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Armchair Travel: People define the place called Fogo

An award-winning inn and rugged, remote setting may be the inspiration, but it turns out what really defines a place is community.

You have to be intentional about getting to Fogo Island, affectionately called far away from far away, i.e. Newfoundland. There's a wee bit of land beyond the northeast arm of Canada's youngest province--that'd be Fogo, a place that looks like time has stood still for centuries and, in a way, it has.

But don't be swayed by the charm of old-time fishing villages, abandoned stages (sheds) and punt boats bobbing on an inlet. This place is innovative and forward-thinking, with radical ideas to keep the now 2,100 souls who stayed after the fishery shut down in 1992 (some 6,500 lived there then) able to make a living, raise families and..stay home.

Take 65-year-old Joan Penney who, with 13 brothers and sisters was reared on Fogo, and where she's remained to raise her own brood. Penney says after retiring from the island's health centre, she took on work at the inn, offering guests a visit in her kitchen for a taste of the island through a jam-making session.

"I like talking to people; it's a perfect job for me," said Penney, who chats with visitors over a cup of tea as she dons bonnet and apron to boil down the blueberries or partridgeberries she picks near her home.

Like most families on the island, Penney's was turned upside down by the cod moratorium. Her fisherman dad died at 52, leaving a young family behind. Penney's husband and son fish, and now even her daughter has moved back from St. John's to take to the water too.

"With the fishing co-op, she can head out on a small punt and fish for crab and cod. You have to be tough to survive here," Penney said with conviction.  "M'dear, we're all here for the long haul."

The path to the future is led by Fogo native and entrepreneur Zita Cobb. The eighth-generation Fogo islander is a visionary, attracting foodies, hikers and tourists from across the globe to her project; the island's curiosity on stilts, since it opened in 2013. 

The strange-looking Fogo Island Inn--an x-shaped block perched atop rugged rocks overlooking the north Atlantic--is an impressive architectural feat. But more than that, it's a majestic example of what Fogo Island is: isolated yet welcoming; a physical statement of this place's willingness to step boldly forth with out-of-the-box thinking.

A stay at the contemporary Fogo Island Inn is pricey, marketed to those with time and cash. But the 29-room, boutique inn is also as unpretentious as the islanders who play host. Everything from the quilts on the bed to the architecture and design (including paint in shades of Fogo Island green and old-fashioned wallpaper like in long-ago built wood homes everywhere on the island) are thoughtfully selected; so too is the daybreak basket of scones and coffee delivered outside your door each morning. Hospitality is what it's all about here--and that comes naturally to all you meet on Fogo Island, and at the Inn.

Though Cobb left Fogo in 1975 to study and work in business and finance, (eventually leaving that all behind to sail around the world), she returned home to create the Shorefast Foundation, a social enterprise which aims to build cultural and economic resilience on Fogo Island. The Fogo Island Inn is a focal point for the foundation; an enterprise made by and for islanders--people like jam-maker Joan and her 'community host' sister Marie, one of a handful on call to introduce visitors to Fogo and regale with stories of life on the island.

On our June visit, 69-year-old host Marie stopped at a local 'shed' along the drive--nobody home, no problem. Every homeowner on the island has a shed--a place aside the house where folk can visit or play music without having to take off their shoes. In our case, it made a handy bathroom stop too. These encounters are typical on Fogo--a down-home way of being that feels like you're visiting your grandma in her kitchen for a cookie and cup of tea. 

The award-winning lodge is also partly credited with bringing artists to Fogo; those vying for a residency in sea-side dwellings to glean inspiration from the rocky shores. The needs of the inn have likewise meant an influx of designers, furniture and textile/quilt makers to Fogo, creating products for the inn and a sense of place, says Cobb, by joining the patchwork of smaller communities on the island into one cohesive group working toward a common purpose. 

Cobb's fellow islanders have long been eager to embrace a model for how a place can rebuild and thrive. Fishermen formed the Fogo Island Cooperative Society in 1967, a community-based enterprise on which the island's economy has been re-invigorated. Different communities on the island are assigned a catch--shrimp, crab etc. and process all as a cooperative. The demand for crab worldwide has sent that market up and down, but the stability of the co-op means work and livelihood for these people of the fish for the last 50 years.

It's the beauty of Fogo that lured photographer Paddy Barry to find work here too. When he's not bringing guests and luggage to their rooms at the inn, or shuttling them back to the ferry docks at the end of their stay, the St. John's native is explaining to visitors why the pot holes haven't been filled this year, (they will be when an election is on the horizon, he says) and how the island desperately needs a resident doctor, now that the last of them is retired.

"It's important to the survival of the place; to have a doctor who lives here," he said. 

They're working on it. And, if it's like finding a life beyond the fishery, the determined residents of Fogo Island will find a solution to this dilemma soon enough.