Forward thinking on Fogo

Sue Bailey
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Zita Cobb aims high with art gallery and luxury inn on the wild Atlantic

On a gorgeous rocky shoreline where slabs of granite meet the moody North Atlantic, one of the most intriguing gambles in Canadian tourism will soon play out on Fogo Island off Newfoundland.

The new Fogo Island Inn looms over the brightly painted salt box homes and fishermen’s sheds in Barr’d Islands, one of 10 distinct communities that are home to about 2,400 people. It was buzzing with construction earlier this month as workers hit the home stretch of a three-year building project expected to cost more than $25 million.

And the inn won’t be just any place for weary travellers to lay their heads. Its 29 rooms with panoramic ocean views, hand-crafted furniture and quilts, locally inspired cuisine, rooftop hot tubs, saunas, conference space and a publicly accessible art gallery, library and cinema are meant to please expensive tastes. Word on Fogo Island during a recent visit was that rates will range from about $1,800 for the most basic elegance to $5,000 a night for the top-floor “money suite” with loft bed and 32 windows.

Each room has a window that opens 180 degrees to the fresh salt-sea air.

But who on earth would pay that kind of money to visit a rocky island off another rocky island in the North Atlantic?

Multimillionaire Zita Cobb, a native Fogo Islander who is the driving force behind the new inn, says there’s a niche of well-to-do tourists who will pay for a unique, world-class travel and cultural experience. Prices have not been finalized but she said there’s no reason why Fogo Island’s natural beauty should not draw big money as successfully as other exotic, albeit warmer, destinations.

The ebbs and flows of a troubled fishery have threatened Fogo Island’s survival in the past and its future is by no means secure.

Cobb is investing more than $10 million of her own money in the inn as the provincial and federal governments add $5 million each.

“There’s risk, no question,” she said in an interview. “I mean, to do nothing is a gamble.”

One of Cobb’s biggest marketing challenges is the widespread notion that her beloved home is on a freezing rock in the Far North.

In fact, it boasts what Cobb describes as seven seasons including hot summers, snowy winters, the ice season around March and April when mammoth icebergs drift south from Greenland, fog, rain and sun in May and June, and spectacular berry picking in the fall.

It’s a place where caribou roam, seals frolic and people go out of their way to share directions or a good story.

A slender woman who all but hums with energy, Cobb was the only girl among seven siblings raised on Fogo Island in Joe Batt’s Arm — an inlet community named for a popular early settler, as legend has it.

Cobb moved back to the island six years ago after making her fortune as a high-tech executive and ending a long run in the corporate fast lane. Now 54, she helped create the Shorefast Foundation, a federally registered charity that aims to use business as a tool to rejuvenate the local economy in ways that work for people, not against them, she says.

“Business is not unethical. It has just been practised that way too often and for too long.”

Cobb stressed that any profits from the inn, which has already created dozens of construction jobs and is expected to employ up to about 50 people when it opens next spring, belong to the people of Fogo Island and the nearby Change Islands.

But the inn will not be Fogo Island’s saving grace, Cobb said.

“Fogo Islanders are pretty darned good at saving themselves, which they’ve done for centuries,” she said. “I’m just another Fogo Islander trying to do my bit.”

Wherever possible, renewable features were incorporated into construction of the inn such as a wood-burning heating system and rainwater cisterns for laundry and toilets.

“We’re trying absolutely to not disturb a single lichen we don’t have to destroy,” Cobb said of the land around the 44,000-square-foot building on four levels.

Three small white crosses still standing between the new inn and the sea are testament to her respect for what she calls “sacred” surroundings. They mark a decades-old pet cemetery that’s believed to be the final resting place for at least one horse, a dog and a cat, Cobb said. They will stay.

The asymmetrical X-shape of the structure is a metaphorical intersection of old and new partially supported on stilts, recalling the fishing stages where generations of Fogo Islanders cleaned, salted and dried their cod.

Minimal outdoor lighting will create a “dark-sky” effect for star gazing. And guests will be escorted down a foot path from the nearest parking lot by two Newfoundland dogs named Make and Break, after the old-style engines, who will live at the inn.

