June 30, 2014
On this rocky and moody promontory, off Canada’s northeasternmost province, four seasons have never been enough. June was the time to put out the cod traps. But the cod industry that defined the island and its people for centuries has vastly diminished.
So scrappy Fogo Islanders and the nearby fishing community Twillingate created a tourist industry out of something that’s been the bane of fishermen: icebergs. “The ‘invading giants’ come into our nets and cod traps,” one told me. The local tourism board has even gone so far as launching a GPS iceberg tracking program at icebergfinder.com.
Each spring, enormous blocks of glacier ice calve off the “mothership” in Greenland and meander down the North Atlantic’s “Iceberg Alley.” Wind and underwater waves carve them into fascinating, beautiful shapes. Some have caves and tunnels, or dramatic waterline notches that speak to some millennia-old environmental event.
Fogo Island This year has been a bumper season for the bergs; locals say it’s the most in 25 years.
Modal Trigger The berg-filled view from The Anchor Inn Hotel.
I counted a half-dozen distant bergs during the 45-minute crossing on the ferry from . But I got an amazing view as soon as we disembarked: A huge, turquoise cube floating so close I could swim out to it. It looked like a modernist house at sea.
The block-like berg was meandering toward a cove where it was sure to get lodged in. By next morning it was. “She’ll be here till she melts,” Colleen Higgins, an islander who gave me a lift from Gander, the closest airport, said.
We drove along a changing landscape — from verdant to barren, otherworldly, lichen-covered rock — until we arrived at Fogo Island Inn (from $875; fogoislandinn.ca), designed by Newfoundland-born architect Todd Saunders and built on stilts — it’s a new luxury hotel to go with a new tourist industry. which also includes a well-regarded artists-in-residence program featuring studios designed by Saunders, as well.
(More budget conscious travelers will want to stay at Quintal House B&B, a charmingly restored 19th century fisherman’s house (from $125; quintalhouse.ca)).
Through binoculars and picture windows in my room at the posh inn, I looked out onto a parade of icebergs. I could only tear myself away knowing I was soon going to be rowing up close to them.
The Anchor Inn Hotel offers iceberg outing options by way of a large tour boat (above), zodiac or kayak.
The inn hooks guests up with community hosts — locals who introduce you to important components of island heritage: Rug-hooking, for example, or fishing and foraging.
I chose to learn about punts, or wooden rowboats, once key transportation on an island that didn’t have roads until the 20th century and now an endangered craft.
A new initiative to resurrect the once ubiquitous punts includes “The Great Fogo Island Punt Race To There And Back,” an 8-mile race through open waters held every July (fogoislandregatta.com).
Local Jason Penton took me out in his punt. I tried gamely if not ably to keep up with his rhythm as he churned the long, narrow oars through the North Atlantic. Penton told me he received his punt as a wedding present and I wasn’t sure if he was joking when he said he and his wife Ashley spent their wedding night in the boat.
The warm evening ride — past bergs, pine saltbox houses and fishing stores — ended only when veteran fisherman Pete Decker, who officially starts the punt race each year by firing his antique muzzleloader, called us in for gin and tonics in his harborside living room.
Decker was giddy as a kid when he told me to listen to the snap, crackle, pop of the 10,000-year-old ice cube he slipped into my drink. “That’s iceberg ice,” he said.
Later at the inn, guests dined on exquisite snow crab and seaweed meringue — star chef Murray McDonald uses local products for his restaurant, which was recently voted one of the best new eateries in Canada.
Modal Trigger The Todd Saunders-designed Fogo Island Inn We all watched out the window, amazed, as an iceberg flipped over with a magnificent cracking sound, like fireworks. Dinner and a show.
After Fogo, I headed with a friend, Janice, to nearby Twillingate, a picture-postcard fishing town and the self-styled iceberg capital of the world. Janice and I did a turn around the harbor to count the bergs. But they like to trick you, showing different sides — angles changed, icebergs would disappear, then appear with two more beside it.
We thought we counted 18 before a lunch of lobster and mussels at Doyle Sansome & Sons Lobster Pool. Overlooking the harbor with the sun on our faces and icebergs in the distance was up there with “My life doesn’t get any better” moments.
Come nighttime, Georgie’s Restaurant at the Anchor Inn is the place to be in Twillingate. Guests mingled in the dining room, everyone exchanging iPads to show off pictures of bergs they saw. One couple boasted a triple-whammy spotting: A mother and baby whale next to an iceberg.
Iceberg outing options include a large tour boat, zodiac (a small inflatable boat) or kayak. The zodiac fit my needs: You can get up close to the bergs but crucially get out fast too, if they decided to turn on you.
Grant Cudmore, of OQ Close Encounters (709-422-1111), took us via zodiac to bergs of such incredible shapes we became like daydreaming children “That one looks like a mushroom.” “No way, a soccer stadium.” Grant told us of the time a polar bear got stranded on an iceberg and was forced to take a cruise down the North Atlantic, and an old fighter jet found embedded in another.
As the sun set we lingered, bobbing by a spectacular wedge-shaped berg near the harbor with a thick blue strip that made it look illuminated from within. This one we all agreed looked like “wow.”
How to go: Air Canada and United serve Gander, Newfoundland from New York via Toronto or Halifax. Go now: ‘Berg season lasts through July.
A dish best served cold
Where to eat on Fogo
1) There’s excellent chowder and chatter on offer at Nicole’s Cafe next to the Quinatal Inn.
2) Try a scoop of partridgeberry ice-cream at Growler’s Ice Cream — a growler, PS, is a small iceberg (125 Main Road, Joe Batt’s Arm).
3) Crow’s Nest Cafe is a great little java and sandwich joint.
4) Visitors can also bear witness to the slow comeback of the fishing industry thanks to the Fogo Island Cod Pod, a newly sustainable method of baited fishing.