You really have to work to get to Fogo Island Inn on Newfoundland’s remote Fogo Island. But the one-of-a-kind Canadian hideaway is worth the effort. After flying into St. John’s, Newfoundland’s capital and the easternmost city in North America, you have to drive more than five hours west to the Farewell ferry station to take a 45-minute ride to Fogo Island, an area that resisted modernization and is deeply proud of its cultural past. Once you land at the dock, it will take you 20 minutes to drive to the boutique hotel, which is in the outport community (localspeak for Fogo’s 11 tiny fishing towns) of Joe Batt’s Arm. Although the hotel is tucked away near the water and not visible from the main road, you will know it when you see it—the white modernist structure juts out of the rocky coastline and sits in stark contrast to the quaint little houses that dot the 110-square-mile island.
Despite its exterior, the new hotel, which opened in June 2013, is all about local tradition (and all profits are funneled back to the community). The building on stilts from architect Todd Saunders, a Newfoundland native who resides in Norway, is a nod to the old Fogo fishing shacks. All 29 rooms are uniquely decorated with items made from area artisans, whether it’s the island-themed wallpaper with punt boats, foxes and great auks (extinct flightless birds that were once native to the region); the handmade wood furniture, such as a gray rocking chair with navy crochet coverings; or the bed’s colorful patchwork quilt (flip it over to see who stitched it; a label said the United Church Women’s group up the road made ours)—and many of the items in the room are sold in Winds and Waves, the local artisans guild shop at the entrance to the road leading to the hotel.
But don’t mistake the artsy touches for an absence of luxury. Underneath that handmade quilt are thick Frette linens, rooms are stocked with white Frette robes and waffle slippers, and a Duravit electronic toilet (with a heated seat and built-in bidet) is in the spacious all-white bathrooms with heated floors. Most accommodations have a wood-burning stove that instantly transforms the airy, wood-filled rooms into cozy dens, and all have floor-to-ceiling views of the Atlantic (spring for Suite 29, a corner spot, to get two walls of windows that let you see the sun rise and set), hardwood floors and white-noise machines that pipe into all spaces. There’s also a library whose aqua shelves are filled with local books, a 37-seat movie theater where you can watch everything from Hollywood blockbusters to short black-and-white documentaries on Fogo’s history, a Finnish sauna and three hot tubs on the rooftop, and a contemporary art gallery that features international artists (Vienna painter Silke Otto-Knapp will debut Questions of Travel on April 16).
Aside from breaking the cookie-cutter design mold, Fogo Island Inn is a destination for ultra-local experiences. In lieu of a concierge, a community host coordinator calls you ahead of your stay to gauge your interests and craft an itinerary with the appropriate Fogo inhabitants (they aren’t hotel employees). Activities run the gamut, but we chose to do an island tour with Clem Dwyer, an in-the-know local, former teacher and woodturner (a type of woodworker; everything and everyone in Fogo seem to have a craft connection). The tour was supposed to last 60 minutes, but our excellent guide took several hours to show us all of the great vantage points (a hike up to Brimstone Head), charming outports (Irish-influenced Tilting), wildlife (a band of caribou munching on a school soccer lawn) and the small but striking studios (also designed by Saunders) that house visiting artists. Dwyer picked up on our art interest and brought us to the studio/home of M’Liz Keefe, a friendly Boston painter who was so inspired by her time there that she planned to return to the island months later to continue her dark, arresting Fogo landscapes. It’s not uncommon to visit the homes of the locals to get a feel for the outport lifestyle—you could make partridgeberry jam tarts in someone’s kitchen or watch a punt boat being built in a nearby shed.
Of course, many activities are tailored to the seasons. When the island freezes over, Fogo offers cross-country skiing, ice-skating and snowshoeing. And when it thaws, there’s hiking, excursions to the nearby Change Islands, cod fishing, whale watching and iceberg hunting. A community host can join you for any activity. Most visitors come to Fogo Island Inn for the culture and outdoorsy adventures, but one of the best reasons to visit is the food. Executive chef Murray McDonald (a native Newfoundlander who’s worked in Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Fairmont Pacific Rim in Vancouver) gives Newfoundland cuisine a relaxed fine-dining spin. And he makes everything he can in-house using local, seasonal ingredients. Anything the kitchen can’t source or forage locally or in Canada is purchased from fair-trade countries.
Menus change frequently, but you’ll have options. For breakfast, go savory with the eggs Benedict with smoked cod, cured pork belly and biscuits, or sweet with whole-wheat crêpes stuffed with slow-roasted pears and topped with juniper syrup and crème fraîche. During lunch, adventurous types can try the fried cod tongue (a local favorite) chowder or the massive moose burger with blue cheese and roasted onions on a brioche bun. At dinner, locally grown, run-of-the-mill root vegetables shine after being roasted in molasses and plated with Ibérico ham, carrot purée and savory chips. Succulent Prince Edward Island beef with a spruce tip and mushroom jus rests on a bed of creamed kale, glazed carrots and potatoes cooked in duck fat atop a wooden slab. And for dessert, a wonderfully smoky chocolate bar with cocoa nib purée and hazelnuts sits on a plate with dabs of juniper jelly and a scoop of blueberry sorbet. All of the artfully plated multicourse meals are free at the all-inclusive, no-tipping hotel, including afternoon tea, snacks and daybreak baskets (at sunrise, wooden baskets with coffee, tea, juice and housemade scones are left at your door). Plus, there are community host activities just for foodies—think foraging outings, berry picking and “boil-ups,” a Newfoundland version of a winter picnic that involves a fire with a fish dish (cod is the main catch in these parts).
The reason to try these hyper-local experiences is that Fogoers, whether they are born-and-raised natives or just temporary artists-in-residence, have a passion for the unusual island that’s infectious and a warm hospitality for their visitors. You’ll have to trek a bit to this far-off destination, but you won’t feel far from home.
Photos Courtesy of Alex Fradkin