Sitting in a car waiting to board a ferry is about as exciting as it sounds. It was still early on a Saturday, my social media was quiet and I was tired and a little bored. I was also startled out of my seat when out of nowhere there was a knock on my car window. I rolled it down to find the smiling face of a kindly older woman who promptly asked, “Are you staying at the Inn?” So shocked I mumbled my affirmative to which she responded, “Good! You must be Mr. Long then,” as she checked her clipboard, “here’s a light breakfast snack and some water. We’re excited to welcome you to the Inn!” That is the first introduction to the remarkable hospitality of not only the Fogo Island Inn, but of Fogo Island itself, that most guests receive and for me, set the stage perfectly for what was a weekend of discovery, both of the touristy nature as well as personal.
What is the Fogo Island Inn?
Even if you only have a casual, passing interest in travel I still have no doubt that you have seen images of the iconic architecture that helps to define the Fogo Island Inn. Photos of the strange looking structure perched next to the water are everywhere, from magazines to social media and every round up of great hotels that the major publications seem to generate every few months. There’s a reason for that, sure the building is stunning but the Fogo Island Inn is also one of the top ranked hotels in the world. It’s a stunning achievement really for a property that’s only a few years old. That’s because Fogo is not your typical hotel, but I’m getting ahead of myself here. First, let’s take a look at where on earth you can find Fogo Island and what is this grand experience known simply as the Inn?
Located off the northeast coast of Newfoundland, Fogo is the largest of the province’s offshore islands at a whopping 25km long and 14km wide. It’s home to around 2,000 people spread out across a variety of communities, depending on the time of year. It’s an old place though, like much of Newfoundland it was among the first places colonized in the New World. Fishermen first started visiting the island in the 16th century and it was later settled by Irish and English visitors. This was and is an isolated place though and even the communities on the island have long been separate and distinct from each other.
This is the stage for one of the world’s most extraordinary hotels, which only opened in 2013. Since then it’s won every award and accolade that other hotels spend generations trying to earn, but that’s because the Fogo Island Inn really isn’t your normal place.
What makes the Fogo Island Inn different
Unlike so many hotels and resorts that talk a lot about experiential travel but don’t really deliver, that is the true heart and soul of the Fogo Island Inn experience. Zita Cobb grew up on Fogo Island, but left for many years during which time she made her fortune. Rather than cool her heels in a Toronto high-rise though, she decided to return to her home island not to retire, but to save its communities from the brink.
The Inn is actually part of a larger effort on Fogo Island, spearheaded by the foundation Cobb created, the Shorefast Foundation. The goal of the Foundation is simple. Cobb believes (rightly I think) that rural communities, be they islands or small country villages, are not “lost to time” or impossible to rescue from years of attrition and neglect. Instead, the Foundation holds that there is tremendous inherent value in any place, a soul that is at the heart of the community. The trick is to localize and then encourage this value, thereby generating renewed energies that will ultimately have economic and sociological repercussions. See, I told you this wasn’t your average hotel review.
The heart of this Grand Experiment is the Inn itself, which is actually owned by the Foundation, which in turn is a sort of island collective. To visit the Inn, therefore, is to participate in this experiment, and it’s this weirdly captivating effort that makes the Inn so special and ultimately is I am sure what has propelled it to the top of every Great Hotels of the World list out there. But it’s also a remarkable luxury hotel, as I discovered on that sunny summer weekend.
Rooms, food and service
The Inn is home to just 29 very individual suites. No two rooms are exactly the same and each is personally decorated with items from the community itself. The furniture is made on-island at the Foundation’s furniture studio and even the quilts on those amazingly comfortable beds were lovingly created by local artisans. Every aspect, literally down to the nails, was thoughtfully considered with an eye towards sustainability and island integration. That’s important, but so is the experience itself. Walking into the lobby, I was instantly reminded of a light and airy beach house. The colors and aesthetics were homey and relaxing and the soft warmth from one of the many fireplaces in the hotel was the perfect cozy addition the lobby needed. Nothing is out of place, and yet the hotel is not a sterile place. It has the rare ability to excel in its perfection without being cold or dismissive. Simply said, it’s a place where you want to stay, curl up with a good book and some tea and spend hours listening to the crash of the waves just below.
I expected a lot from the Inn, one of the top 50 hotels in the world, and even those high expectations were quickly surpassed. My own suite was massive, two-levels with plenty of space to relax and unwind. I opened the windows to let in some fresh air and to listen to the rhythmic sounds of the sea, a constant presence in Newfoundland and one that has been thoroughly embraced at the Fogo Island Inn. Books lined the shelves, homemade decks of cards lay at the ready and everything about the room beckoned me to stay for a while, kick up my heels and just relax. I did a little of that, but I was far too curious about the island to only spend my time there disconnecting. No, in true Fogo Island spirit, I wanted to connect as much as possible. But I’ll get to that in a second, I first want to share some more amazing details found only at the Fogo Island Inn.
