Fogo Island Dreams Big

Five-star inn will showcase all things local

Steve Bartlett
Published on May 7, 2011

Second in a three-part series

Russ Petten remembers arriving on Fogo Island and being shown where he’d be guiding construction of a five-star inn.

“They brought me to the site and they said, ‘This is where we want you to build the inn.’

“I said, ‘You’re joking,’” the construction manager recalls.

They weren’t.

The Fogo Island Inn has been under construction on the Barr’d Islands site since last June.

The 4,000-square-metre building is going up on a lichen-covered landscape a rock toss from the North Atlantic Ocean.

It’s set to officially open in mid-2012.

The inn is a main plank in the Shorefast Foundation’s plan to help sustain Fogo Island.

It’ll have 29 rooms, an art gallery, a restaurant guided by a top chef, a National Film Board e-cinema, and a rooftop spa.

It’ll also house a library that’ll include books from the private collection of the late Leslie Harris, former president of Memorial University and a renowned Newfoundland scholar.

Bedding, furniture and interiors will all be designed and handmade on Fogo Island.

“The goal is to be among the exclusive rural inns of the world,” says Zita Cobb, Shorefast’s co-founder.

Geo-tourists are the targeted clientele — “people who are interested in (a destination’s) environment, heritage and food and culture and well-being,” Cobb said.

“That just makes so much sense for a place like this that’s so deeply steeped in culture and heritage.

“Everyone says, ‘Who’s going to go to Fogo Island, for God’s sake?’ Well, we’ve given this some thought,” she says.

Shorefast anticipates it will attract people seeking something with more depth than a traditional destination — an intimate, cultural and natural experience.

Cobb believes Fogo Island offers that.

“People who come here and stay, I think they do feel kind of clearer about their own lives, because I think they had that chance to breathe out, and just look at it from a place that is not all rushing by you.”

Guests will pay a premium, but Cobb said if they only charged $100 a night — as opposed to, say, $500 — they’d have to attract five times as many visitors.

“That means five times as many people have to come on the ferry, that’s five times as many pairs of feet on every little lichen and flower and every berry on this island.

“That means five times more people we have to take care of and love. We can’t love that many people. We’re only 2,700 people ourselves.”

Cobb feels sure there are wealthy people out there who wouldn’t stay at a place that didn’t start at $500 per night.

“If you’re willing to pay 100 euros to visit the north coast of Spain, why wouldn’t you be willing to visit the north coast of Newfoundland?”

Cobb realizes people paying that much for a room will expect the best in food and service and says great lengths are being taken to deliver those things.

She’s aware that if the inn falls short when it caters to guests, it won’t be able to compete internationally.

Shorefast has been involved in initiatives like bringing in chefs to create dishes with local foods and produce. The foundation is also supporting island initiatives to grow produce to supply the restaurant.

And there are major plans to ensure that the inn’s service is second to none. Shorefast will launch a program it’s developed for staff this fall. (Cobb expects there will be 50 or 60 employees.)

They’ll learn things like how to greet people upon arrival and how to properly prepare a room. The training will include formal coursework and simulated service experiences that’ll take place in the small training centre being set up.

Then there’ll be a soft opening, where “friendly” guests will stay at the inn and help the staff perfect service delivery.

Cobb says Shorefast is also exploring how to share the training modules with other players in the province’s service industry.

The inn will work with other Newfoundland sites, and will encourage its guests to see other parts of the province.

“But we must never stop benchmarking ourselves internationally, because we’re not competing with Corner Brook … we’re competing with Sans Sebastian (in Spain).”

Any profits will be reinvested in Fogo Island, though Cobb has an interesting philosophy when it comes to profiting from hospitality.

She believes people should get into the industry to take care of people, not for the sole purpose of making money.

“Nothing makes me madder than to hear someone say — and I’ve heard it across the province and different places — ‘Well, you know, I suppose this summer I’ll make a few dollars off the tourists.’ That is insulting to our guests. That’s about as low as it gets. That’s not going to happen at the Fogo Island Inn.”

Cobb says the goal is to take care of guests in a way that’s good for the visitor as well as for Fogo Islanders. The inn has to benefit both.

“If it’s not a double victory, it will be a big failure,” she says.

But first things first. The inn has to be finished.

Project manager Petten jokes that guests and Fogo Islanders won’t be the only ones benefiting from it.

 “If we pull this off, it’s going to look awfully good on a résumé,” he laughs.

More on the construction and interior of the Fogo Island Inn is available in The Weekend Telegram.

Twitter: bartlett_steve

The view of the Fogo Island Inn from Joe Batt’s Arm. — Photo by Steve Bartlett/The Telegram