Virtually every story about Fogo Island wraps around a moody photo of the inn that Newfoundland-born, Norway-based architect Todd Saunders designed, one of its minimalist white ends perched on two-story steel stilts, all of it standing defiantly on the rocky North Atlantic Ocean coastline.
It’s an image that compels people from around the world to travel to this remote island off the northeast coast of Newfoundland and Labrador and drop $2,000 USD and up a night to stay at the inn (which has a three-night minimum). But it’s also an image that inadvertently causes people to conclude that Fogo is the Fogo Island Inn and nothing more, or that they can’t afford to visit.
Twenty-three hundred Fogo Islanders beg to differ.
I offer the view from the front deck of my vacation home. I can see the inn but also the fact it’s actually perched above all the colorful houses of Joe Batt’s Arm, which is one of 11 communities on the island. I know the island is big enough that it takes half an hour to drive from the Stag Harbour ferry to Riff’s discount store in the town of Fogo. I know it takes another 25 minutes to drive from Brimstone Head, one of the four corners of the flat earth (more on that in a minute) to Tilting, a Catholic village that boasts it’s more Irish than Ireland.
I’ve been coming to this jagged, uneven, art-infused island for six years and still haven’t hiked all the trails, visited all the museums, seen enough puffins or icebergs, eaten enough cod, or met all the artists and makers.
The pace is slow on Fogo and everyone’s favorite past-time is talking. Retired fisherman Ed Foley and his brothers took me winter cabin hopping by snowmobile the first time I visited as a stressed-out newspaper editor staying at the inn for a travel story. He said something that stuck as I was forced to unwind: “If you’re not all right here, there’s something wrong with ya.” Three months later, while dragging my family back to the inn for Mother’s Day, we impulsively bought a house and became CFAs (Come From Aways).
Fogo is part of the ancestral homelands of the Beothuk, the Indigenous people of Newfoundland. The name dates back to the 1520s as Isla (or Ysla) de Fuego (Isle of Fire), a version of a place name the Portuguese and Spanish used in other parts of the world. “It may have referred to fog, shrouding Brimstone Head,” writes folklorist Dale Jarvis in Places Names of Newfoundland and Labrador, noting the island first appeared on maps around 1602, though sometimes as the less evocative Isle of Foggs.
About Brimstone Head — after the short, steep hike to the top of the craggy outcrop there’s a sign nailed to the viewing platform proclaiming you are at one of the four corners of the flat earth. The sign currently shows a triangle connecting Fogo, Papua New Guinea and Hydra, Greece, but it’s less perplexing than the time it was anonymously altered with white tape to show nine corners.
The now-defunct Flat Earth Society of Canada reportedly visited Fogo in the 1970s and declared it one of the edges of the world. Kay Burns curated the Museum of the Flat Earth here for a spell, but as a visual and performance artist who values critical thinking, open-mindedness, interrogation and investigation, she invented the exhibits and stories in her museum/coffeeshop.
Still, the edge-of-the-world mythology has stuck. Both the inn and Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism position Fogo as “one of the four corners of the earth,” and the priciest of the inn’s 29 rooms is called the Flat Earth Suite.
For a purely factual history lesson, I take people to the Fogo Island Marine Interpretation Centre in Seldom, better known as “F.U. Trading” because the main building still bears the old Fishermen’s Union Trading Co. sign.
The tour guides, always enthusiastic summer students, start the story in the late 1950s when Joey Smallwood was the young province’s first premier and the lucrative inshore cod fishery was declining. Smallwood famously gave Fogo Islanders three choices — “resettle, drift and perish, or develop.” They picked the third option.
In something that became known as the Fogo Process, National Film Board filmmaker Colin Low famously then made 67 short films about the lives of Fogo Islanders that helped convince the government that these settlers would collaborate on a sustainable community, launching a co-operative society and building a shipyard to make longliners and fish offshore.
