Finding Fogo Island

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The surprising story behind the unlikely luxury hotel at one of the earth’s four corners

Written by
William Daubney Holmes

Photography by
Jim Ryce

Zita Cobb was nine years old when one day in 1967, her dad arrived back at shore from cod fishing off Fogo Island. He had done this his entire life.

It was the only thing he knew how to do. He hauled his small wooden boat up beside the family home in the tiny community of Joe Batt’s Arm. He had a single codfish in his hand. It was all he caught that day. “He slapped it down on the kitchen floor,” recalls Cobb, who says her father then announced to the family “This is the last freaking cod that I’m ever going to try to catch.” Her dad then turned around, walked out the door, and returned to his boat. He had built it himself years earlier. He grabbed a can of kerosene, poured it over the boat, and lit it on fire. Little Zita — who in her nine years had never left Joe Batt’s Arm — watched with what she says was a mixture of confusion and horror.

Joe Batt’s Arm has a rich fisheries heritage. A number of fishing stages can still be seen along the coastline, while others have long disappeared.
Joe Batt’s Arm has a rich fisheries heritage. A number of fishing stages can still be seen along the coastline, while others have long disappeared.

Almost half a century later, at almost that same spot, a helicopter swooped in and landed on the rocks. Gwyneth Paltrow stepped out and spent a few days there, staying at the Fogo Island Inn. The author of a book called It’s All Easy, Paltrow posted a video and a picture of her trip to her 2.6 million Instagram followers, describing Fogo as “#heaven.” Each post prompted hundreds of comments. Most wished her a warm welcome and encouraged her to see more of Newfoundland. A few cautioned that the weather isn’t always so nice.

The Fogo Island Inn opened for business 45 years after Zita Cobb watched her father burn his boat and three years before Gwyneth Paltrow arrived. It could not have been built without Cobb. It cannot continue to exist without the likes of Paltrow. And this luxury hotel in the most unlikely of places may hold the very fate of Fogo Island in it.

Cobb opened the Fogo Island Inn to much fanfare and many naysayers in the spring of 2013 as a design experiment. Her hope was not just to see if wealthy people would pay high prices to stay at a fancy hotel on a remote, largely-barren rock in the North Atlantic (so far, the answer is yes). It was to find out if it’s possible to rebuild an entire economy to replace the one that was struggling, revive a culture that almost disappeared, and get people to move back to an island whose population has been shrinking for decades.

English and Irish settlers established permanent communities on Fogo Island by the early 1700s, lured mainly by the cod fishing. Over the next two centuries, the Island gradually grew to 26 communities and about 6,000 people. Most of the inhabitants built their lives around what was known as the inshore fishery, collecting cod in small boats no more than a few kilometres from shore. They built their own boats, nets, and other equipment. It was a subsistence lifestyle, where people had little in the way of savings or wealth. “There was never this let’s catch more than we need,” says Cobb. “The thing about outport Newfoundlanders was that you catch what you need, take what you need, and that you would go into the winter believing that the cod are going to come back in the spring and then you’ll get some more.”

Fogo Island is located off the northeast coast of Newfoundland, in Eastern Canada. It is approximately 25 kilometres long and 14 kilometres wide.

But there was a problem. By the time Cobb was a girl, international fishing companies were using much larger boats and harvesting far more cod. After about two decades, virtually all the cod were gone from the inshore area. Commercial fishing boats were forced farther out to sea to find the fish. People like Cobb’s father were left destitute. Unable to read or write, he couldn’t get a job on those larger boats because that required being able to use charts. So he burned his and a few years later, moved his entire family off Fogo, unable to make any sort of living.

He wasn’t alone. By the late 1960s, many Fogo Islanders saw no future in their homeland. A series of films produced by the National Film Board of Canada in 1967 exposed the problems of the Island in searing detail. One is a 17-minute interview with fisherman Billy Crane. He stands on the dock in his wool sweater and overalls, tying up rope for fishing nets he will probably never use again. “I got to get out,” he says, although he readily admits he doesn’t want to go. He has no choice. “I don’t want to do it. I’ve been 25 years here now.” The interviewer asks if he’ll return to Fogo after making some money on the mainland. “No. If I can get work, I’m staying on the mainland, taking my family. I won’t come back unless I’m forced back. I got to get out. I can’t do it any longer. The inshore fishery is gone.”

