I’ve just arrived on Fogo Island, Nfld., and the sun is setting as I get off the ferry and make for Fogo Island Inn on the northern coast. All around the island’s perimeter, living room lights are going on in painted cottages and wooden punts are bobbing in the water, tethered to the salt-blistered stages where fishers split their cod.
Visitors from around the world come to Fogo Island for the stilt-legged inn and art studios (all light, shadows and angles against rocks). They also come to see the iceberg-littered seascapes, the breaching whales and the patchwork quilts.
All those things are lovely, but, for me, it’s the people who make the place.
Spend any time on this tiny island and you’ll discover just how welcoming its 2,400 inhabitants can be, whether you’re cycling in the rain (“Hop in my truck!”), looking lost at the ferry terminal (“I’ll drive ahead—follow me!”) or asking where to buy cod (“I’m heading out in my boat—would you like to come, too?”).
Since the iconic Fogo Island Inn opened in the fishing community of Joe Batt’s Arm in 2013, the team there has been tapping into the islanders’ natural hospitality. They want every visitor to spend at least a few hours one-on-one with locals. Fogo Island Inn Community Hosts program co-ordinator Sandra Cull plays matchmaker, asking guests about their interests and finding like-minded islanders to show them around.
“Visitors come to see the iceberg-littered seascapes, the breaching whales and the patchwork quilts.”
I meet Mona Brown in the inn’s lobby, after Sandra has me kitted out in rubber boots, Gortex jacket and hand-knitted mitts. The calendar says it’s early summer, but the wind is churning the ocean and making the wild irises dance like extras in Saturday Night Fever.
Like me, Mona is a child of the 1970s who loves to cook. Her specialty is jam, and she sells it alongside homemade pickles and bottled seal meat at Hart House Museum, which she owns and runs. She takes me out across the berry patch, through a cemetery where white crosses compete with tall sea grasses, to a place where the ocean polishes palm-sized stones between jagged rocks. We stop every now and again to pick edible plants and fruits.
“Try this,” Mona says, extending a warty-looking orange berry in my direction. It tastes honeyed, a little tart and—most surprisingly—stewed.
“That’s a bakeapple. There are about 20 kinds of berries on the island, but these ones have been hard to come by this year.”
I’m astonished to see tiny sweet peas growing on the shoreline and to sample a succulent leaf that tastes just like oysters. We exchange memories of picking fruit as kids; me with my aunt on country lanes in Scotland, Mona here on the island hills with her mother.
I think of my host that evening as I settle down to dinner at the inn and proudly identify the caribou moss and juniper berry garnishes on my plate.
Another day, Sandra introduces me to Roy Dwyer, a retired teacher-turned-fisherman who shares my love of writing. He lends me orange overalls and knee-high rubber boots and takes me out on his boat to try cod jigging.
For all the talk of Atlantic cod disappearing, my grey-bearded new friend pulls up three or four of them in quick succession. “We’re allowed to catch 10 between us with my recreational licence,” he explains. I realize I’ve no time to lose.
Fortunately, it’s not long before my line goes tight, and I find myself straining to reel in my first-ever cod. It doesn’t give up without a good tail thrashing. “Help!” I beg, all laughter and adrenaline. Roy hauls my maiden catch aboard—tail to nose, it’s almost a metre long.
Later, he shows me around the island in his truck, slowing down occasionally so I can Instagram icebergs and caribou.
We end up at his home in the farming community of Tilting, eight kilometres east of the inn. It’s a place of leaning picket fences and white-painted cottages with green trim. Roy’s wife, Christine, serves up homemade fishcakes with golden-crisped edges and a side of homemade pickles. I leave with a handwritten recipe and a whole lot of warm feelings.
Like any matchmaker worth her (sea) salt, Sandra arranges evening dates, too. It’s with a bottle of wine in hand that I knock on the door of Phil’s Shed, in Tilting, to meet Maureen and Phil Foley. The green fairy lights are on: there’s a party brewing.
Tilting is a community with Irish roots and a surprising dearth of pubs. Here, people prefer cracking open beers in their own sheds—among toolboxes and fishing gear—welcoming in neighbours and friends to sing and play the mandolin or guitar.
“There used to be two pubs in Tilting,” Phil tells me, as he pours me a party measure of wine. “But [the original] St. Patrick Club burned down in 1987.”
“But then all the young Irish men were here from Toronto in 2012 working on the inn,” Maureen adds. “Phil said, ‘B’ys, you’re welcome to come over the shed on a Saturday night.’ They brought their friends from other parts of the island and, with them being young, eligible and Irish, that’s when this thing really took off,” she laughs.
I don’t know a single chord on guitar, so to join in the music-making, I accept Phil’s offer of an ugly stick. It’s a homemade percussion instrument, fashioned from an upside-down mop with bottle caps attached, so it jangles when you thump it on the floor. I can’t say I make my hosts’ ballad sound better—it would be hard, because every single person in this shed is pitch-perfect. But it’s a lot of fun to feel included; and I get the sense that’s what matters to my hosts, too.