What’s now the Fogo Island Co-operative Society has three plants to process snow crab, cold water shrimp, sea cucumber, Atlantic cod, Greenland halibut, lumpfish, capelin, herring, mackerel and lobster.
Which brings us to the term “fish.” When Newfoundlanders say “fish” they mean cod.
Commercial fisherman Randy Snow took my family jigging for cod once, then gutted and cleaned the 15 we caught — but usually I rely on restaurants. Cod bites and fish cakes at the Cod Jigger are a simple, honest feed. I lived at the Bangbelly Cafe this summer ordering barbecue miso cod, cod and corn chowder and the cod sandwich, sometimes with tartar sauce and shredded lettuce, other times with Sriracha mayo and coleslaw.
Speaking of Fogo food, we’ve never gone berry picking like locals but have eaten bakeapple cheesecake from Beaches Bar & Grill, the topping made from a prized yellow berry also known as cloudberry. Don McKenna, the local jack of all trades who cares for my house, hooked us up with lobster this summer and in return let me serve him his first artisan ice cream cone from Growlers Ice Cream Shop. The Fogo Island Inn quietly runs the seasonal shop in Joe Batt’s Arm, and the signature flavor partridgeberry jam tart combines a tart local berry (popularized by IKEA as lingonberry) and crushed Purity Jam Jam cookies.
I sometimes splurge on a meal at the inn, which is woven into the fabric of modern life here whether you stay there or not.
Visitors don’t always realize that the inn, unveiled in 2013 by Fogo-born Zita Cobb who made a fortune in fiber optics, is a non-tipping community enterprise run by the non-profit Shorefast Foundation she launched with her brothers. Undeniably high room rates quietly include meals and a half-day outing with a community host, like cabin-hopping with the Foley brothers.
I always point people to Fogo’s small inns, bed-and-breakfasts or Airbnbs — and even its campground. But it’s understood that if you say “the inn” on Fogo, you mean the Fogo Island Inn. And since people are so drawn to it, I always share how they can experience the inn on a free tour or at dinner if there’s a table to spare, though both options have become nearly impossible during the pandemic.
Four-course dinner menus change with what the inn cleverly markets as the seven seasons of Fogo — winter, pack ice, spring, trap berth, summer, ferry, and late fall. Executive chef Tim Charles served me exquisite plates this summer working with cod tongue, lamb, lobster, green garlic, lamb’s quarters and white strawberries. Easier to describe was my Isle of Fire cocktail, which mixed Newfoundland rye whisky with molasses stout syrup and molasses and Angostura bitters, and came served with a fleeting display of birch smoke for a foggy effect.
Probably the signature taste of Fogo for me, though, is mustard pickles served alongside humble fish cakes made from salt cod and potatoes. I’m partial to the version Mona Brown sells at Mona’s Quilt & Jam Shop, which doubles as the Hart House Museum. Brown rents out Margaret’s Place, the saltbox house next door.
The Old Salt Box Co. also restores saltbox homes and rents out three of them on Fogo. Named for a shape that resembled the boxes once used to ship salt to Newfoundland, saltbox houses are simple buildings traditionally made of wood with dramatic sloping roofs.
Newfoundland is nicknamed “the Rock” for a reason and many houses, including mine, don’t have basements. Those magnificent stilts that hold the inn up? They’re a nod to traditional outport fishing stages where people still process, salt and dry their fish.
You’ll see fishing stages all over the island and can fill your Fogo days simply admiring traditional and contemporary architecture. In Tilting, the Dwyer Premises (one of about a dozen seasonal museums) showcases a house, store, stage and flakes (platforms to dry cod) associated with the family-based, inshore fishery. Last time I swung by, there was salt cod drying by the sea. Al Dwyer, by the way, leads rapid-paced walking tours of Tilting and Oliver’s Cove, while his brother Roy is a prolific writer and storyteller.
