This Is the Most Remote and Magical Hotel on Earth
Newfoundland’s Fogo Island Inn offers a different kind of island getaway.
There are no signs leading to the Fogo Island Inn. That’s how hard it is to miss the place. Designed by architect Todd Saunders, who grew up in nearby Gander, the building takes its inspiration from the fishing shacks that dot the shoreline, sagging on old wooden stilts, but it was also made with the dimensions of a cruising vessel. Three hundred feet long by 30 feet wide. Like a ship that’s just sailed into harbor.
For decades, the flow of traffic in this community off the Newfoundland coast had moved in one direction: away. Fewer than 2,500 people live on an island four times the size of Manhattan. But the inn, the brainchild of Fogo Island native and tech millionaire Zita Cobb, reversed that trend when it was completed in 2013. Strangers now come from around the world to see the island, whose unspoiled landscape makes it a coveted spot for the under-the-radar traveler.
It’s not an easy journey. It takes three plane rides from my home in Dallas, plus an overnight stay in Gander, an hourlong drive to the ferry, and a 45-minute commute across icy water to reach the island. But from the moment my car pulls up, I’m astounded. The crescent-shaped shoreline banked with snow. That sleek, modern building against the unbroken blue sky. Farther down the coast you can see modest saltbox houses dating back to another era, when a father built a home with his own hands and best guesses.
What a trip to the island looks like will shift according to the season you visit. Mother Nature makes the rules around here, and she takes wild swings. In the summer, you can hike along trails fabled for their beauty. In the fall, you can pick native berries. In the spring, you’ll spot glaciers floating south from Greenland. I’ve arrived in February, the thick of winter, when the landscape is piled high with snow and the spruce are covered in exoskeletons of ice.
When I get to my room, one of 29 suites tastefully decorated with locally built furniture, I’m immediately drawn to a floor-to-ceiling window that looks out onto the Atlantic. The ocean crashes on the rocks as I kick up my feet on a leather ottoman and dig into the welcome basket left for me: warm, handmade bread served with butter and molasses. I’ve never heard of the combination before, but as the slow, sweet syrup drips down my fingers, all I can wonder is what took me so long to try it.
After a day of settling into the cozy interior, it’s time to brave the outdoors. “Have you ever been on a Ski-Doo?” someone at the inn asks me. I’m from Texas, I explain. I’ve never even heard of a Ski-Doo. So I’m bundled up in durable cold-weather gear by nurturing female staff members and sent out on an adventure. A Ski-Doo turns out to be like a motorcycle built for snow. My guide is Ferg, a retired local who grew up in nearby Tilting. A tall, friendly man with a mustache, he has a voice that carries the sound of his Irish ancestors who settled this island.
“Nervous?” he asks as I mount the seat behind him. I shake my head unconvincingly. “You’ll be as safe as you are in God’s pocket.” I squeeze the leather grips on either side of my seat, and we roar off into the unknown forest.
The story of Fogo Island Inn is as singular as the place itself. It begins with Cobb, who calls her childhood on the island “something from another century.” No electricity. No paved roads. As a little girl, she used to help dig a grave before winter came. “You knew someone was going to die,” she says, and if the ground was frozen, the body would have no place to go. “As a kid, you would think: That could be anybody. That could be me.”
She adored her father, a cod fisherman. For many years, cod had been so plentiful in the area that one folktale claimed you could walk across the ocean on the backs of the fish. But by the 1960s, half the fishermen of Fogo Island were on welfare, victims of overzealous foreign boats that had depleted the supply. By the ’90s, the government called for a moratorium on fishing. “My dad died of a broken heart,” Cobb says.
She left her childhood home at 16 and studied business, eventually becoming chief financial officer for fiber-optics company JDS Uniphase, which has offices in San Jose and Ottawa. By the time she retired at 42, she had $69 million. Both her parents had died young, and Cobb had a keen sense of the ticking clock. She sailed the globe for five years. Then, at a time when she could have gone anywhere, she moved home, putting her money into an inn she doesn’t even own. Instead, it’s owned by the Shorefast Foundation, a charity Cobb started; any profits are reinvested right back into the community.
“I intend to die broke,” she says. “I started with zero. I’ll go back to zero. What am I going to need it for?”
Cobb, 57, is trim and athletic, nimble in conversation, eloquent. She lives in a modest house, no fancier than the others, and locals talk about her the way people from Hope, Ark., might talk about Bill Clinton—like they can’t believe anyone so big came from someplace so small. “The idea of the inn was the easy part,” she says. She found inspiration in the Basque country, which celebrates its cod-fishing heritage in design, and in Japanese ryokans, where quiet precision is elevated to an art form. At the same time, her travels showed her how much of the world had been flattened by commerce—one joyless strip mall after another. If she has a religion, she says, it’s the sacredness of place.
