Newfoundland’s Fogo Island: travel to the edge of the Earth, literally

In the eternal struggle to find a place to get away from it all, one small Canadian fishing village is providing travelers with the perfect blend of natural beauty, artistic inspiration and service few far-flung places offer these days.

Fogo Island is an outcropping of nearly treeless rock off northeastern Newfoundland – a Canadian island itself so remote that it has its own time zone, 1.5 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time.

Life on Fogo’s far-flung shores feels eras behind: There are no stoplights or fast-food joints, just time-worn clapboard buildings, about 2,700-rubber booted residents and miles of rocky coastline along the North Atlantic Ocean.

Inspiration and Escape in Nature

It takes a fair bit of effort to reach this corner of the world – which, according to the Flat Earth Society, is indeed home to one of the four corners of the flat Earth, located at Brimstone Head, on Fogo Island’s northwestern coast. From most major cities in the United States, it usually requires two flights, a 60-mile drive from the Gander airport to the ferry harbor in the aptly named mainland town of Farewell, followed by a 45-minute ferry ride, and then another 20-minute drive from Fogo’s ferry harbor.  But once you're there you realize it is worth the effort.

The 92-square-mile island is home to 11 villages, or settlements, all perched along the coastline. Caribou roam the rocky inland, while waves crash against the craggy shoreline as locally built wooden boats called punts bob in the harbors. Outside colorful clapboard houses, fresh laundry flaps in the breeze, and footpaths wind along seaside cliffs and past sheep-dotted fields and tiny cemeteries, some with centuries-old gravestones.

In other words, the place offers infinite sources of inspiration for visiting artists, as well as a sense of escape for today’s travelers, who more than ever are seeking the next off-the-beaten-path destination. Already, they’re beating a path to see the dramatic artist studios scattered around the island, which were designed by award-winning, Newfoundland-born architect Todd Saunders.

Each boasts a distinct design, but they’re all modern, minimalist and off the grid, marking a dramatic shift from the island’s traditional architecture – and making them a powerful symbol a new future for Fogo. One not to miss is the Squish Studio in the town of Tilting, whose strong Irish heritage echoes in residents’ accents. Perched on top of a rocky bluff, the studio, with its crisp white paint and sharp angles, resembles an iceberg – a not-uncommon sight off these shores in the late spring and early summer.

(The studios, most of which are easily accessible from main roads, make for striking photos. But artists currently occupy them during the day, so visitors are encouraged not to distract them by peeking inside.)

Influx of Luxury 

As is the case in many remote fishing towns, or outports, as they’re known among Newfoundlanders, change happens slowly on Fogo Island. But it’s certainly on the horizon here – most notably, in the form of the five-star Fogo Island Inn, which is slated to open this December.

Perched on the rocks just mere steps from the ocean, the 42,000-square-foot inn will feature 29 upscale rooms and a restaurant with a world-class chef, plus a heritage library, an e-cinema showing Canadian films, art gallery and rooftop spa. It also boasts a strict adherence to an eco-friendly philosophy, with solar panels, electric cars for guests’ use and locally inspired and sourced décor. Room rates are expected to run around $400-$500, targeting an upscale clientele looking for a low-key destination steeped in culture, tradition and natural beauty.

The inn is the most anticipated initiative of an ambitious venture by Zita Cobb, the island’s most famous resident. One of seven children, Cobb left the island and made millions in the high-tech industry before returning home, as many proud Newfoundlanders do, only to find her home town in danger of losing its identity as the cod fishing industry continued to deteriorate and population figures plummeted.

So Cobb sprang into action, forming the nonprofit Shorefast Foundation along with her brother Tony. Named for the tether that holds a cod net to the shore, the organization aims to preserve Fogo Island’s past by integrating it into a future based in tourism and the arts. Along with the inn, the foundation has funded construction of four artist studios, with two more in the works, complete with a residency program for guest artists from all over the world. Shorefast also grants microloans to help locals start their own businesses.

By Cobb’s estimate, the inn will need 3,000 guests a year to turn a profit, all of which will be reinvested in the community. And though it’s too soon to tell whether that will happen, the project has already helped generate plenty of buzz about – and new visitors to – this unique part of the world. Artists are already at work in the studios, and Fogo Island was mentioned as one of the New York Times “41 Places To Go in 2011.”

