A few days ago I posted about the first part of our trip to Newfoundland. The saga continues. We checked out of our St. John’s hotel at the ungodly hour of 5:00 am. When Siobhan, the sweet front desk clerk, heard we were headed to Fogo Island, she squealed. That’s home for her. Her parents are still living there, in the village of Tilting. We jokingly said we’d say hi for her.
We hopped onto the Trans Canada Highway (TCH) at Mile Zero. The world’s longest national highway, the TCH stretches across Canada from St. John’s Newfoundland on the East Coast, to Victoria B.C. on the West Coast, a whopping 7,821 km (4,860 miles) long. Mrs. Grizzly and I napped in the back seat while Mr. Grizzly expertly navigated my husband through a dense early morning fog. We were startled awake by this sound
followed quickly by this
as Mr Grizzly ripped into the bag of All-Dressed Potato Chips at 7:45 am. It was going to be a fun ride.
We arrived in Farewell Newfoundland about 11:00 am and patiently waited to take the ferry across to Fogo Island. As we were buying our tickets, they asked if anyone in our group qualified for the senior’s discount – age 60 here. My husband, who reached this magic age the day before, was thrilled to receive his first senior benefit!
I had done a little reading before coming to Fogo Island, but nothing really prepared me for my experience here. Although I had seen a few photos online, driving up the winding gravel lane, rounding the corner and finally seeing The Fogo Island Inn come into view was surreal.This contemporary building, all angles and lines, was such a stark contrast to the raw rocky coastal setting. One end of the building is balanced on what on what looks like stilts, rising almost three storeys up into the air, supporting the inn’s dining room. I later learned that these stilts were modelled after pilotis, the wooden stilts that support the traditional stages set up by fishermen to lay out the salted and drying cod.
Fogo Island Inn is the brainchild of Zita Cobb. Ms. Cobb, one of seven children, was born and raised on Fogo in a home with no electricity or running water. Those amenities didn’t arrive on the island until 1972. She left Fogo at age 16 to study business at Carleton University in Ottawa. Within 20 years, she made a name and quite a fortune for herself in the high-tech industry (fibre optics at JDS Uniphase). In 2001 she exercised her stock options and cashed out with close to $70 million dollars. She took off to sail around the world, but the pull of Fogo Island was very strong and brought her back there in 2005.
Cod fishing has been critical to the economy of Newfoundland for centuries. However, due to greed and overfishing, stocks of cod became depleted and in 1993 the Federal Government declared a moratorium on cod fishing. This caused a collapse of the fishing industry in the province and Fogo Island was especially hit hard.
Zita returned with the goal of giving back to her declining community. Initially she set up scholarships for the youth of Fogo Island, but during a town hall meeting one resident approached her and said that while she appreciated everything Zita was trying to do, scholarships would just encourage people leave rather than building a better place for them to stay. As Oprah would say, Zita had an “aha” moment.
Rethinking her strategy, together with her brother Anthony, Zita established the Shorefast Foundation with the mandate of revitalizing the island by preserving local culture and making it a geotourism destination. Zita calls this “entrepreneurial philanthropy”.
The foundation’s main initiative was the building of Fogo Island Inn, which opened for business in 2013. Inn employees receive 15% of gross revenues in addition to their salary. Any profits from the Inn are reinvested by the Foundation, via micro-finance loans to local small businesses.
Fogo Island Inn is truly a love letter to the island. The Foundation hired award winning Norway architect Todd Saunders to design and oversee the building of the inn. Originally from Gander Newfoundland, Todd had an innate understanding of Zita’s vision and worked tirelessly to bring it to fruition.Local love continues on the inside as well. Island carpenters and artisans used native spruce, birch and fir trees to craft all the furnishings for the inn. The beautiful quilts on all the beds were handcrafted by the women on the island. Even the light fixtures in the dining room, designed to suggest white fishing nets, were crafted by local artists.While there’s no denying the beauty of Fogo Island and the Inn, for me it was the people that made the place extraordinary. Fogo Island Inn has created a “community host” program with the intention of getting guests to spend some one-on-one time with locals. On our first afternoon, we were introduced to Fergus, who took us hiking. Formerly employed by the Canadian Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans, hearing his perspective on the cod industry was enlightening. We were schooled on the local topography (mostly granite), native livestock, and learned a little about the history of the the local colourful “saltbox” houses. The trail we hiked ended in the village of Tilting. Fergus led us to “Da Shed” for a drink. Strangely, for a population that has such strong Irish roots, there are no pubs in Tilting. The local custom is to invite friends and neighbours (and clearly complete strangers as well), into your shed (which houses mostly fishing gear and tools) for a drink and chat. Because of a lack of liquor licence you don’t buy your drink, but rather, “make a contribution.”
