winds along the shore, past villages tucked into tiny coves, their brightly painted clapboard houses and fishing stages clinging stubbornly to the rocks like colourful barnacles.
People here have eked out a living from the land and the sea for hundreds of years, and it’s that culture which social entrepreneur Cobb hopes to save and celebrate. With a series of projects ranging from architecturally stunning studios for visiting artists to microloans for small businesses and construction of the exclusive, 29-room Fogo Island Inn, her non-profit Shorefast Foundation aims to create an economically viable community while retaining Fogo’s “powerful and elemental” sense of place.
A hike into the bracing sea breeze to the Long Studio takes you right into the landscape, expanses of barren rock and an ever-changing vista of sea and sky framed by a wall of windows like a contemporary canvas. Getting to each of the six studios, designed by expat Newfoundland architect Todd Saunders, requires a hike, either across a zig-zagging boardwalk over a bog of wild partridge berries to the Tower Studio or a short scramble over a rocky trail to the dramatic seaside spot where Squish Studio sits.
It’s the perfect way to explore what Cobb likes to say is “a place to just be.”
The new inn rises from the rocky shore on stilts and, like the studios, recalls traditional island architecture with a look to the future. Inside, the décor is modern and spare, yet warm: rooms with wood stoves, furniture created by local craftspeople, and hand-made island quilts on the beds. There’s also a spa, art gallery and locally inspired cuisine.
Over a dinner of seafood linguine at Nicole’s Café—an enterprise supported by a Shorefast microloan—Cobb recalls her childhood here, a place famous for what it didn’t have, including power and running water. Then, it was a sensitive filmmaker, who offered a vehicle to help far-flung communities co-operate and save their floundering economy.
Cobb hopes this experiment in “geotourism” will be what Fogo needs to reinvent itself again, a gentle infusion of contemporary vision while keeping outport skills relevant and alive.
“You have to adapt to modernity,” says Cobb, who invested $6 million of her own funds in the non-profit foundation after retiring from a career in fibre optics. “But you also need to build a bridge to your past and your roots, to where you belong.”
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