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Canada: Go to Fogo

It’s all a matter of life and death on Fogo Island. The final resting place for Arctic icebergs, this atmospheric Canadian isle has proved the end of the line for others, too. But it’s also a place of re-birth, caught in the middle of an unlikely renaissance fuelled by a most singular hotel

Canada: Go to Fogo
Fogo Island Inn — a splendid feat of contemporary architecture that combines the features of traditional Newfoundland outport buildings. Image: Stephen Gorman

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The iceberg is the shape of a saddle and about the size of one of Fogo Island’s saltbox houses. As we contemplate it slowly shredding itself against the rocks, my companion, Fergus Foley, turns to me and says: “That’s travelled from Greenland. Probably took two or three years to get here. Lost weight as he came. And that’s where he’ll die.”

It’s early summer on Fogo Island, a speck of land with a population of just 2,400, off the coast of Newfoundland. Together with the adjacent landmass of Labrador, sparsely populated Newfoundland forms the easternmost Canadian province. But strangely, to me, it feels like a breakaway piece of the northern British Isles.

That impression is partly to do with the relatively short flying time (five hours) and negligible, not to say eccentric, time difference of 3.5 hours. But the principal reason is hidden in the way Newfoundlanders speak, and it was this intriguing connection to the old country that has drawn me back to the province for a third visit in as many years.

Fogo Island, like the myriad other islands and inlets along the fretted northern coast, is iceberg Valhalla in June. While the sun shines on the inland ponds, rocky coves and traditional white saltbox houses with their margins of picket fencing, the bergs bob offshore in their infinite variety of shapes. Fergus enthuses about these big blue Arctic emissaries. “They still fascinate me and I’ve been here a lifetime,” he says. Meanwhile, I reflect ruefully that the expiring iceberg’s passage here has, no doubt, been a damned sight less troublesome than my own.

A day earlier, after touching down in the Newfoundland capital of St John’s I hopped in a hire car and drove 260 miles from southeast to north through forested hinterlands to a place called Farewell. There I took my place in the queue for the Fogo Island ferry and waited. And waited. In fact I waited for as long as it’d taken me to cross the Atlantic.

All the while I could hear Zita Cobb’s words in my head: “I can’t think of anywhere in the world worth going to that doesn’t take a whole day to get there.” In 2013, Cobb opened a sophisticated and expensive 29-room hotel here called the Fogo Island Inn — and in the process demonstrated how tourism can preserve a culture and reverse the death throes of a community.

The harbour of Joe Batt's Arm, the village where Zita Cobb was born and raised

The harbour of Joe Batt’s Arm. Image: Stephen Gorman

Finally, at 11.30pm, having squeezed on a decrepit rust bucket of a ferry (a new one is, thankfully, now in service) for the 45-minute crossing to Fogo Island and driven a further 15 miles to a settlement called Joe Batt’s Arm, I spotted the inn against a clear night sky: a pale lozenge lit by windows little bigger than arrow slits on the landward side (those facing the ocean are floor-to-ceiling), apparently floating above the rocky foreshore — an illusion created by its stilts on one side. It’s such a surreal apparition that if you’ve never seen it before, you’re liable to rub your eyes and wonder if it’s extra-terrestrial.

Driving the final few yards, my headlights picked out one of the places where this story — and, indeed, the story of Newfoundland itself — begins: the Anglican graveyard of St John the Evangelist. Lying just above the shore and surrounded by springy ground cover known as barrens, where berries and caribou moss grow, the graveyard is packed with headstones bearing names that originated in the English county of Dorset.

The following morning, beneath a dazzlingly big, cloudless sky, I wander the aisles of names: Cobb, Coffin, Cull, Freake. As early as the 17th century, fishing fleets from the English West Country were coming to these waters for the abundant cod, picking up provisions and crew in southeast Ireland before the long Atlantic haul. And from the 18th century, they started to settle. The majority of Newfoundland’s current population of 500,000 claim English or Irish ancestry and you can hear traces of this past in the way they speak, especially in isolated spots like Fogo Island — “Toime floies,” one fisherman observed to me.

