Nfld. & Labrador

Like a 'miracle': Fogo Island Inn a lucrative success off Newfoundland's coast

The hotel on the island called "heaven" by Gwyneth Paltrow is marking its fifth anniversary.

5th anniversary for hotel frequented by the wealthy and the famous

The Fogo Island Inn is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

Gwyneth Paltrow has called Fogo Island "heaven."

Late-night legend David Letterman mentioned last January during an interview with former U.S. President Barack Obama that he saw icebergs while visiting the spectacular refuge off northwestern Newfoundland.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also vacationed there, along with other jet-setters who don't publicize their stays at the luxe Fogo Island Inn, now marking its fifth anniversary.

We broke even after three years. Last year, we made money.- Zita Cobb

The 29-suite building's striking design echoes centuries of outport fishing tradition while locally crafted furniture, quilts and textiles carry old ways into the future. What was once considered a high-stakes tourism gamble is now an award-winning inspiration.

"We broke even after three years," says innkeeper Zita Cobb, co-founder and CEO of the Shorefast Foundation.

"Last year, we made money."

The property has been described as outport chic, with panoramic ocean views through floor to ceiling windows. Full-board prices start at about $1,900 a night for two people, with a three-night minimum from June to September. A daybreak tray, three daily meals and a tour with community hosts are included.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and family vacationed on Fogo Island in 2016. (235FireFly/YouTube; Fogo Island Inn/Twitter)

The inn bills itself as offering "magic and enchantment in a stark and unforgiving wilderness."

It features a 37-seat cinema, library, an art gallery, rooftop hot tubs and a wood-fired sauna. Make and Break, two resident Newfoundland dogs named for the small putt-putt engines once heard around the island, also welcome visitors.

Local delights

The inn made the Diners Club 50 Best Discovery Series last year for menus of fresh seafood, local berries and wild game. Think: moose stew, caribou steak, cod chowder and Newfoundland dessert favourites such as figgy duff with molasses.

Zita Cobb came up with the vision for the iconic Fogo Island Inn. (Twitter/@SeamusORegan)

Shorefast is a registered Canadian charity. It invests surpluses from three ventures — the inn, a furniture-making enterprise, and a traditional single hook and line cod company which supplies many Ontario chefs — back into other Fogo Island projects.

They include efforts to preserve and showcase once-fading skills such as small boat building, residency programs for geologists and artists, and a micro-lending fund for business startups.

Cobb grew up on Fogo Island. Like so many others, she left her beloved home for decades to study and work.

She was on a five-year sailing trip — an often solo odyssey of reflection after she left the high-tech corporate fast lane — when the idea for the inn began to crystallize. She was a multimillionaire when she retired in her 40s and wanted to contribute to the place she loves most.

Fogo Island, with blue skies and blue water. (Submitted by Ronald O'Toole)

Cobb sailed into coastal enclaves from northern Spain to Mystic, Conn., seeing first-hand how unique cultural hospitality could sustain remote places. That journey helped shape Shorefast, named for the line and mooring that attaches a cod trap to shore.

Building the inn cost $41 million — 75 per cent of it funded privately with Cobb providing most of that share. Provincial and federal grants made up the rest.

Public money has been repaid through various taxes many times over, Cobb said.

Celebrity non-obsessed

Famous guests are now arriving at regular intervals but there isn't much that fazes Fogo Islanders.

Cobb hiked with Paltrow during the Oscar-winning actor's visit.

"You cannot miss the woman. She's 10 feet tall and gorgeous," she said.

Actress Gwyneth Paltrow called Fogo Island 'heaven.' (Thibault Camus/Canadian Press/Associated Press)

Still, there were no requests for photos, no autograph hounds.

"People may have given that lovely Newfoundland nod to her, but that was it."

What's most gratifying for Cobb is how many Fogo expats have been able to come home.

"We almost have a housing crisis on this island now, which is terrifying and satisfying all at the same time," she said.

Good news, although challenges remain

The inn has helped stop the population slide, said Wayne Collins, mayor of the Town of Fogo Island. There are now about 2,300 people in 10 distinct communities with names such as Tilting and Little Seldom.

Residents banded together against political pressure to resettle 50 years ago, forming the Fogo Island Co-op and expanding their own fishery.

The co-op is still a vital economic pillar as the inn, and Shorefast also provide jobs for hundreds of people, including his son and daughter, Collins said.

An iceberg floats behind the Fogo Island Inn's Squish studio in Tilting. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

There have been some challenges, he concedes. He especially hopes repeated mechanical problems with the MV Veteran are now resolved, although the wealthiest visitors typically fly in.

That aside, it's a happy story of incredible generosity and renewal, said Edmund Walbourne, a retired school principal and former town councillor.

"It's almost like a miracle."