Four smaller buildings around the island are studios for artists, filmmakers and writers invited from Canada and around the world to spend a few months.

Author Lyn Hughes arrived earlier this summer from Sydney, Australia, to work on a new novel. As she settled into her dramatic new work space perched on a seaside rock, she expressed no doubt that Zita Cobb is on to something big.

“This is a very, very rare place on our planet, a very special place,” she said. “The only place I can even compare it to that I’ve been is the Azores Islands of Portugal.”

Nicole Decker-Torraville, owner of Nicole’s Cafe, says many Fogo Islanders have great hopes for the new inn mixed with some fear and skepticism about whether it will succeed. She is part of a small wave of 20- and 30-somethings that have moved back and want their own children to have the chance to stay.

“They can travel, but they’ll know this is their home.”

Frank Lane of Tilting, an Irish settlement on the island’s east coast, is a traditional small boatbuilder who hopes the inn will create new jobs, but help preserve old ways.

“It’s going to be a wonderful building. I don’t know if it’s going to be for me,” he said with a smile. “You know, I might not have the money to stay there.”

Organizations: Newfoundland.The new Fogo Island Inn, Shorefast Foundation

Geographic location: Fogo Island, North Atlantic, Far North Greenland Newfoundland Canada Sydney Australia Azores Islands Portugal

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Recent comments

  • Evan
    March 10, 2013 - 12:58

    Wonder if JDS Uniphase investors get a free night...while it is an impressive project, if I am a Canadian investor who got hammered while Ms. Cobb and the other executives are cashing out, and now my Government is investing millions more with her and treating her as a hero...interesting, very forgiving society we live in

  • Joe A Fogo Islander
    September 10, 2012 - 22:13

    It is with great interest that I have read about what MRS COBB is doing on Fogo Island. I am an x Fogo Islander and have been away for over 20+years. I do not go back to visit the island any more mainly because of the transportation system that they have in place; it's about the same as when MR Miller ran the Ferry from Seldom to Carmenville. I still have family that live on the Island and they tell me that it is getting bad there, poor feeey services, high cost of fuel and food. The last time that i visited the Island I had to wait for the ferry for several hours, and than I was not able to get on the ferry because of the line up. So people of Fogo Island ye need to change the transportation system that ye have in place or the Island will die in about 20 years. The only thing that will keep Fogo Island going is the fishery and that as we know it is a disaster, Mainly because of the federal governments controal from the Joey deals. Sorry Mrs Cobb I give you credit for wanting to help save the island, but lets look at reality here, it's Fogo Island and for 9 months of the year it's nothing but horrable weather and any one that have lived on the Island would know and admit that your idea is nothing but a pipe dream. I have traveled to many other countries around the world and I would never go back to Fogo Island. There is nothing there but bad weather for 9 months of the year. And who is going to support the island when the rich folk don't go back after the first or even secongd visit. In order to keep a turist business going you must have repeat business. My family have lived on the Island sense the 1700's. I agree with my brother, The Island should be made in to a bird sanctury, Ha,ha.

  • mifflin
    September 04, 2012 - 13:55

    The Rates are extreme, I would imagine because of the short season that guests can access the Island without difficulty. I suppose one can count on six months of the year for revenue.

  • Dan Murphy
    August 29, 2012 - 21:03

    I have been doing heritage work on Fogo Island for 29 years now and Zita is adding another dimension...her vision will unfold has it should...

  • Winston Adams
    August 28, 2012 - 14:49

    Businessman, I wonder what roots you have in Nfld? Are you from st John's or a rural area? You seem to have a very selfish view. You and your immediate family, no one else matters? You are proud of yourself you say, and I suppose some of your family may be proud of you. But not proud enough to state your idenity. That you would like to see the rural communities fail, so you can profit more! Seems evil. But assuming your honest in your view, at least you have some virtue, perhaps in time your views may change. After all , St Paul was not always a good man.