The larger commercial fishery continued until 1992, when the moratorium was announced, and all cod fishing stopped. By that time, thousands of people had followed Billy Crane and the Cobb family off Fogo Island. Entire communities had been abandoned, and there was virtually nothing left of the local economy. Those who remained were mainly collecting welfare. A way of life had collapsed.

Cobb had no plans to return either. Her story is now well-known: off to university, then after a few years, she went to Ottawa to work in the high-tech sector for JDS Fitel. When it was bought out to become JDS Uniphase, she became the company’s financial chief. She made tens of millions when she cashed out in her early 40s. With more than enough money to live for the rest of her life, as she puts it, Cobb spent the next few years sailing around the world on her yacht.

However, the longer she was away from Fogo Island, the urge to return only grew stronger. She missed the place. After seeing so much of the world, she wanted to go home. In 2006, she decided to move back and realized she was in a race against time. By then, no one younger than 40 had any idea what a coastal fishing culture looked like. The way the people of Fogo had lived for centuries was fading fast. Cobb saw that those who knew how to build boats, fix nets, even understand the weather were either dying or continuing to move away.

To her, place is identity. The place where you were born and grew up defines who you are. Everything that goes into making a particular place distinctive is also what shapes the people who are from there. Both were slipping through her fingers. She had the money to do something that could help revive a dying community that was also her home.

“Fogo Islanders are genetically predisposed and culturally predisposed to hospitality, so that part wasn’t all that hard. But then I became obsessed with this idea of what is hospitality really and what is Fogo Island hospitality and how can [we] create a contemporary inn and practise hospitality in our way, in a way that doesn’t diminish people.

Joe Batt’s Arm in the morning. In the past, an arm referred to any settlement that wrapped around an inlet.

“And I’ve travelled enough of the world, I’ve travelled to so many of these places that are so beautiful and so badly serviced by their so-called hospitality industry, which basically goes into places for the most part — 99 per cent of the time subjugates them, in my opinion — sucks out all of the money.”

Cobb has seen the wrong way to do it. And she knew the same mistakes could easily be repeated on Fogo Island if the same old model were employed. So she set about inventing a different one.

Cobb is a business person and understands that world well. She believes that investment and money have the power to do great things. But she also knows they can be counterproductive, even destructive. “I have a funny relationship with money because I don’t trust it. I love business. I think it’s a beautiful tool, it’s a beautiful way of organizing and getting things done.” But she also sees money as a tool for developing a community — not just making more money.

By that, she means social capital, a way of using money and investment to benefit everyone in a community, not just owners and investors. It was her hope that by building the Fogo Island Inn, it would employ local people and help them develop their skills in the hospitality industry. It would restart the furniture-making industry by filling the Inn with local chairs and tables. Then, once word got out that Fogo Island was a place people should visit, other locals would grab the opportunity and open their own hotels, restaurants, and other businesses.

Ultimately, the Inn would not even be owned by Cobb. It would be owned by the Shorefast Foundation, a charity she set up with her brother in 2003. In other words, the Inn and its profits would be owned by everyone on Fogo Island.

But just offering a luxury hotel experience wouldn’t be enough. Cobb saw Fogo Island as a unique place in the world that’s worth saving and should be celebrated. Everything from the lichen-covered rocks to the houses on stilts, the fishing culture, the distinctive handmade wooden boats, the berry picking in late summer, the icebergs and whales, and the character of the people. This is what the Inn would represent.

“It’s a Trojan Horse and it’s a Trojan Horse for a set of ideas. It’s a Trojan Horse for holding on. The goal was to find another way to put another leg on the economy to complement the fishery, which possibly we still have, but to do it in a way that reinforces the sacred, the natural, the cultural, and social capital of this place.”

Even before the hotel was built, Shorefast Foundation was focused on trying to resurrect the culture and the economy. It started a program that would promote the creation and display of contemporary art on the Island. A series of studios were built in various locations, and an artist-in-residence program was created. It began promoting new techniques to fish for cod that were both environmentally sustainable and resulted in a higher quality catch. And it created a million-dollar fund so it could issue microloans to help small businesses get started — particularly ones that attract tourists, help make the Island more self-sufficient, and celebrate local culture.

Bridge Studio sits tucked at the edge of an isolated pond in Deep Bay. It is one of four artist studios designed by Todd Saunders.

