Travel secrets: how community efforts restored far-out Fogo Island on Canada’s east coast
“We are far away from far away,” Rex, the kind man at the wheel, tells us as we drive closer and closer to the end of the Earth. Quite literally we have travelled to one of the four corners of the planet – according to The Flat Earth Society. Any farther east and we’d be in Europe.
We drive for an hour to a place appropriately named Farewell and catch a ferry to Fogo Island. Rex has packed partridgeberry muffins to snack on, a nice touch after a two-and-a-half hour flight from Montreal to Gander. After an hour on the boat and another 25 minutes in the car, we reach the Fogo Island Inn.
The hotel has been the buzz of the travel industry, gaining accolades and even landing on the Condé Nast Traveller Gold List. Before we even reach the island, we hear about Zita Cobb, the island’s fairy godmother. The folk we meet speak about her with equal parts affection and reverence. We learn all sorts of things about the woman who is credited with bringing the hotel and jobs, lots of jobs, to the island. “Zita made wise investments in fibre optics and made a chunk of money before returning home”; “Zita is whip-smart”; “Zita doesn’t own a TV”; “Zita lives in a modest house bequeathed to her by her uncle”; “Zita is a voracious reader”; “Zita was her high school valedictorian”.
It feels strange to be vacationing on Canada’s east coast. This is where I grew up, in the province of New Brunswick, watching the ebb and flow of the highest tides in the world on the Bay of Fundy. It is a vast, picturesque place. But not when you are a teenager with dreams of being everywhere else.
Canada’s east coast is not its (fiscally) wealthy end. The region is made up of forest and water. Pulp, paper and fishing were the industrial backbone until the cod fishery collapsed, leaving vast unemployment in its wake. Newfoundland eventually struck oil and crept out of the “have-not” bracket, but many in the Maritime provinces are waiting for the fish to return.
It is a simple region, rich in natural beauty and with a reputation for having the friendliest people in the country. People make eye contact and wave hello. Folk seldom move away unless it is for seasonal work in the western oilfields. This place doesn’t much make with the fancy. No luxury hotels, high-end shopping or extravagant gourmet dining. It is a land of simple pleasures done simply. So how did this elaborate hotel end up in middle-of-nowhere Newfoundland?
The hotel is part of Cobb’s social-entrepreneurship vision. She created a charity called the Shorefast Foundation. The hotel, operated in a business trust, is the economic engine for the foundation that also focuses on microloans to generate more local business, and on the promotion of the arts. The inn is a community asset, so 100 per cent of the operating surplus is reinvested into the community.
The hotel desk staff, the cooks, the servers, the cleaners, the musicians, the drivers, the artisans building the furniture, the ladies quilting the bedspreads and weaving the rugs have all benefited from this economic injection.
When we wake up, we look past our toes, out to an entire wall of window, onto a massive expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. The hotel has mastered a warm east coast embrace with its small touches. It starts with a daybreak service: hot coffee and muffins waiting outside our door to help us ease into the day before wandering down to the dining room for breakfast.
The hotel’s decor might be called rustic chic. A wood stove stands in the corner of the bedroom. The custom wallpaper is powder blue with a pattern of caribou. The bed, the shelving, the chairs, the cushions, the rugs and the gorgeous quilts – a cacophony of colour on the bed – are all handmade. With the help of designers, the traditional “down-home” furniture and objects have been turned into modern masterpieces that are built and available for purchase in the workshop across the road. But amid it all there is a nod to newfangled amenities: a white-noise option for troubled sleepers and a fancy toilet operated by remote control.
In the dining room, the menu also serves up a sense of place. My poached eggs are served on buttermilk biscuits with salted cod. And later I discover that the Fogo Island ants dish, served in a braised-goat appetiser at dinner, is not a euphemism.
Fogo Island is 25 kilometres long and 14km wide. It got its name – the Portuguese word for fire – from explorers who passed the island and assumed from its desolate appearance that it had been ravaged by flames. But that did not stop the English and Irish from settling here in the 18th century, drawn by the mighty cod fish.
That fish is the subject of the afternoon we spend with Donna, our “community host”. We leave Joe Batt’s Arm (named for the shape of the inlet and the affection the folk here apparently had for one of Captain James Cook’s deserters) and wind our way through more places with equally delightful names: Seldom, Tilting and Little Seldom. We shop for a quilt and jam, visit a “flake” – the waterside huts where the fish are salted – and tour the Fisherman’s Union Trading Company, a museum where we learnt about the Fogo Island Process: a project by the National Film Board in the 1960s to document the struggles of the individual communities on Fogo Island with the loss of inshore fishery. Back then, the Catholic and Protestant communities didn’t interact much. But when they saw the films, they realised they had much in common. Faced with forced evacuation from Fogo Island, they decided to band together and start a Fishermen’s Co-op to preserve cod – and their community. There is wisdom in getting to know your long-ignored neighbours, it seems.
It just took me a while to figure that out. After 20 years of travelling the world, here I am, in my own backyard, having one of the most special experiences of my life. I’m just glad Zita Cobb figured it out first.
Read this and more stories in Ultratravel magazine, out with The National on Thursday, May 19.