We bite into 25,000 years of caught water and frozen light.
It’s a fist-sized chunk scooped from the Atlantic, a tiny piece of the iceberg looming beside our boat like a dream born in the most faraway region of an arctic mind.
Dozens of photos later (none can do justice), we turn our backs and chug towards Little Fogo Island where we land for a hike through an abandoned fishing village.
We oooh and ahhh over puffins darting from nesting holes in a rocky bluff when suddenly, behind us, there’s a low growl and then a thunderous boom as if we’re about to be struck by lightning.
The iceberg is breaking, great slabs toppling into the sea. Eight travellers in our boat, including my husband Patrick and I, whoop and clap.
There’s nothing like your first iceberg: its dangerous sparkle, its turquoises and emerald green, its spires and humps. It drifts out of the past and knocks you sideways with wonder as its chill breath touches your face.
What is it thinking as it holds you in its crystal gaze? What message from the Far North does it bring?
Surely it has something to do with the warming of our planet. Unless we change our ways, icebergs—like other endangered species—will disappear, their huge memory melting away.
Our first sighting of Fogo Island Inn is as gobsmacking as our first encounter with an iceberg.
If the ocean and the rocks could put their heads together to design a cathedral built from wood, this inn would be it. If the future and the past collided—bam!—and here and now took shape before your eyes, this is what it would look like.
Nothing prepares you for its stern splendour in the village of Joe Batts Arm, or for the otherworldly beauty of the surrounding four studios that house artists from around the world.
The studios came first, though you’d have guessed that the inn, like an iceberg, had calved them—leaving pieces of itself scattered across the barren landscape.
The inn’s founder Zita Cobb, who also doubles as innkeeper, claims this extraordinary guesthouse is not special, it’s specific. It comes from island knowledge and skills, and it wouldn’t fit anywhere else.
Elongated and magnified, the inn is a re-imagined version of traditional fishing sheds with wharves on stilts stretching over the water.
In the village of nearby Tilting, writer Roy Dwyer, my guide for an afternoon (because the inn likes to partner guests with locals), takes me to a shed that he’s kept in good repair.
Here, on a long wooden table, his late Uncle Albert used to behead, gut and fillet cod. A practised fisherman, I’m told, could look at you and tell a story while he was working and never cut his fingers.
Roy’s uncle would then drop the prepared fish into a box of salt and the livers into a tall wooden barrel for the oil to ferment.
Years ago, this slippery yellow liquid was used to torment children like me with a daily dose. It also fuelled lamps and lubricated big industrial machinery in factories to the south. It was even mixed with ochre to paint the fishing sheds red, the same colour as prairie barns.
Roy makes a point of showing me a poignant image of his family’s way of life before the cod ran out.
Dragged from the hard-knuckled shore, a wooden punt lies on its gunwales, grass growing through the slats. “The last boat my uncle built,” he tells me. “I’ve been taking its picture every summer for seven years but I think this’ll be its last winter.”
That boat-building skill, perfected over hundreds of years, is what went into the building of Fogo Island Inn, but local knowledge doesn’t stop there.
Rooms are furnished with high-quality wooden designs—chairs and beds and tables and even wastebaskets—fashioned by those who once went to sea.
Then there are the skills of the village women. Beds enchant the eye with multi-coloured quilts, stitched with the names of those who made them. Hand-crafted cushions and pillows adorn the furniture, and braided rugs pool on the floor.
Even the hotel restaurant menu is a work of grassroots art. The back of it declares, “Like our culture, our food is intensely local. Pulled and plucked from the rocky terrain and the icy waters that surround us.”
My husband and I savour rhubarb soup with scallops and seaside herbs. We devour Greenland halibut with sea buckthorn and a traditional pudding called figgy duff. There are 16 edible berries on Fogo Island and the chef uses them all.
Later, snug in bed, I think of Roy’s aunt’s description of the best time in her life: the years her six children could all fit under the same blanket.
Roy’s relatives sound a lot like mine. A pioneer woman, who could have been my Saskatchewan grandmother, once wrote in her diary:
“We had to make the quilts fast so our children wouldn’t freeze. We had to make them beautiful so our hearts wouldn’t break.”
I’ll never forget this place—the scent of ocean blowing through our bedroom window as my husband and I drifted off to sleep, warmed by the artistry and care of the hard-working folk who live here.
On this island off Newfoundland’s eastern coast, history slides into the 21st century as smoothly as icebergs glide past her rocky, wind-scoured shores.
*Writer Lorna Crozier was hosted by Toque & Canoe’s partners in tourism. This story was not reviewed or edited before publication. If you’d like to read more of Lorna’s travel stories for Toque & Canoe, check out Sidney BC by the Salish Sea, A Poet in the Great Bear Rainforest and Exploring Light’s Birthplace.