Forward thinking on Fogo

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

Sue Bailey clarkpet@tc.tc
Published on August 21, 2012

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.”