Fogo Island has another side….an intentionally contrasting side. One of art and architecture, where life is lived in the contridiction. And I hate to say it, but also what appears at first glance to be obscene opulence. But I was quick to judge it seems, as it bears further examination.
Mention “Fogo Island,” and those who are familiar will chuckle and ask tongue and cheek, “So did you stay at the Inn?” Fogo Island Inn, built in 2013, a 29 room luxury hotel, is getting a crazy amount of press these days. In fact, just this past month, Travel & Leisure ranked it as the best hotel in Canada, and #12 in the world overall. It’s helping put the island on the map. But for greater reasons than I first thought.
The giant white imposing four-story building on stilts amidst an island of ramshackle fish stages clinging to the shore for life seems as oddly out of place socioeconomically as it does physically. After the cod moratorium in 1992 whereby all commercial fishing was halted abruptly, the outport communities have all but fallen into extinction. So how could a failed economy support a multi-million dollar inn?
My first reaction to learning about this absurdly priced inn on an island of struggling fishing communities is “How very ‘one percent.” And when I say absurdly priced, I mean laughable, ridiculous absurdity. Rooms “start at” $1,675CAD/$1,325 US per nite based on a two night minimum, and range all the way up to $2,875CAD/$2,272 US. Per night. For a hotel room. And if you want the “big suite,” Room #29, that price is not even listed. “If you have to ask…”
But it’s not as bad as my first impressions lead me to believe. It’s a bit of an experiment in “social entrepreneurship.” The Inn is a community asset whereby 100% of operating surpluses are reinvested into the community to help secure a sustainable future for Fogo Island.
The Inn, as well as its philanthropic organization, Shorefast Foundation, is the brainchild of Zita Cobb, multimillionaire who has reportedly sunk forty million of her own funds into the foundation. Raised as one of seven children on Fogo Island, she left to get an education, returning years later as one of the highest paid female executives in North America, having made her fortune in fiber-optics manufacturing. Her first attempt at giving back to the community was a scholarship fund, only to realize she was paying young talent to leave the island. So instead, the foundation’s intent is to attract talent to Fogo Island.
The Inn offers free tours at 11:30am each day. They show groups of eight around while guests are shuffled off for the day’s activities. These are very popular tours typically filled two weeks out, but sometimes it pays to be a “party of one.” Having spent a career either negotiating with, reporting on, or staying in hotels, my past-life curiosity is killing me. I can’t resist the urge to see what a thousand dollar a night hotel looks like. I snag the last remaining spot for a week out. The Inn is at full capacity, so we only visit the public rooms; the library, art gallery, and 35 seat theatre were we watch a video about the projects of the Shorefast Foundation.
All furnishings are made on the island, a style referred to as “modern handmade.” Accents are all tied to Newfoundland traditions, including quilts and hook rugs. It reminds me of a combination of a grandmother’s house and a kid’s playroom.
But the Inn is not the only initiative of the foundation. There are also microloans for small businesses around the community. Or my personal favorite, the artist in residence program. The same architect who designed the Inn, Todd Saunders, a Fogo Islander who now resides in Norway also designed four art studios.
Completely off the grid and hidden away along some of Fogo Island’s more scenic hiking trails, these small studios are provided for artists, writers, musicians on a rotating basis. For all I didn’t care for in the Inn, I fell in love with the artist studios.
It’s an interesting concept, not without its criticisms. Some say the money should have gone to benefit the community directly, such as the building of a swimming pool to teach island children the vital skill of swimming for example. But the Inn currently employs 71 locals who might otherwise have had to leave the island to find employment.
It’s a delicate balance between “Teach a man to fish” versus “Teach a man not to…”