A 45 minute ferry brought us to this magical 91.78 sq mi island which has its own time zone (1.5 hours ahead of EST) and is the largest of the offshore islands of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Home to a population of only about 2,400 people (as of 2011), it’s a fascinating place with some very cool things happening in recent years.
From Sydney, Nova Scotia on the mainland of Canada, it’s a six-hour ferry to Newfoundland (Channel-Port aux Basques). If you’re driving, it’s a roughly 7.5-hour drive from Channel-Port aux Basques to Port Albert where you will have to take another 45-minute ferry to Fogo Island. Residents of Newfoundland will warn you not to drive at dawn, dusk, or when it’s dark. The moose are as common as squirrels, only much bigger than your car.
If you have heard of Fogo Island, you may have heard the name Zita Cobb. Zita was born on the island, but ended up living and working all over the world before returning with a mission to revitalize the community. She founded the Shorefast Foundation, a non-profit with a rehabilitation strategy based on the arts, geotourism, and incentives for local entrepreneurs.
Fogo Island was originally a fishing community with many of its ancestors immigrating directly from Ireland and England. In fact, it is not uncommon to hear Irish accents while wandering more remote parts of Newfoundland; a surprise to us. Cod fishing was the main source of income, usually bartered for whatever was needed at the local market until, in 1992, the Canadian government prohibited fishing due to the diminishing cod population. This was a devastating blow to the residents and economy of the island. Since then, Zita has invested millions of her own dollars into some very creative ways to put Fogo Island back “on the map.”
Fogo Island Arts is responsible for six contemporary artist studios, available for residencies, as well as the Fogo Island Inn. All of the buildings, designed by renowned architect Todd Saunders (who was born in nearby Gander), are influenced by the heritage, landscape and tradition of craft that is native to this area. The design of each structure is as much about the natural landscape as it is the architecture itself. Hike down a path on the outskirts of Joe Batt’s Arm and as you climb over the crest of a hill on the coast, you will find absolutely nothing except for one of the most beautiful examples of contemporary architecture in North America.
The most unique aspect of the Fogo Island Inn’s design nods to the stilts that many of the fishing shacks are perched on and, despite its size, the building blends into the landscape amazingly well. When the inn first opened, residents of the island were each given a free night’s stay. Rooms rates start at $875 per night with a minimum stay of two nights, so that is quite a thoughtful gift. Besides bringing tourists from all over the world, the inn has given jobs to many locals as well. On top of that, 100% of operating surpluses are reinvested into the community.
It is extremely important that the history and culture of a place are not lost in such pivotal moments as these. The Shorefast Foundation is developing tools, resources and a “new model for economic and cultural resilience” that will be useful for plenty of other rural places with the same issues as Fogo Island. “We believe that our approach and processes can translate well to other places … The 11 communities on Fogo Island are good proxies for other small communities and a small island is a good proxy for a small planet” (Shorefast Foundation, Our Foundation, n.d.).