But for Cobb, a key measurement for success happens on a smaller scale: the integration of locals and visitors. For example, the inn, while too expensive a stay for most Fogo Islanders, will offer free public use of its library, gym and cinema. “I think of the inn as a public building with really nice guestrooms,” Cobb says. “If you don’t go in and find [locals] at any time, I think we will have failed.”

Change on Change Islands

A short ferry ride to the west is Change Islands, with a population around 300, many of whom are buzzing these days about the new developments on their neighbor. Although there’s sure to be some spillover effect, it’s a safe bet that, despite its name, the island will hold fast to its sleepy vibe and rich heritage rooted in the fishing industry.

It’s easy to spend a day exploring the island and interact with just a handful of other people. Hiking trails, most notably the spectacular Squid Jiggers Trail, boast breathtaking views of the coastline and glorious solitude for the few hikers who use them. Serene old churches keep their doors open all day so curious passers-by can duck into their peaceful chapels. And there are just two sit-down restaurants on the island, one of which is the dining room of the Seven Oakes Island Inn, a restored, 100-year-old fish merchant’s home that’s now a cozy B&B.

Like its neighbor to the east, Change Islands also boasts some notable renewal projects of its own. There are several efforts underway to restore old shops and stages, the name given to the stilted waterfront platforms  where fisherman bring in the day’s bounty to prepare it for market or a meal. The island also is home to the Change Islands Newfoundland Pony Refuge, a breeding program aimed countering the threatening extinction of this native species.

A few miles down the road, local history buff Peter Porter, a retired marine engineer, is in the process of restoring a 100-year-old bully boat, so named for its ability to maneuver into narrow straights, or tickles, as Newfoundlanders call them. The boat, which Porter rescued from destruction as its then-owner was set to burn it, is believed to be the only one of its kind left in the world, Porter said.

Porter plans to start restoring the boat this fall and hopes to have it ready to put on display next spring, perhaps even for tours on the water. Until then, however, Porter’s superb Olde Shoppe Museum, which he built to resemble an old general store, is about as authentic a look into Newfoundland’s history as one can get. His 300-plus artifacts include a wealth of gems: an 1842 Bible from England, along with a braided lock of hair from its owner, a girl who died at age 12; a piece of the trans-Atlantic cable that stretched from Newfoundland to Europe and could date back as early as 1866; and an 1813 gunpowder horn that’s impossible to put a price on, according to a member of the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow who visited Porter’s museum.

“I’ve been collecting this stuff since I was a kid,” Porter says. “I decided to start a museum so that everybody could see it, and to just keep this [history] alive. And the bully boat will add another piece to that. I just thought it was the right thing to do.”

Which is a sentiment that could very well serve as the underlying philosophy for the new frontier of tourism in this unique corner of the world.

If You Go

Getting to Fogo Island will likely require at least two flights from the United States. The closest airport is in Gander (though some flights arrive late at night); Air Canada offers service to most major cities in the United States. Ferries (which hold vehicles, too) run several times a day, but be sure to arrive around 30 minutes to an hour ahead of departure to make sure you can get on.

The Fogo Island Inn opens this winter, but there are plenty of other B&Bs and house rentals to choose from also. In the town of Fogo, and a short walk from Brimstone Head, is Peg’s B&B, with six cozy, well-appointed rooms (from $80), free wifi and friendly, welcoming service. On Change Islands, soak up grandmotherly love and home cooking from owner Beulah Oake at the Seven Oakes Island Inn, with rooms from $70.

On Fogo Island, the best restaurant by far is Nicole’s Café, which serves up seafood and local Newfoundland favorites in a warm, bustling atmosphere (reservations recommended).  For a hearty lunch, check out Island Bakery (no website; 709-658-7235).

On Change Islands, don’t miss a visit to Peter Porter’s Olde Shoppe Museum (no website; 709-621-4541). It’s open every day, from 9 a.m.-9 p.m., no appointment necessary – just show up, and Porter, who lives next door, will provide a captivating tour – complete with a traditional Newfoundland song on his accordion, or your choice of tunes on the still-working, circa-1960s jukebox.