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Fogo Island is both fancy and fanciful

December 05, 2013
FOGO ISLAND, NEWFOUNDLAND & LABRADOR — It isn’t often that you can give your competition credit for upping your bottom line. But on tiny Fogo Island the five-star Fogo Island Inn, which opened in May 2013, may have done just that, creating the sort of buzz for this community that the tourism boards of much more recognized destinations strive to achieve. Eileen Freake, the owner of Peg’s B&B, emphatically says, “My gosh, yes, the inn has brought us lots of business this summer, I don’t think we have ever had a season like this. It seems everyone wants to know just what is going on over there in Fogo Island.”

The media coverage of Fogo Island has been relentless since word got out about the luxury resort, spa, restaurant, and arts facility that opened earlier this spring. Anticipation of the spa’s arrival landed Fogo Island on the list of Top 20 Places to Visit in Canada for 2013 and for 2014 the destination will move up from No. 19 and into the top 10, thanks to the acclaim of the inn. (The 2014 list will be published in January.)

Fogo Island Inn is the brainchild of Zita Cobb, a Silicon Valley multimillionaire who returned home with the intent to build a one-of-a-kind facility focused on geotourism. She and her brother established the non-profit Shorefast Foundation (of which the inn is the most attention-grabbing initiative) in hopes of germinating new economic opportunities for Fogo Island residents. David Curell, the inn’s general manager, says, “Everyone here has an area of expertise, whether it is jam making, textiles or carpentry building.”

Artisans bring to light the unique cultural facets of Fogo Island through the inn’s 29 guest rooms, where everything from the furniture to the textiles are island made. Want to take a quilt home? Stop into Winds and Waves Artisan Guild, where all the quilts for the inn are hand sewn.  The inn’s staff, comprised mostly of local residents, has received glowing reviews. All of the positive word of mouth has enticed tourists to venture out to Joe Batt’s Arm, one of those curiously named Newfoundland communities that dot the Atlantic coastline, populating territory with only a few souls, all of whom seem to have a warm smile or quick laugh no matter the economic climate in their part of the world. Cars bring visitors from Newfoundland, other parts of Canada, and from the US and overseas. They wait in line for the ferry from Farewell to Fogo to experience the music, art, crafts, and stories abundant in the austere beauty that flourishes here on the sea coast. All that increased traffic means more economic benefits for businesses like Peg’s B&B. Like other residents, Freake hopes that the reputation of the Fogo Island Inn also brings sustainable economic growth for everyone in the community.

Fogo’s Million-Dollar Dreams

Although art and creativity thrive on Fogo Island, art-buying consumers have been scarce. Attracting travellers with resources to connect with the community is one of the ways the Shorefast Foundation hopes to help preserve the local heritage. There is an autobiographical aesthetic expressed in the artwork here that reflects the resiliency of a community that for generations has had to adapt in order to survive.  Self-taught acrylic landscape painter Winston Osmond, the featured artist at this year’s Partridgeberry Harvest Festival, is multitalented like many of his neighbours. Pauline Brown, the director of the festival, says, “Not only is he a really good artist, he is a phenomenal farmer too. He raises livestock and has built his own gallery/studio in Shoal Bay. People need to know about these people.” The festival, which is in its sixth year, was established in the hopes of extending the tourist season. It showcases the creative talents of the community through art, music, and food, and does so over the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend in Fogo’s Iceberg Arena. Homemade pastries, pies, and jams — featuring the sweet and tangy local partidgeberry — can be found at many of the booths.

The Shorefast Foundation is an extension of the artistic spirit of Fogo. It has an artist-in-residency program through Fogo Island Arts. Those architecturally unique buildings tucked within the island’s rocky coast are the studios for the program’s contemporary artists. Although the studios are closed to the public, the trails leading to them are open to all hikers who want to enjoy the stunning vistas. Photos of the studios have appeared in publications such as the New York Times and Conde Nast Traveler, convincing tourists to trek out to the island just to see them.

Those travellers aren’t your usual backpacker or camper, though. Nightly room rates at the Fogo Island Inn start at $550, leaving it out of reach for most visitors. But the experience of the island is more affordable and accessible if you stay at places like Peg’s B&B, where rates start at $85 per night. Here, Freake’s guests can enjoy the same great views as their counterparts at the inn, as well as Newfoundland’s famed hospitality. Even the mayor of Fogo Island, Andrew Shea, is among the residents who will graciously give visitors an abundance of his time while sharing his deep knowledge of this immaculate part of Canada.

I hiked with Shea, once to the top of Brimstone Head and on another day to the Lion’s Den Trail, a 5.4-kilometre (3.3 miles) loop that starts and ends at the Wireless Relay and Interpretation Centre (Marconi Site). These well-marked,  first-class trails as well the Marconi Site building are exceptional attractions, notable also because they were built by community volunteers. I learned not only about the island’s history, but also about the community’s outlook on the future. Now that the inn that has put them on the proverbial tourist map has opened, the citizens of Fogo Island are holding out hope that in time the buzz will stimulate the economy — left moribund since the federal government banned commercial cod fishing in the 1990s — and improve the infrastructure. There’s also recognition that people will come and their expectations will be high.

“Because a $40-million resort has been built, some roads have been paved,” Shea says. “But there are still some communities that can’t drill to get water. The heart and soul of Fogo Island is the community, we are self reliant and self sufficient, there are no challenges that we are not up to.”