The Inn’s budget was $41 million, most of it coming from Cobb. But because she wanted to build something more than just a hotel (the Marriott will never come to Fogo Island, she notes), she needed the community to get behind her, and ideally the provincial government too. Her biggest problem was convincing Fogo Islanders that tourists would actually want to visit. She had to somehow get past the feeling among many locals that the community’s best days were long gone. The fishery was finished; there were few jobs; the weather can be downright scary; there’s little infrastructure; the ferry is often unreliable — the list of negatives seemed endless. And what were the positives? People were at a loss.

Cobb’s idea was to sell the place as a sort of comfort food. A reminder that all of us have a spot on the earth that rests deep in our souls, that we are strongly connected with, and that we want to return to again and again. It may be where we were born and grew up. It’s probably where the defining moments of our lives happened. Going to the Inn would symbolize that place for every guest.

“The landscape is an irresistible landscape, and if you put irresistible architecture with it, well, that’s pretty good. But that’s not what satisfies the human soul; it’s what tickles the human brain. I don’t actually trust the brain. I think the people who come and then come back, come because [of] that sense of wholeness that we all felt on that day when we were seven. You think you grow up and you’re torn to pieces, but you just yearn for that. Maybe it was a second when you felt whole, when you felt a part of the world.”

We needed to do something that was powerful enough to resist the mediocrity that comes with going global.

This, however, wouldn’t be enough to convince the skeptics in the provincial capital, St. John’s. Cobb wanted the government on board. If her idea worked, it would solve a problem for it too, possibly getting people off welfare and bringing much-needed economic development to the region.

So she gave a presentation to the politicians, including former premier Danny Williams, and began by acknowledging that the Inn would have to compete with many other destinations for tourist dollars, many of which are beautiful, stunning even. Cobb showed them pictures of jaw-dropping places from all over the world, just to lay out what the challenge was. There were probably a hundred photos in all, she says.

At the end, the politicians agreed that yes, those have some incredible places. And yes, you really have an uphill battle getting people to go to Fogo Island when there’s all that beauty elsewhere in the world. Then Cobb hit them with the punchline: about 75 of the 100 photos were of Fogo Island.

Construction on the Fogo Island Inn began in 2010, and it opened for business in the spring of 2013. Since then it’s seen a stream of wealthy visitors. Gwyneth Paltrow shone the spotlight on her visit, but most others have come and gone far more quietly. In each case, the experience is one of luxury and can easily cost $1,500 per night for a couple, including meals. It’s not something that’s accessible to most people.

Cobb defends it as a business decision. “And why wouldn’t we just build a more modest little inn instead of a $41-million inn? Because a modest little inn is not going to cross the chasm. We needed to do something that was powerful enough to resist the mediocrity that comes with going global.”

What she means is the sameness of the experience every traveller is familiar with: hotel decor, airports, chain restaurants, Walmart. The world begins to look the same, and there’s no more sense of place. The Fogo Island Inn couldn’t exist anywhere else on earth, says Cobb, “because it’s made of the DNA of this place.”

Earlier this year, she was reminded of this global monoculture when she wanted a coffee in New York City. “I came downstairs at the hotel and said, ‘Where can I go to get a good coffee?’ And she said, ‘Well, you know, there’s a Starbucks.’ And I said, ‘No, no, I would like to find a local coffee shop actually.’ She looked at me. She said, ‘There’s nothing local around here.’”

A corner of the Inn. It was a priority in the building design and furnishing to involve local makers and artisans.
A corner of the Inn. It was a priority in the building design and furnishing to involve local makers and artisans.

The Fogo Island Inn is on track to be profitable by next year, a few years ahead of expectations. It gets gushing reviews in travel sections, is called one of the must-see destinations in Canada, and the architecture has been almost universally praised.

Getting to that point, however, wasn’t always easy. Hardly anyone who lives on Fogo Island had any experience in the hospitality industry, so a commitment to hiring mostly local labour to run a hotel seemed unrealistic at first. As one employee commented early on, it would be far easier just to hire the crew of a cruise ship to run the place. But that wouldn’t be the point, so two years before the Inn even opened, they started a training program — everything from how to make beds to how to set a table and pour wine. They’re still working on the wine. With no history of wine drinking, it was unfamiliar territory for staff to remember how to open a bottle or which side of the diner they should be standing on when pouring it.

