August 16th, 2013
The Fogo Island Inn. That’s what you’re looking at—or at least the front end of it. I was snapping pictures with my iPhone and, as wonderful a device as it is, it could not possibly take in the magnificence of this structure, perched on the edge of a point of the land in the community of Joe Batt’s Arm. I just returned from a trip to this astonishing hotel and the environment from which it springs. Never mind pictures. Words will fail me, too, if I don’t calm down. I am still quite buzzed from the whole experience and have vowed to return first chance I get. For a much better selection of photos just visit the web site: http://www.fogoislandinn.ca/
As the world is swiftly learning, the Inn is now on Oprah’s WOW list. Who else could even devise such a list? It is aimed at acknowledging innovation, creativity, and general awesomeness. The Inn has all of that in spades. Marketing for the Inn has also successfully extended to glowing reviews in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and beyond. When I was in Toronto a few weekends ago for a meeting everyone wanted to know about it. Now I am in a much better position to report.
It deserves the attention. It is one thing to stare at the pictures and quite another to experience the place—and by place I am talking about way more than the Inn itself. The chatter around town here in the capital city is all about whether or not the hotel is sustainable. After all, Fogo is in the middle of nowhere. The ambition and scale of the hotel seem, at first, so disconnected from the rugged landscape and hardscrabble existence of the island residents. But being there, soaking up the totality of the dream of the Inn and the vital part it is intended to play for all of Fogo Island, has turned my townie scepticism into deep appreciation and a soaring hope for its future. I have come away from the experience with profound respect for all elements of the project and a firm vow to return as soon as possible.
The driving genius behind the whole exceptional experiment is, as everyone in Newfoundland well knows, Zita Cobb. A native Fogo islander, Zita returned home after years on the mainland with a powerful dream and enough capital to launch a daunting mission. The story is now a familiar one, of how she researched for the right architects and design people to realize the dream of a hi-end hotel. The mission is to stimulate the economy and pay homage to the land that nourished her. For the most part, Zita relied on talented Newfoundlanders to help with the concept, particularly the award-winning Todd Saunders who now lives in Norway. Indeed, there is a decidedly Scandinavian vibe to the Inn with its bleached walls and spare aesthetic, its wood-lined hallways through which natural light filters in delicate streams, its spa, wood stoves, and benches.
So it is that the Inn was conceived as a magnificently refined architectural object, standing, in part, on stilts that evoke fishing stages. Every single exquisite object in the hotel–from the quilts on the beds to the hooked cushions on the colourful handcrafted furniture, from the privacy signs to the room keys to the brilliantly elegant chandeliers of cotton rope, from the rocking chairs to the stunning place-name map in the elevator, from the coasters to the lamps to the writing–literally—on the shower walls–has been designed to quote, honour and respect local tradition and culture. You’d be stunned if you didn’t get it. Each of these elements have all been lovingly created and recreated. There is nothing even remotely kitschy or quaint or frilly or vulgar about any of it. A certain alchemy of design has occurred, a transformation of the everyday into the realm of art. It—and the island winds—will take your breath away.
Zita’s Cobb vision is both imaginative and practical. I wandered into a nearby craft store where three women were busily hooking the colorful threads of cushions that are carefully placed on the wooden benches in the hotel corridors. These women were in non-stop work mode, wiping their brows and proudly acknowledging the intense workload they were carrying because of the Inn. This fact repeated itself everywhere we went. A large slice of the community of all generations and skills has been harnessed to serve the vision—whether shuttling guests to the ferry, taking guests out on a boat to experience the water or to fish, educating visitors about the natural habitat, leading hikes, showcasing any or all of the four artist studios that dot the landscapes like startling cubic constructions as dreamed up by Cocteau, serving the meals…. All these community members have been put to work because of the Inn and were being trained to harness their experience and natural affinity with the place in the service of hosting, welcoming, teaching, and celebrating the island. It is impossible not to feel inspired by the embracing totality of the experience, the Inn being the anchor in the grander long-term scheme of things.
Engagement is the buzzword of the millennium, to be sure, and everyone—from individuals to institutions—is trying to figure out what that means and how best to implement it. The Fogo experience is a model of social and economic engagement and I, for one, have such a better understanding and appreciation of what’s really happening on the ground now that I have been there.
Wow, wow, wow.