Entrepreneur Zita Cobb is the force behind the Fogo Island Inn, a daring tourism initiative designed to bring the culture of a Newfoundland outport isle back from the brink of virtual disappearance.
Off the coast of Newfoundland, Fogo Island juts into the steely, wild waters of the North Atlantic. This rocky enclave with a centuries-old fishing culture is perhaps among the last places on Earth one would expect to find an ultra-modern hotel. Yet entrepreneur Zita Cobb envisioned such a business venture here, and put the island on the global tourism map in 2013 with the opening of Fogo Island Inn.
All edges and angles, the Inn balances atop an outcrop of boulders left smooth by the battering sea. Ms. Cobb grew up in the nearby fishing village of Joe Batt’s Arm. “For me, these rocks are everything,” she says of the Inn’s craggy perch. “I have an active relationship with the physical place, and there’s a comfort in that.”
It was this deep connection to the land that drew her back to Fogo after a successful career in fiber optics. The island was suffering from the collapse of its cod fishery, and she was inspired to launch the community-owned Shorefast Foundation. The organization seeks to reclaim the island’s legacy by funding local sustainability initiatives—projects like the Fogo Island Inn, which immerses guests from all over the world in the isle’s rich heritage of fishing and foraging, arts and lilting music.
I recently sat down with Ms. Cobb to talk about the mechanics and merits of community ownership, the architectural narrative of the Inn, and why so many visitors are moved by Fogo Island.
AH: When you came up with the idea for the Inn, were you confident it would be a success, or did it feel like more of a great experiment?
ZC: Life on Fogo Island has always been a great experiment. It’s never been easy to hold on and make a living here. The trials have historically been about survival—how do you get enough food for the winter? But in our globalized world, you need to participate in the global economy, or you’re not going to exist. With the collapse of our inshore fishery, we needed to create something that would put another leg on the economy and could be infused with our cultural knowledge. When thinking about it in those terms, an inn made so much sense.
AH: Because an inn is about living?
ZC: Yes—it’s about how we belong and how we are with each other. And our Inn is part of the economic fabric of the community. Community ownership allows the Inn to fully absorb the experience of Fogo Island and reflect it back to our guests. We treat guests as cousins we’ve never met who are coming to stay with us. We’re going to do everything we can to help those cousins understand the place, and make sure they’re taken care of.
AH: How have Fogo Islanders approached this recent foray into the hospitality industry?
ZC: One of our goals is to help people become contributing members of the community. I’ve seen a big change in how people here see their own potential. For many of the skills that we’ve perfected over the centuries, there’s a new way that knowledge can be used. For example, our boat builders are master woodworkers, so they’re able to make furniture for the Inn. The local people built every object in here, and they keep the Inn running
AH: The Inn’s appearance is very contemporary, especially against the island’s traditional buildings. What was the reaction from the community once the building was completed?
ZC: When we opened, we invited every person from every household in the community to come and stay at the Inn. One of my favorite moments was when a much older man from Deep Bay came with his daughter. She was checking in, and he was in the lobby—you could tell he was deeply skeptical. He walked around and checked things out, then he came back to the desk and said “Well, at least you built it old.” You have to find ways to live in the rhythm of opposites, because that is the design of life. Old and new, traditional and contemporary.
AH: How does the modern design of the Inn help tell the story of the island?
ZC: I believe that our job in the present is to mediate the relationship between the past and the future, and architecture and design help us do that. We invited designers to come work with us, to help us express our island in a way that holds on to the spirit of what once was—without being prisoners of it—and to express it in ways that are relevant in the contemporary world. If you have nothing to add to the conversation that’s going on in the world, you’re not relevant. Now we actually have a perspective.
AH: The Inn sees many return guests, some who visit several times a year from faraway places. What is it about Fogo Island that keeps them coming back?
ZC: I think Fogo Island is a particularly naked and moody place that reveals itself to people. Because we’re at the edge of the continent, there are very dynamic weather patterns that make you feel alive and in tune with nature. There are definitely guests who get off the ferry and can’t find anything to attach to, because it feels like everything’s been stripped away. The people who keep coming back have been able to let go of all the usual life distractions and embrace the opportunity to be truly in touch with themselves.
AH: What advice would you give to other small communities that want to replicate what you’ve accomplished with the Fogo Island Inn?
ZC: You have to start with place. If you take place away, there’s no way to cultivate nature and culture. And to channel a sense of place, you have to ask yourself some questions. What kind of geology makes up the landscape? Who was here before us? What’s happened here in the past, and what’s happening now? Eventually you’re able to weave all the answers into the fabric of your inn.
The problem comes when you try to copy the final product and put it elsewhere. That’s how you get these faceless hotel chains and corporate hospitality. Instead, you have to replicate the discovery process in each individual place. It’s hard work, but it ensures that the inn reflects the people in the community and those who were there before them.
Fogo Island Inn is a charter member of National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World, a prestigious collection of properties in destinations around the world, spanning 30 countries and 6 continents. Each lodge offers an extraordinary guest experience while remaining deeply rooted in its community and dedicated to protecting the surrounding habitats and cultures.