When planning a spring getaway, New Englanders too often contemplate going south or west. But if you look north, just under a thousand miles away, is the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Offhand, the most that your average Joe knows about it is that two breeds of large dogs come from there, or possibly that it’s the setting for the smash musical Come From Away, about the town of Gander, where residents welcomed stranded air travelers after Sept. 11.
What few people know—but more are discovering—is that a visit in May or June offers a privileged glimpse at a unique landscape awakening after a long winter’s nap. And with one of the world’s most buzzed-about luxury inns, unforgettable culinary experiences and some of the friendliest people in the Western Hemisphere, you’ve got a destination that’s off the well-beaten, palm-tree-lined path.
Even with as-the-crow-flies proximity, it’s not particularly convenient or easy to get there. To reach the easternmost and largest city, St. John’s, you have to connect through Toronto, Montreal or Halifax, and from there, it’s another hour’s flight to Gander, gateway to the islands along “Iceberg Alley,” off the northern coast. Another hour’s drive brings you to Farewell, from which the 45-minute ferry ride to Fogo Island departs.
SHORE THINGS: The Fogo Island Inn is one of many coastal stunners up north. Photo: Alex Fradkin
It’s no wonder that Fogo Island is home to Brimstone Head—a giant rock outcropping that some flat-earthers consider to be the metaphorical edge of the world. There’s a frozen-in-time feeling, and anyone who’s ever read or seen The Shipping News won’t be surprised to learn that the local radio reports at length on topics like hockey scores and what cruise ships have docked in St. John’s.
In this remote spot, cantilevered over the rocks, is the Fogo Island Inn. A holy grail for intrepid art and design fans, the hotel is a masterpiece of modern architecture and a world-class property—its 29 rooms decorated with locally handmade furniture and quilts, ultra-contemporary bathrooms with an old navigational poem etched into the tiles, and custom wallpaper, all in an updated Newfoundland vernacular of bright colors and dizzying patterns.
The inn is the brainchild of Zita Cobb, a Fogo native who moved to Alberta and made a fortune in tech. Since the collapse of the fisheries in the 1990s, the island’s livelihood had all but disappeared, and to breathe new life into her dying community, Cobb founded the Shorefast Foundation, a nonprofit that owns and operates the inn, as well as an artist-in-residence program that has five startlingly modern studios scattered across the island.
The staff is welcoming as are the locals, who are happy to show guests around and may even bring visitors into their homes for a traditional lunch. On a gentle hike to a statue commemorating the now-extinct great auk, an islander will explain the three types of icebergs: icebergs (chunks the size of city blocks that generally stay offshore), bergy bits (chunks small enough to use for refrigeration) and growlers (smaller and named for the noise they make as air trapped inside for 20,000 years escapes). The inn’s chef will take guests foraging for berries and other botanicals that contribute to the local cuisine, and later on at the bar, you can have a vodka with ice cubes carved from a bergy bit, before enjoying a crab feast fit for Poseidon.
Photo: Barrett and Mackay Photo
After bidding the Fogo Islanders a fond farewell, a short ferry ride will take you to the less developed, even sleepier spot known as Change Islands. For anyone who craves an escape from even the most rudimentary man-made noise, an overnight will provide the best night’s sleep of your life, and while there isn’t a tremendous amount to do besides hiking and admiring the absurdly picturesque scenery, there is a quirky little place called the Olde Shoppe Museum that displays everything from old tobacco tins to historically significant artifacts, while the Newfoundland Pony Sanctuary rewards visitors with an up-close glimpse of a critically endangered horse breed.
Another ferry and another hour’s drive west brings you to the comparatively bustling metropolis of Twillingate, a fishing port with a certain hardscrabble charm and quirky attractions like the Auk Island Winery, where they use berries to make wine, and the New World Island Dinner Theatre, an unapologetically hokey but hilarious variety act where you can see and hear the quintessential Newfoundland musical instrument: the ugly stick (look it up).
However, the absolute must-do is to book an evening with Experience Twillingate. Charming local chef and artist Crystal Anstey, an acolyte of the famed Argentinian chef Francis Mallmann, meets guests at the clapboard church and leads a lovely walk to Back Cove Beach. There, she’ll prepare a four-course dinner over an open fire, while an epic sun sets over the water and the wine stays cool in a tidal pool. Her company is as delightful as her cooking, and the opportunity to picnic in a place where the old maps might have said, “There be dragons!” is intoxicating.
After suffering through the depredations of a long Boston winter, there’s something invigorating about going to a place where people have to worry about wandering polar bears, as opposed to Commuter Rail delays. And the exuberance with which Newfoundlanders embrace their spring is infectious; it’s one nice last breath of cool air to enjoy before the dog days of summer. ◆
—Avoid using the term “Newfie.” It’s got some bad connotations.
—Pack layers. Even more than New England, Newfoundland can experience four seasons in a day. And don’t forget sunscreen as the glare from the water is stronger than you think.
Auk Island Winery, aukislandwinery.com; Experience Twillingate, experiencetwillingatenl.com; Fogo Island Inn, fogoislandinn.ca; Newfoundland Pony Sanctuary, nlponysanctuary.com