We visited Phil and Maureen Foley’s shed. Reminiscent of my first student apartment, the shed was brimming with overstuffed couches and chairs that had seen better days. The walls were plastered with posters. We started chatting with Phil and discovered that he is the dad of the hotel clerk we met that morning in St. John’s! Small world. We were introduced to Phil’s brother and sister-in-law (Gerry and Darlene) as well as several other locals. After about 15 minutes of small talk Phil asked us if we had a song to share. WHAT??? Apparently shed culture involves singsongs as well. Gerry whipped out his guitar and started in on a beautiful haunting Irish melody. Phil, and then his wife Maureen also entertained us with some traditional Celtic tunes.
My initial instinct was to whip out my camera and record the performances. But an inner voice told me to sit still, be present in the moment and savour it. Somehow we have started to believe that every moment of our lives needs to be documented, and in doing so, we miss the being part of the moment.
I will admit to coming home and Googling Maureen, to see if anyone else had recorded her, so I could share it with you guys, and sure enough, there she was. Click here to check her out.
Chef Murray MacDonald is at the helm in the Fogo Island kitchen. A fellow native Newfoundlander, he left the island at age 18 to attend culinary school in P.E.I. He then honed his skills, travelling and cooking in Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, New Zealand, China, and Mexico. Just like Zita, he travelled around the world, only to find his way back home. And, just like Zita, he believes in honouring and preserving the traditions of the past.
At heart Chef Murray is a locavore with a strong survivalist spirit. “We are doing what our ancestors did a hundred years ago, using our ingenuity to forage, gather and cook. Back then they worked with what they had to survive…Our menu is focused on wild things from the North Atlantic and local seasonal produce.” He talks about the importance of having one foot in the past while looking to the future, in order to stay relevant. His kitchen motto is “Find new ways with old things.”
Foraging for ingredients is one of his favourite pastimes. While we were there we had a chance to taste pasta created with sea urchin, found on the rocks by the shore, just beyond the kitchen door. And, as a side note, can I just say how happy it made me to discover that his guilty pleasure food is bologna!He gathers springy caribou moss by the shore and candies it to serve with yogurt and berries!Everything in the kitchen is made from scratch and the inn’s very talented pastry chef, Kara Lackie, has an incredibly light touch with biscuits and scones. They almost floated off the plate.Fogo Island also happens to be one big berry patch. We discovered this as we were hiking and I kept stepping all over these red berries and squishing them. I later learned that they are called “partrige berries” and the island is literally covered in them. They found their way into scones as well as my morning fruit bowl.It’s possible that some cod flavoured kook-aid was slipped into my morning latte, because the next thing I knew, I was agreeing to go on a Cod Fishing expedition. I typically avoid all forms of watercraft, due to a proclivity toward motion sickness.
The unflappable housekeeping supervisor, Rosemarie, outfitted us in bright orange rain slickers, mittens and hats. As we were leaving, she slipped a bottle of Non-Drowsy Gravol into my pocket. Nine of us set out on the M/V Ketanja with Captain Emberley for a three hour tour. We’re all smiles as we board the boat. Once we moved out into deeper waters Captain Emberley cut the motor and gave us all a chance to try our hand at cod jigging. Jigging basically involves the use of lures attached to a line which is “jigged” or moved up and down in a series of short movements. The jigging motion attracts the fish, which are hooked as they move close to the lure. The line is then hauled onboard and the fish removed. I passed on my turn to try my hand at jigging. Non drowsy Gravol did not work too well for me
Luckily everyone caught their fish quite quickly and we were soon moving again towards our next destination, Little Fogo Island. Once a vibrant fishing village, the only full-time residents on this tiny archipelago are puffins and razorbills. The steep cliffs on the island meant that the fish stages (platforms for drying salted cod) had to be be built on posts. You can still see several of them dotted around the shore of the island.Little Fogo Island is home to summer cottages now. We had a chance to visit Captain Emberley’s grandfather’s cottage, and check on the progress of the new cottage he is building for his family. There is a charming church on the island, and once each summer a priest comes out to hold mass to honour all of Fogo island’s departed residents. We arrived back at Fogo Island Inn, a little nauseous, but happy to have checked cod fishing off my life’s “To Do” list.
On our last night at the Inn, we began chatting with our young waitress. When we asked her what changes she has noticed since the opening of the Inn, her answer surprised us. She said that of course the Island has begun to prosper financially, but what she noticed even more was a change within her.
No different than most kids living in a small town, she said she wanted nothing more than to leave the Island when she became an adult. She headed off to Halifax when she turned 18 but became quite homesick. She moved a little closer, to St. John’s and then when the Inn opened in 2013 she came home. All of the sudden she began to see Fogo Island through the eyes of all the guests coming to visit. They gushed about the raw beauty and unspoiled terrain. She had taken it for granted all her life, and seeing it through a different lens made her really appreciate what she had all along. I guess there’s no place like home after all!