Those four photogenic, off-grid studios that often show up in stories about Fogo? Squish in Tilting, Long in Joe Batt’s Arm, Tower in Shoal Bay and Bridge in Deep Bay were also designed by Saunders and are used for residencies with Fogo Island Arts, another Shorefast initiative.
I used to tell people my bright orange house — while not a saltbox it is at least clad in Newfoundland black spruce clapboard — was down the road from the inn. Now I just say I’m next to Young Studios where artist Adam Young lives, paints, and sells his folk-art style work. A tempestuous painting of the North Atlantic by New Jersey-born islander M’Liz Keefe hangs proudly in our living room facing the sea, and this summer we went to the launch of her gallery J.K. Contemporary.
I still don’t know whether my house is on Main Street or Main Road (it depends who you ask) but I do yearn to live on Herring Cove Road in Shoal Bay. That’s where Winston and Linda Osmond run Herring Cove Art Gallery & Studio. He paints, creates crafts and chats up visitors while tending to a garden and barnyard nearby. She makes exquisite quilts and bottles jams, pickles, and preserves.
A few doors away, metal artist Marc Fiset oversees Fogo Island Metalworks, making things like our custom firepit and the salt cod hooks that hold up my curtains. Fiset, ceramic artist Fraser Carpenter, and potter Lee Danisch just launched the Fogo Island Steel & Stone Gallery to showcase fine metal and ceramic art.
I may not have made it to the Fogo Clay Studio yet, and the Wind and Waves artisans’ guild shop is relocating to Tilting, but I did join a free rug hooking session this summer with Joyce Coffin at the Punt Premises, a cultural interpretation center that showcases and preserves punts (small wooden fishing boats) and Fogo’s boat-building heritage.
And before hiking the Fogo Head trail to the highest point on the island, I stopped into the Lookout for knit socks and heritage mittens and convinced Dale Payne to quickly knit four custom wool hats.
Speaking of hikes, the Fogo island Inn brings in several geologists-in-residence each summer and when not doing research on the volcanic, igneous, and sedimentary rock here they lead free public hikes. My favorite geospot is in Tilting and called the Devil’s Rocking Chair.
When you’re hiking, you might catch sight of Fogo’s resident caribou herd or spot whales and icebergs. Every now and then a polar bear — yes, the Arctic’s apex predator — winds up on shore while hunting seals from the sea ice, reminding everyone how close Nunavut and Greenland actually are.
To see Atlantic puffins — the birds whose colorful beaks inspired the color of my Fogo house —you must take a boat trip to Little Fogo Islands between June and August when thousands of the “clowns of the sea” arrive to breed.
Tony Penton runs Fogo Island Boat Tours and on our last trip out with him and musician Aiden Foley on the MV Island Explorer, we were joined by Ni No Wong, a Toronto florist now living on Fogo.
“It’s too beautiful,” she said as the sky filled with puffins and other seabirds. “It’s unreal.”
We stopped to marvel at a humpback, which repeatedly surfaced and slapped its flipper on the water, sending us a loud but unknown message. And we cruised by my favorite place.
Joe Batt’s Point, at the end of a hiking trail, is home to a six-foot bronze of a flightless bird called the Great Auk. The agile swimmer lived mostly at sea but came to the rocky Funk Island off Fogo to mate. It was long hunted sustainably for its eggs and meat, until it was decimated for the European feather trade and last seen off Newfoundland in 1852.
This memorial to extinct birds is part of American artist Todd McGrain’s Lost Bird Project and he wished for it to “compel us to recognize the finality of our loss, ask us not to forget the Great Auk, and remind us of our duty to prevent further extinction.”
Funk Island now protects other species as an ecological seabird reserve. The auk is immortalized with this statue, a similar one facing the Icelandic island of Eldey, and an ongoing exhibition at the Marine Interpretation Centre.
And Fogo? Unlike the auk, it staved off extinction and is flourishing.