Fogo Island is not what I would call a conveniently located place, and yet the staff at the Inn are amongst the best I’ve ever seen. They’re a curious mix of locals, working there to help build a new community, as well as outsiders drawn to the allure of the Inn and her story just as the many guests who pass through every day. What this means for guests is that service isn’t just important, it’s at the heart of the experience. Staff love being there, they love meeting new people and from my own experience, will do whatever it takes to ensure no one leaves disappointed. This is seen in any number of ways, from the complimentary loaf of traditional Newfoundland trinity bread and molasses presented to new arrivals, to the special morning delivery that every guest looks forward to – the daybreak basket. Every morning before you gently wake up, a tackle box laden with muffins, scones, teas and coffees is left at the front door of every room, a pre-breakfast snack meant to help guests wake up with some light morsels to start the day off right.
Food is actually an important focus at the Inn, and my meals there were amongst the best I’ve enjoyed anywhere in a very long time. The chefs at the Fogo Island Inn clearly know their stuff, and meals presented are a nice mix of cutting edge cuisine with traditional classics. One course may be microgreens and foams, but the entrée could easily be a traditional Thanksgiving Day dinner. It’s the perfect mix of styles and it encapsulates everything that’s so great about the Inn itself.
There are any number of other fun, somewhat quirky, touches that make the Inn so amazing to visit. A few of my favorites include:
- Make & Break, two lovable Newfoundland pups that stop by almost every day to hang out with guests.
- Rooftop hot tubs with stunning views of the sea and surrounding landscapes
- Traditional wood-fired saunas
- 37-seat cinema highlighting community focused films and documentaries every day
- Comprehensive library featuring collections on the region
- In-house art studio, part of the Shorefast Foundation efforts
Personal experiential luxury
Ultimately though, staying at the Fogo Island Inn isn’t really about the hotel itself, it’s about the island it calls home. It’s a travel experience the likes of which I’ve never seen before; it’s so much more than just experiential luxury travel, it’s much more personal than that.
Instead of a traditional concierge, the Fogo Island Inn has a position they call the Coordinator of Community Hosting. It’s a strange title when you first think about it, but then after you spend some time on the island you begin to understand what it really means. The Inn and the communities across Fogo Island are inextricably linked, not just in spirit or in furnishings, but by the people who live there. Many of the experiences available to guests at the Inn involve local residents themselves. Whether it’s joining a resident as they take you on a tour of the island, or heading down to the beach for a traditional boil-up, these are not paid actors or folks from off-island. Everyone employed by the Inn in these important guest experience roles are born and bred on the island, and spending time with them is ultimately one of the goals of this strangely mesmerizing experiment. What that means for guests are travel experiences so much more impactful than anything offered in any other corner of the world. They may not always be the fanciest of moments, but from personal experience there’s nothing better than hanging out by the campfire and enjoying freshly baked bread and blueberry jam and talking about the day or heading out on a boat and learning how to jig a cod by fishermen who have been doing it all their lives. These experiences aren’t just tourist activities or options on a checklist, they have been lovingly and thoughtfully planned to make sure every guest to the island leaves with the understanding of what it means to live on Fogo Island. What it means to love this small spit of land in the North Atlantic and why, perhaps more than anything else, it’s so important to preserve these communities. But it’s not about creating a Disney World in the extremes of Newfoundland, no; Cobb and the Foundation don’t want this to be a weird kind of living history museum. Instead, it’s all about looking to the future, transforming the lives of the people on the island by sharing and reveling in everything that makes it so special. It’s a recognition that this is a unique place, but one that can and should evolve over time. It’s an extraordinary revelation that, I believe, will turn the world of sustainable and experiential travel on its head.
So I think it’s safe to say that I enjoyed my weekend on Fogo Island, and of course that’s true. I loved every single moment I spent at the Inn, from taking a short catnap on the daybed to laughing over an evening cocktail with newly made friends. But it’s probably the island itself that meant the most to me; it’s the island that has created a siren call that I still hear today. It’s a place I long to return to, not only to enjoy those daybreak boxes or to see the happy faces of Make & Break; no, I long to return to try to recapture that feeling of community and belonging, even if it’s fleeting. It’s so rare to experience this sensation of inclusion when we travel and ultimately, it’s this personal acceptance that makes the Fogo Island Inn the most remarkable hotel in the world.