    • a business man
      September 11, 2012 - 09:10

      my roots are in St. John's, as are most of my investments. Thus, the failure of rural newfoundland and the migration of more people to St. John's or its surrounding areas will result in more customers. So, that is the outcome I seek and support with my political donations and my votes. My views will not change. Rather, I am instilling my views on my children, and to the students I teach as a part time MBA instructor. In short, I am doing my part to instill my views on others.

  • mifflin
    August 27, 2012 - 14:33

    This whole thing reminds me of a picture I once saw, where children were peeking through a small window watching others doing things that their families could not afford to take part in. All they could do was look. Ms.Cobb has ambition, for sure, but at what cost?.

    • a business man
      August 28, 2012 - 06:05

      we as a society cannot worry with what other families cannot afford to do. Life is too short. Rather, we should focus on providing our own families with as much as possible. My kids play ice hockey, they do charity in foriegn countries, and play various musical instruments. They are able to do so because I work hard to make the money to pay for it all. Those children who are missing out, they should be asking why mommy or daddy didn't do more with their life and earn an income that would enable them to afford the things that other children have.

  • Winston Adams
    August 24, 2012 - 20:10

    Foghorn, I agree it's a high risk venture, but I wouldn't bet against Ms. Cobb. It seems marketing would be important . And perhaps more weather like this summer should be beneficial. For those who can afford it , what a better place to avoid the heat waves and extreme weather of other parts of the world. But time will tell . Better risk I think then the 15 million a month on Muskrat Falls, and that's not even officially started yet.

  • Foghorn Leghorn
    August 24, 2012 - 12:05

    If this idea was such a solid business venture why would it require 10 million dollars in government funding to make it work. What business venture wouldn't like to have almost half of their financing provided by a government agency? I would love to see the business plan that was submitted for government funding. Very little supporting infrastructure, isolated location, limited transportation to and from, almost no population base to draw on for local customers when the tourism season dries up. Ask the people who designed Humber Valley Resort what it is like to depend on a business plan that eliminates local customers and depends 100 per cent on outside customers so to speak. They were pretty well begging for the local people to support it after they had been not welcome when it originally opened. Yes it is a beautiful dream I just wish that it wasn't our tax dollars that are going to be part of the eventual nightmare that this is going to be!

  • Pat Goulding
    August 23, 2012 - 10:39

    We have friends from Fogo and visited it only once, but should have done so years ago, what an amazing place, Zeta Cobb should be praised for her endevor instead of critized. Like a former comment said, there are lots of accomodations on the island. The people that live there and the people who have come back to build their retirement homes are amazing. Give it a chance.This will bring the wealthy to our province and once here will be exposed to what a great place Newfoundland is.

  • Eli
    August 22, 2012 - 20:31

    You're right Sean with one exception. They'd practice more diligence playing with their own money.

  • Winston Adams
    August 22, 2012 - 14:14

    Too bad there is not more like Ms. Cobb. Most Nflders who are rich make thier money here and then buy/invest in places outside Nfld, like Florida. Ms .Cobb on the other hand appears to have made her wealth outside Nfld, and comes back to help and invest in her home province. Her heaert is in the right place.She loves what is good about Nfld; the people, the heritage and culture and beauty , and wants to share this with the world, and in a way that helps sustain jobs in a rural area..For the size of her investment it is fair that the government should be involved as they are. We have a history of outsiders coming to profit and leave, and are slow to support those few Nflders that wish to do good. I wish the best for the success of this operation, and hope it may imspire others. I haven't yet been to the Fogo area, but it's not that far from Logy Bay. I plan to visit.

    • a business man
      August 22, 2012 - 18:28

      I am a Nflder that buys and invests in places outside of Nlfd, and I am proud of it. I am proud to live in a country where I can spend my money as I see fit, and pursue what I believe to be in my best interest. My best interest is not to support Nfld unless it makes the most sense for me. I don't invest money and start businesses to create jobs to other people....I do it to make a profit. Lastly, I don't want to sustain jobs in rural areas....it is quite the opposite....I want the rural area to fail, so that people will HAVE to move to the areas surrounding the bigger cities and thus spend their money at my businesses. I know I cannot force people to abandon rural areas to spend their money in my businesses, nor am I suggesting that I have the right to tell anyone what to do...ever. But what I am saying that as a taxpaying Nflder, I do not want to sustain jobs in rural Nlfd and have the right to want rural Nfld areas to fail so that I can get more customers. You may disagree, and I respect that, but consider whether or not you have the right to tell those others they should do with their money. My opinion is that we are all free to spend the money we have earned as we see fit.