All of us have a spot on earth that rests deep in our souls, that we are strongly connected with, and that we want to return to again and again.

Cobb bristles at that level of formality because it’s not in the nature of Fogo Islanders to be like that. They’re still working on striking a balance. “We probably still have ways to go on technical skills in some areas. We want to be informal because as a people we’re informal, but we have to be precise.”

And then there are problems that no one anticipated.

Fogo now finds itself invaded (especially in the summer) by architectural tourists and other day-trippers who dash over to the Island in the morning, take a few pictures of the Inn, blow past a few outport communities, and get back on the afternoon ferry. The staff at the Inn have so far been unable to figure out how to let these people take their pictures without destroying the atmosphere for those who are there for a vacation.

The popularity of the Island has also put a huge strain on the ferry service. In April, when the main ferry broke down and left people stranded, tempers flared so much the police were called in to keep everyone calm. A month later, increased tourist traffic and more breakdowns had people describing the crossing as a nightmare. Wait times just to board the ferry stretched to four and five hours, the washrooms at the mainland terminal stopped working, and crews were unable to keep to the schedule because of how long it took to get people and cars on the boat. In July, a second vessel was put into service to help ease the strain.

Ferry woes aren’t a concern for the Inn’s wealthiest guests. They can simply hire a helicopter to take them over. But for those who aren’t the super rich and for everyone else who lives there, making the crossing will become a bigger and bigger concern if Cobb gets her ultimate wish. She wants a lot more people living on the Island.

Fogo’s population is a matter of debate. The most recent official figure is the 2011 Canadian census. It had the population at 2,395, a substantial decline from five years earlier when it was 2,706. But many on the Island don’t believe the numbers, saying the actual figure is higher. They note that enrolment at the local school was up last year and that some people have moved from places like Toronto just to work at the Inn. The population numbers from the 2016 census should shed some light on the debate when they’re released in February of next year.

A Fogo Islander’s shed in Joe Batt’s Arm.
A Fogo Islander’s shed in Joe Batt’s Arm.

Either way, Cobb wants the population much higher. She’s hoping for 6,000. That’s what it was, she says, when she was a girl. Getting to that number, however, isn’t just about convincing people to come. It’s also about making sure young people have a reason to stay. An after-school program now introduces high school students to local furniture builders and to the fish exporters who are trying to build new businesses as the fishery slowly returns — showing young people that jobs can be had without looking elsewhere.

Cobb’s efforts to transform Fogo Island and its economy into something more meaningful and lasting culminated, in a sense, this past summer. She was named to the Order of Canada, which honours citizens for their dedication to community and service to the nation. It’s an award that goes only to the most prominent Canadians who have made noticeable contributions. Cobb’s reaction was one of extreme modesty, almost embarrassment.

It forced her to compare herself to other Fogo Islanders, some of whom risk their lives to do what they and their ancestors have always done — fish. It reminded her of a moment while watching a group of men heading out to catch crab. “And the weather was going to be turning foul a bit overnight with wind, but they had to go because if they don’t go, they’re going to miss their quota period. It’s only open for a certain time. Anyway, these lovely men come down and all jump onto the boat, and in the fading light they took off the dock line and motored out of the harbour. And they’re going to be gone for five nights. And somebody wants to give me the freaking Order of Canada? Are you kidding? I push papers and sit in a comfortable chair all day.”

And yet Cobb’s ambitions ultimately extend beyond Fogo Island. Shorefast Foundation wants to help other communities do something similar. Fogo Island is now a blueprint to follow for small places looking to revive stagnant economies and local cultures. Shorefast Foundation has produced a tool kit for anyone interested. Inquiries have come in from all over the world, particularly Canada’s west coast and from small Scandinavian towns where economies have been hit hard.

Allison Kouzovnikov is the president of the Shorefast Foundation. She takes the calls and tries to be as encouraging as possible. The model of Fogo, after all, has been a big success.

But she also has some sobering advice for any place looking to try what Fogo has: you need to be totally committed. Either you’re all in, or don’t go in. She says it’s the difference between living with someone and marrying someone. One is easy to walk away from. The other is a promise that you’re in it for the long haul, even when times are tough.

Success, says Kouzovnikov, won’t come easy. “You have to absolutely believe it because it’s really tough. It is just incessant and relentless and hugely challenging.”

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