The way of life — fishing, sealing and self-sufficiency — changed little down the centuries. But the modern world caught up with the islanders in 1992, when the Canadian government announced a moratorium on the northern cod fishery and the fishing communities of Newfoundland were hit as hard as Britain’s coalfields in the 1980s.

“We thought we were finished at that point,” Fergus Foley tells me. “I’d say we lost a third of our population, mostly to Alberta.” Fergus has picked me up mid-morning for a spin round the island. Retired, he now works for Fogo Island Inn as one of several ‘community hosts’, giving guests guided tours in his pick-up truck and explaining Fogo’s history and culture along the way.

As we drive along empty roads round sheltered bays, their waters reflecting the clapboard saltbox houses perched along the shore, Fergus talks of Zita Cobb, his near-contemporary: how she grew up on Fogo Island in a poor family; went away and became a senior executive in the fibre-optics industry in California; retired at the age of 43 and caught the ferry home with C$69 million in her back pocket and big ideas in her head. Believing in “business models that are the servants of the environment and culture, not their master,” she sank many millions of her own fortune into conceiving and building the inn and its associated projects, such as artists’ studios, re-investing all profits in the community.

When I open my eyes on my first morning in the inn, the first thing I see is the blue ocean, stretching uninterrupted all the way to Greenland, flecked with those blue-white bergs. Then my eye is drawn to the exquisite decor of white walls, pale wooden floors and coloured fabrics and wallpaper. Every item in the inn is the work of international designers, mediated through the culture of the island (the designers were invited to stay here and immerse themselves in its traditions) and manufactured by Fogo Island craftsmen and women, including boat builders and quilt makers. Almost all of the inn’s 80-plus staff are locals, and the project employs scores more indirectly.

The end of the line

The island is buzzing again, with a renewed pride in its heritage, and Fergus attributes much of its revival to the inn and its vision. As a community host, Fergus has met people from all over the world, many of them in the super-rich bracket who come in on private planes and helicopters to see for themselves this rare example of what Zita calls “entrepreneurial philanthropy” in action.

Others who can’t afford to stay at the inn — one day’s full board for two starts at C$1,575 (£860) — come anyway and stay, as I did on my first visit, in one of the numerous B&Bs that have popped up, like pilot fish, since the inn opened in May 2013. There’s so much to do here, depending on the season: besides the little museums dedicated to the island’s way of life, there are icebergs, birds and whales to watch, boat trips, star-gazing and coastal walks. Or you can simply chew the fat with disarming locals like Fergus.

He drives me to his home village, Tilting — “the best preserved village in the province” — a fishing community of white saltboxes and oxblood-red ‘stages’ (fishermen’s cabins) along the water’s edge, where time is measured by the turning of the tide and other sempiternal phenomena. The Arctic terns which spend every summer on the same rock in the bay have just arrived from Antarctica and soon the capelin, small silver fish of the smelt family, will be rolling onto the beach in Oliver’s Cove to spawn. Fergus’s family, originally from the Waterford area of Ireland, have witnessed such events through “eight or nine generations”. Ancestors lie in the graveyard and their stories live on in his memory.

One such story concerns a Tilting man called Michael Turpin and the fate he is said to have suffered in June 1809. Standing above Sandy Cove, an adjacent crescent of beach, Fergus points out the large rock his father claimed was stained with blood for many years. This was where Turpin was beheaded by a raiding party of Beothuk, the people indigenous to northern Newfoundland, who were completely wiped out by European settlers in the 19th century. “There was a fellow by the name of Will Cull who lived in Shoal Bay,” Fergus tells me. “He would boast about how many Beothuk he killed.” According to the information panel at Sandy Cove, Turpin’s head was found the following year on mainland Newfoundland. It was impaled on a pole next to Exploits River, which flows into Notre Dame Bay on the northern coast.