  • Duggan
    August 22, 2012 - 11:14

    The problem Zita Cobb and the people of Fogo island need to address is the lack of transportation infrastructure to get there. There are few flights to gander, the nearest airport, and the provincial ferry service is just plain disgraceful. Tourists who will pay the money Ms. Cobb's plan is built around expect ease of travel and a ferry that does not smell like pooh. Fogo Island is a unique place but the experience starts with getting there. The current access simply is not good enough and is even discouraging.

  • Richard
    August 22, 2012 - 10:09

    Ten Million dollars of taxpayer money? Please tell me the government at least gets to own half of it for having paid half of it.

  • mainlander
    August 22, 2012 - 07:33

    I guess I shouldn't be surprised about all the negative comments here. It is disappointing to see the lack of support and vision people have. I guess we should stick with old, outdated hotels and a few chicken shacks serving the greasiest crap you can find. That will bring the tourists. I spent some time outside of St. John's this year and, after living away for 15 years, you really appreciate the ruggedness and beauty of Newfoundland. Certainly is nicer than dirty, stinky Toronto. Too bad many of the people who live in Nfld don't see it. The price of the rooms is not to attract primarily Newfoundlanders (although many can afford the price), it is to attract wealthy tourists who want to experience something other than smog and congestion. These types of places succeed in other places. Why not Fogo?

  • KR
    August 21, 2012 - 23:18

    And when it closes up, taxpayers are on the hook with Cobb. The difference is the taxpayers didn't make the decision to invest. What's next a NASCAR raceway on Bell Island??

    • Richard
      August 25, 2012 - 11:41

      That's a great idea. Nascar on Bell Island would be a huge draw. Quick, get a cabinet minister to send a few million bucks and we'll start building a track.

  • Juwal
    August 21, 2012 - 21:02

    Been there and $1800 is about what I would have paid to leave after one day in that place.

  • Juwal
    August 21, 2012 - 19:56

    Been there and $1800 is about the amount of money I would pay to get off the island .

  • ann marie
    August 21, 2012 - 19:53

    possibly maybe we give these lovely people the benefit of the doubt!! I am so proud that a former resident of our lovely island made the rich decision in retirement to come and invest time, energy and loads of money into a beautiful island and its people. Many people have had to move away from their heritage and settle elsewhere helping the other provinces prosper. The government has made many decisions over the years to spend tax dollars in many places..why not there as well..remember its about sharing the wealth! possibly the government will certainly see a return in the spinoff!!

  • JAY
    August 21, 2012 - 19:36

    Fogo Island is one of the most beautiful places in the world! If you have the chance to visit-Go! Love it there, wishing them all the best :)

  • Mike S
    August 21, 2012 - 18:42

    I just visited Fogo last week and spent a lot amount of time in line waiting for the ferry( 7 hrs to get off and 3rd last car on the last run) after the festival. I checked out the hotel was stunned by the size of it. I didn't notice the helicopter pad but i saw they have a small plane landing strip just down from the hotel which will most likely shuttle the well to do's in and out of Fogo. We would not want them to wait in line like the rest of us. You never know...they might set aside a few spots on the ferry for them like they do for the Change island residents. As much as i like moving forward with our surroundings this hotel did not fit in with the landscape. Too bad.

  • Foghorn Leghorn
    August 21, 2012 - 14:26

    The only thing missing is a cucumber green house, when will they ever learn?