So she came up with the idea of an inn. Not a “hotel,” mind you, and certainly not a resort. But a place for travelers, a ship of sorts that could carry the island’s past into a new future. We’re seated in the dining room, where a wall of windows offers an ocean vista that makes me feel as if I’m in the highly stylized finale of a Hitchcock film. The chandelier above is made of fishing rope. The furniture is hand-built, and each piece tells a story. Cobb points to her extra-wide wooden chair and explains that a large man named Pete Decker had seen an earlier version and worried his rump wouldn’t fit. So they made him a seat at 1½ times the width, which turns out to be a comfy size for just about anybody. She calls it the Pete Decker chair.
Building the inn wasn’t easy. “It almost killed me,” Cobb says, which is a joke—but not entirely, I sense. She was obsessed with making everything local and by hand. The stories of her attention to detail are legendary. On the night I arrived, she ran into a yellow “wet floor” sign in the slick hallway; she later told me how horrified she was to find a flimsy piece of plastic on display. “We could have made that,” she says. One of her favorite reactions to the inn was from a skeptical local, who came in to check out the place, looked around, and said, “Well, at least you built it old.”
Cobb believes in the beauty of paying attention, the joy of human contact, the natural high of a day of physical exertion. “We have sacrificed so much richness in the name of efficiency and speed,” she says. She sees Western rootlessness as one of the sources of our unhappiness. We’re always moving around, breaking with our past, starting over, reinventing. The same with furniture, objects, homes: Buy, use, discard, start over again, as though disposal were the point, not preservation. Perhaps the most stunning structures on the island are the group of four studios Saunders designed for artists-in-residence, run by Fogo Island Arts and funded by Shorefast. The buildings are so striking—the streamlined modern design against the backdrop of untrammeled countryside—that Apple featured one in a commercial for the iPhone 5 (the “squish studio,” so named because of its curious twisted shape). The visiting artists—painters, filmmakers, writers, and others—who use the workspaces apply to Fogo Island Arts for residencies lasting anywhere from two weeks to six months.
A waitress arrives to describe the evening’s dessert, a chocolate concoction drizzled with a magenta sauce called partridgeberry. “This is going to be the best part,” Cobb says, dipping her finger in the red sauce and dabbing it on her tongue. Partridgeberry, a bit like a cranberry, is her favorite fruit on the island. During the first weeks at the inn, she served orange juice in the mornings. Oranges aren’t native, but she figured she could get away with it. Then she ran into a local woman at the store who told her, “I bet if you asked any one of the berries on our island, they’d like to be a juice, too.” Now the inn serves partridgeberry juice each morning. Like the warm bread and molasses, it’s something that belongs to only this place.
By the time we finish dinner, snow is coming down so fast it’s hard to see. Wind lashes the windows. Earlier in the evening, we got word that the manager had run off the road in his car. (He was fine.) Cobb buttons up her thick wool coat. “This is nothing,” she says and wraps herself in a scarf before heading into the howling night.
The next morning, the ocean is frozen as far as the eye travels. It’s a cracked expanse of blue-white I spy from my cozy chair as I drink the partridgeberry juice and coffee that’s been delicately left outside my door at daybreak. That afternoon I meet Ferg in the downstairs lobby, and we head out on the Ski-Doo.
“You couldn’t have picked a better day,” he says over his shoulder, as we bounce along under a clear blue sky, and though I suspect Ferg is the kind of optimist who says this to every visitor, this time he may be right.
We disembark at a small cabin he built with his own hands, where his wife sits inside next to a fire, working on a crossword puzzle with her feet tucked underneath her. In a strange reverse of mainland logic, Fogo Islanders “get away” by leaving the shore, where all the houses are built, and so the cabins have been constructed in the interior, hidden in the forest. A fox comes up to the side of the cabin, then wanders off.
I put on a pair of snowshoes, like tennis rackets strapped onto my boots, and we head out for an afternoon hike. The cold air is bracing. Ferg sings behind me as we weave through the spruce and up to a hill that looks out over the entire island.
Back at the warm cabin, Ferg and I sit by the window watching the sun sink. The icicles on the trees have turned a magnificent silver. In Newfoundland, the word for sleet is “glittering,” which makes total sense to me now. I hadn’t understood tinsel until that moment.
Ferg tells the story of a big-time business guy who visited from Los Angeles not so long ago. As a glorious sunset fanned across the sky, the businessman said to Ferg, “You don’t see it, do you?” Ferg wasn’t sure. It’s taken other people coming here for him to see what’s special about this place, and it’s taken him staying here for those people to get a chance to experience it so fully. It’s a mutually sustaining system, each party helping the other to be more awake.
The sky is a deep violet when he drives me back on the Ski-Doo. The wind whips against my body as I hold on to him from the back. He halts in the thick of the forest for a moment and takes off his helmet. My ears fill with a buzzing silence. “I didn’t want you to miss it,” he says, pointing up to the stars.
Rooms at Fogo Island Inn begin at $1,235 for two people per night, including all meals, and feature floor-to-ceiling windows and walk-in showers.