A life-size bronze of a Beothuk woman ‘walks’ through the forest. This is Shanawdithit, the last survivor and chronicler of the indigenous Beothuk people

A life-size bronze of a Beothuk woman ‘walks’ through the forest. Image: Stephen Gorman

On my journey back from Fogo Island I decide to follow up this neglected part of Newfoundland history by taking a detour into the former Beothuk heartland of Notre Dame Bay. Here, at Boyd’s Cove, is the Beothuk Interpretation Centre (T: 00 1 709 656 3114), where I learn that by the early 1800s, European fishermen and settlers had begun blocking the Beothuks from their food sources along the coast. Plagued by starvation and sickness, their numbers had dwindled to a handful.

Half a mile from the interpretation centre, along a forest path dappled by sunlight, I find the remains of 11 Beothuk dwellings in a clearing above the bay. Nothing is left but indentations in the turf. Among the trees, and easily missed, stands a life-size bronze sculpture of a Beothuk woman ‘walking’ among the shadows. The statue represents Shanawdithit, the last survivor of the Beothuk people, who gave herself up to trappers in 1823 and died in St John’s in 1829. All that’s left of the Beothuks are a few fragments in museums here and there, a small vocabulary of Beothuk words — and Shanawdithit’s extraordinary legacy.

Shortly before she died, probably of tuberculosis, she made a series of drawings — of settlements, encounters with Europeans, dwellings, weapons and so on — that constitute the principal record of Beothuk culture. Reproductions of these drawings are in the official museum and archive of the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador in St John’s, also known as The Rooms (the originals are too precious to display). Beyond its panoramic windows, the core of old St John’s slopes to the harbour in a grid of colourful clapboard houses. I imagined Shanawdithit wandering down these bustling streets, bewildered and ill, knowing she was the end of the line.

Just a few feet away from her drawings is an exhibit that represents the end of another line — a skeleton of the extinct great auk. These flightless, defenceless seabirds, prized for their down and meat, were also victims of European settlers, who killed them in industrial quantities. The last one seen alive anywhere in the world was spotted off Newfoundland in 1852.

Earlier, during my last morning on Fogo Island I’d paid tribute to these two extinct lineages — the Beothuk and the great auk — by walking a coastal trail where ancient people are known to have lived and hunted. The path had threaded out to Joe Batt’s Point, then forked after a couple of miles; the right-hand fork continuing along the coast, the left leading up to a snout of jumbled rocks jutting into the ocean. And here on a flat rock, facing mournfully out to sea, stood a green bronze sculpture of a great auk, part of the Lost Bird Project by the American sculptor Todd McGrain, which memorialises North America’s extinct bird species. His great auk was a head shorter than me. And when I put my arm round it and rapped its hollow body the sound it produced was like a stifled lament.

Adapt or die is the watchword in this harsh North Atlantic environment. Out there on the ocean horizons where the bergs bob, the first settlers appeared more than 300 years ago. Their descendants have come through by finding new ways to stay the same.


Getting there & around
Air Canada has direct daily flights from Heathrow to St John’s. Westjet flies daily from Gatwick until 22 October and will resume in May 2017.

To get to Fogo Island from St John’s, either hire a car and drive, or fly to the regional airport at Gander and pick up a car there; Deer Lake Airport in the west is convenient for Gros Morne National Park and the Northern Peninsula. The Fogo Island ferry, which operates on a first-come, first-served basis several times a day, costs C$18.15 (£10.80) return for a car and driver; additional passengers C$6.05 (£3.60).

Where to stay
Fogo Island Inn
Quintal House
Sheraton, St John’s
Landwash Lodging

More info

How to do it
Bridge & Wickers offers three nights in St John’s and three in the Fogo Island Inn from £2,285 per person, including international flights, car hire and ferry.

Published in the October 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)