by Edith Cody-Rice
In an effort to encourage readers to share their stories of their vacations or indeed their other personal stories, the Millstone is publishing a few articles by publisher and contributing editor Edith Cody-Rice concerning her travels this year.
It is called iceberg alley, the ocean waters above northern Newfoundland down which spring icebergs flow from Greenland and this year was spectacular. As you may have read St. John’s harbour was crowded with Greenland ice and the number of iceberg sightings spiked. A group of us chose to visit Zita Cobb’s Fogo Island Inn in early May, on the northern tip of this northern Newfoundland off shore isle. It was cold, cloudy and windy and it takes some effort to get there – fly to Gander, then a 1 1/2 hour bus ride to the ferry, a 45 minute ferry ride and on Fogo another 25 minute car ride to the inn itself in the tiny community of Joe Batt’s Arm, Zita’s home town, population 700. But it is worth the drive. The whole experience which included the inn itself, the island, the people and learning about Zita Cobb’s Shorefast Foundation was stimulating as well as intriguing and beautiful.
The inn itself, however, is not for the faint of wallet. Rooms start at $1975 per night, accommodating 2 people. The price includes room, full board (food is outstanding), gratuities, excursions and nearly anything else that strikes your fancy. There are 29 private rooms, all decorated with traditional Newfoundland in mind. Each day, local community hosts, often retired local fisher men and women arrive at the inn to take you wherever – long hikes (hiking is big activity), visits to the heritage village of Tilting, the cod factory or boat building or just a tour of the island which boasts tiny outport villages with names like Seldom and Little Seldom.
The Inn is operated by the Shorefast Foundation whose mission is to build cultural resiliency on Fogo Island. Shorefast is the inspiration of Zita Cobb, a native of Joe Batt’s Arm. Zita was the daughter of a cod fishing family 8th generation descendants of Fogo islanders. She was part of a family of 9, 6 boys, mother and father and Zita when the fishery collapsed in 1992. The isolated island and her family were devastated. Life was already hard. During Zita’s childhood, there was no electricity, no telephones, no radios and it was a cashless culture. Fish were sold to merchants in return for credit at the company store. Anything other than bare essentials and sometimes even those you made yourself.
The story goes that Zita vowed to help her family and in that pursuit obtained a business degree at Carlton University. This led eventually to a career in finance at Ottawa’s JDS Uniphase and to a job as Chief Financial Officer (CFO). She ended her career there as one of the highest paid female executives in North American business. In 2002 she cashed out her stock options realizing a rumoured 69 million dollars and sailed around the world for a few years, eventually winding up back in Fogo. The island was in desperate straits so she set up scholarships but realized that this would only encourage the youth to leave. So, CFO that she is, she set up the Shorefast Foundation with her brothers Tony and Alan to provide a sustainable livelihood on the island. The name came from the line and mooring that secures a traditional cod trap to the shore.
Shorefast has a guiding philosophy, espousing the importance of place which holds the relationships important to all of us. On the Shorefast website, Zita writes
We exist in relationship to the whole. The whole planet, the whole of humanity, the whole of existence. It is our job to find ways to belong to the whole while upholding the specificity of people and place.
Investing millions of her own dollars, she attracted government and agency grants. The result was the inn, and a number of other ventures to not only attract visitors but to conserve a way of life and to encourage business on the island. There is a punt boat building program, started when the Cobbs realized that the only people who know how to build them were dying off. There are micro business loans for start up businesses, and Shorefast has purchased and restored historic buildings on the island.
The Inn itself is an ode to Newfoundland. Designed by a Todd Saunders, an architect who was raised in Gander but now lives in Bergen Norway, it loosely resembles a fishing stage, the traditional building built over the ocean on stilts where a catch is landed, split and salted. The land around the inn and indeed around Joe Batt’s Arm is spare, with lichen and low growing plants that survive the battering of sea winds and the inn rises out of it as out of the water.
Wanting to reflect Newfoundland in all its aspects, she hired local women to make quilts and held competitions for the various design aspects of the hotel. The winner might not be from Fogo, but he or she was paired with a Fogo crafts person to realize the design. Nearly all the furniture for the inn was made locally in a dedicated restored building. The factory now sells its products abroad.
Milling the wood for the floors kept a local lumber mill busy for three years. Each room has a wallpapered wall, as is traditional in Newfoundland homes and many boast wood burning stoves that staff is willing to stoke even late at night if you were returning from a night out. Pakenham’s Paddye Mann makes soft knit throws for the rooms at the inn and I can testify that they are warm and snuggly.
All the rooms face the ocean through floor to ceiling windows and comfortable chairs and binoculars are part of the amenities offered. There are wood burning fireplaces and stoves throughout the inn in private and public spaces. The Inn includes a small cinema and rooftop saunas and hot tubs overlook the ocean.
In short, the atmosphere is both homey and luxurious. The rooms look rustic, but the toilet seats are heated, with built-in bidets for the adventurous.
For food, there is a superb restaurant. We toured the kitchen to learn that they actually forage for items such as Labrador tea and berries and the inn provides seed to locals to grow crops that the inn then purchases. Innovation abounds in recipes, using whatever is locally available. There is an exciting lobster stew available for breakfast each morning. The ethos is to source goods in order of priority from Fogo, then Newfoundland, then Canada, then internationally.This applies to food as well as to other elements of the inn.
And there is a now famous Fogo Island Arts project. Four innovatively designed studios are scattered across the island and artists, filmmakers, writers, musicians, curators, designers, and thinkers are invited to sojourn there for periods of time.
What is most exciting about the visit however, is the inspiration, the philosophy, the attention to every detail. Everything has been thought out. Zita refused to source materials for the inn from countries that do not have good environmental policies or use child labour – no China or India then – which limits options and increases expense. The inn itself is full of symbols of traditional Newfoundland. Even the huge front doors of the Inn have large knobs that reference the white painted dots on the doors of fishing stages. We were told that these dots are there to keep the fisher men and women, who leave harbour in the dark, on the raised wooden path to the stage. But then, Newfoundlanders are superb and inventive story tellers so I can’t tell you if that is true.
The proceeds of the Inn go back to the Shorefast Foundation to support the community and in a gesture to transparency, the inn sets out percentages of income attributed to various aspects of the inn, in a label based on the nutritional information on food products.
Zita Cobb now travels the world speaking to groups about developing sustainable rural communities. She, with the help of her island community, has developed something unique, valuable, intelligent and quintessentially Fogo and it is a thrill to visit it.