  • George from Northern Pen
    August 21, 2012 - 13:24

    The article makes it sound like Fogo Island is a "one in a million" place. There are countless around Newfoundland and Labrador that are much easier to access and governments do not have to sink a ton of money running a ferry and sometimes, during the spring ice jam, a helicopter to move people back and forth. Sure this may be a bit of a rejuvanation for Fogo Island, but can we honestly afford in this province to keep these remote locales alive? I don't think so and have to agree with Joe. It's not about accounting Sean. It is about the best bang for the taxpayers dollar. On a final point if this has a good chance of being a success, why does government need to invest in it? Private investment should be able to carry the day if it is a good sound business plan.

  • Annie Girl
    August 21, 2012 - 12:47

    Joe b'y, do you remember centralization? That was a big success, now wasn't it! Right...now think again.

  • canadafirstaid
    August 21, 2012 - 12:33

    I have the greatest respect and truely admirer Ms. COBB for her shear 'guts'. I heard her sing on a TV clip about her vision(s) in FOGO, NL. You go girl!!! cfa p.s. And a pretty good singer - to boot.

  • Joe
    August 21, 2012 - 11:46

    sorry folks, not an accountant, sensible is all I am, give that 2 years and the doors will be shuttered unless the gov steps in with $$, we all know it. whos gonna drop 1800 a night from newfoundland for this spot, noone thats who. your not getting enough bodies to visit that island and hotel to pay that. ive been to fogo island a number of times, yes theres charm and all that, just as much as every other small community in newfoundland and labrador. however i still state that she would have been better off spending the $$ to move the islands occupants theres a lovely bakery over there, thats about it, coastline, sure, we also have that in every other coastal area.... all the best

  • NF
    August 21, 2012 - 11:35

    Its great to see but extremely expensive. Too bad only rich people will be able to enjoy it for $1800-5000 a night..

    • Sean
      August 21, 2012 - 12:03

      There are other tourist accommodations available on Fogo for tourists of all different budgets. The purpose of this place is to attract the ultra-rich visitors, who will drop a load of cash on Fogo while they are there, supporting businesses and helping to maintain the economy.

    • Eli
      August 21, 2012 - 13:50

      That's who she's building it for NF and I for one applaud her and her planners for preserving it's natural surroundings. Long live Zita and Fogo!

  • Jim Snow
    August 21, 2012 - 09:05

    I know a lot of family and friends would love to go there for vacation.A chance to go home. We need more places like this in other communities around Newfoundland. Great for tourism. We wish her ALL THE BEST.

    • Fogo-A-Gogo
      August 21, 2012 - 11:16

      Cool, however at that rate ($1,800 - $5,000), I don’t think many newfies will get the chance to spend a night. Looks nice but unfortunately only the Rich and Famous will be staying at this Hotel. It might last 2 years. I see a bankruptcy in the future and The Federal Government (ACOA) and The Provincial Government left holding the bag. The question I have is; this article states the total cost of this project is $25 million, the Feds are kicking in $5 million, the Province $5 million, and Ms. Cobb $10 million, where is the other $5 million coming from. I wish her all the success in the world but I don't see it working and I doubt I will ever get the opportunity to set foot inside the front door.

  • Susie
    August 21, 2012 - 08:42

    My friend and I had the privilege of travelling there this past summer and were truly amazed at the hospitality and warmth of the people. Ms. Cobb is doing an amazing thing I believe. "To do nothing, is a gamble" is a great quote from Ms. Cobb and I wish nothing but success, success, success in this great venture. Not only to the people of Fogo Island but to all of Newfoundland in general. Please, Joe, think and be happy my love - will help you in the long run ;)

  • Sean
    August 21, 2012 - 07:47

    Joe is an example of what would happen if the world were run by accountants. No big dreams, no bold ventures, no risk, just pennies in the jar.

  • Joe
    August 21, 2012 - 07:30

    would have been better had she spent the $25 mil moving everyone off the island. woulda saved a fortune in the long run.

    • Heather Osmond
      August 22, 2012 - 00:24

      Way to go Zita!!! Never mind all the negative comments.. Fogo island is beautiful like all of Newfoundland. If there were more people like Zita to develop other small inlets around NL, the critisim would not be so bad. It is a blessing to have someone in a position to be able to do something like this. I wish her, Fofo Island and its residents the best outcome possible!!