In search of hotel excellence: Fogo Island Inn

In lieu of a perfunctory, Halloween-centric article for this time of year, I’ve opted to give you one that discusses a property that at first glance may indeed be something out of a twisted science fiction horror movie. Striking and bold, it’s design is one you will never forget and it’s situated in a locale so far removed from civilization that it may well be the ideal setting for such a film.

And yet, when you arrive at Fogo Island Inn, it is the most tranquil and beautiful landscapes to ever cross your eyes. And so, I am proud to write about this Canadian gem now so that you have enough time to plan for a visit there next summer. Even though it’s open year-round, a Newfie winter may be too much for those of you who have yet to experience the full wrath of a Canadian snow squall or brisk January breeze.

Opened three years ago along the windswept coast of Newfoundland, this 29-room independent property already has more than its share of accolades, all driven by its improbable architecture, fantastic F&B, remarkable interior design, and prearranged activities that immerse you with the barren landscape and its people.

Looking at the photo of this contemporary box of a hotel sitting on stilts over jagged rocks, you are probably asking yourself: Why? How was this even funded? The story of Fogo begins with Zita Cobb, a local who made her fortune in the tech industry then decided to reinvest it back into her hometown. Warm and friendly, the community of some 2,607 fishermen and related occupations has for centuries eked a living out of this hardscrabble…but that was about to change.

Zita established the Shorefast Foundation, a not-for-profit organization with the sole goal of reinvigorating the economic fortunes of this small island. Through Shorefast, Fogo Island Inn was built and is managed to this day, with all proceeds the hotel channeled back into the community.

Much has been written about the architecture of the Inn. Todd Saunders, the principal architect and designer, opted for a minimalist structure that at first glance looks completely out of place in juxtaposition with the surrounding neighbourhood of saltbox bungalow cabins. But look closer and the elements of design perfectly mirror the desolate environment. Taking all elements together, it’s nothing short of a masterpiece.

Hotels are rarely just about their architecture, though. The design must enhance the guest experience beyond something that’s nice to look at from afar. And here, too, Fogo Island Inn excels, beginning with the preplanned daily itineraries, with activities that include iceberg watching, in-house cooking classes, personalized art lessons and guided wildlife excursions.

Jutting out from the edge of the building and with floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides, our room was literally embalmed in light, even though the weather was perpetually overcast. Significantly, all furniture except for bedding was made on the island, further reinforcing Shorefast’s goals. Wi-fi was free (of course!) but to complete the rugged experience electronics were kept at a minimum. Not that I cared.

Here are some takeaway ideas for hoteliers:

–       Daybreak Box: like a wooden carpenter’s box, this is delivered to your door every morning at 6 a.m. with a few fresh-baked items and a coffee thermos

–       Thank You Keepsakes: small, hand-knotted keychains or luggage tag holders left on your desk with a goodbye note the night before checkout

–       Fireplace: more like a wood stove, a team starts a fire in your room while you’re having dinner so that it’s roaring by the time you get back

–       Activity Director: the concierge who seems to know what everyone is doing and who crafts the daily itineraries, all customized according to weather and season

–       Chef Mingling: all the top chefs came out to discuss the meals and ingredients with the guests as well as offer suggestions for home cooking

–       Personalized Bartender: one who not only remembers your last aperitif, but also makes suggestions based upon your chosen activities and the upcoming dinner

–       Small Library: read, borrow or take with you at anytime throughout the day

–       Art Gallery: provocative and local-only in focus

–       Gift Shop: everything made by craftsmen living on the island

It’s important to note that for most associates at Fogo Island Inn, this is their first job in hospitality. All Inn employees share a bonus pool that is created by 15% of the Inn’s top line. In addition to this, all surpluses from the Inn are reinvested back into the community through the activities of the Foundation.

When tallying the staff experience with what the hotel offers its guests in terms of unique experiences, Fogo Island Inn defies every rule of hospitality marketing. They don’t believe in yield management – rates are set by season, end of conversation. Further still, the hotel abstains from the OTAs. You can’t even book direct on the website; only a phone call with the reservations team will suffice.

Guestroom prices are not for the faint of pocketbook, mind you. Nor is getting there easy. You fly to Gander or St. John’s, Newfoundland, which is then followed by a car drive (about one hour from Gander), a 45-minute ferryboat and another 20-minute drive. It can consume full day each way, unless you charter a private helicopter, that is.

Maybe Theodore Roosevelt was thinking of places like Fogo Island Inn when he said, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain and difficulty.” This is certainly how I felt, and I invite you to explore the earth’s many far-off cracks and crevices like this isolated Newfoundland property to find the true art of modern hospitality.