I’m on a plane in the middle of the sky. This doesn’t usually bother me. I normally don’t even really notice—with my headphones jammed in my ears and a novel of questionable content illuminating my iPad, I might as well be anywhere. This is one flight that can’t be checked out of. It’s a twelve- seater. No reading light. No pretzels. No flight attendant safety spiel—due in large part to the fact that there are no flight attendants. I’m wearing a parka, two hats and a pair of gloves—and still freezing. The view can’t be checked out of either—I’ve never seen frozen ocean before.
I’m flying from Goose Bay to Gander. That’s right, from Goose to Gander—Canada (obviously,) Newfoundland to be exact. Just as I make friends with the slight bumpiness of the ride we enter a white wash snowstorm and the small bumps become major shakes—I’m beginning to think the real thing missing from this flight is booze. I cannot see anything so I’m sure the pilot can’t either. I squint my eyes shut preparing for death—but it never comes. Instead I feel the reassuring impact of wheels on pavement. “Holy Shit!” I exclaim. The guy next to me looks up, nonplussed. “You sure you’re not from Newfoundland?”
That night I stay at the surprisingly cozy Comfort Inn in Gander.
At dawn the next morning I get in the car with two Fogo islanders who kindly drive me to the ferry. At the beginning of the hour-long ride Shannon and Earl are strangers—by the end I feel like they might give a kidney for me. The ferry is amazing to see coming through frozen ocean—like seeing a new element for the first time. I step out of the ferry and plant my feet firmly on Fogo Island as my lungs inhale the freshest air they’ve ever encountered. It actually tastes sweet. Invigorated, I take in the monolithic Fogo Island Inn. Modern, dark and sleek architecture perched atop the rocks, oddly juxtaposed against the anachronism that is the rest of Fogo Island. It feels as though I’ve not only traveled through time and space but to a different dimension— I’ve gone through the looking glass into a completely different world. There is zero crime. Zero (unless you count the teenagers pilfering gas from neighbors sheds, which I don’t.)
Upon entering the Fogo Island Inn I’m immediately aware it’s one of the best places I’ve ever been. Zen-like simplicity meets the coziness of grandma’s house—if grandma were loaded. Floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the stunning (currently frozen) ocean views from seemingly every spot. There’s no art on the walls distracting from the masterpiece that is the Inn itself. Delightful little touches uplift every nook and cranny, from the hand sewn note pad on the desk to the stunning quilts and wood furniture hand-carved in Fogo. Even the hangers are works of art and my room, like the rest of the inn, has an incredible ocean view.
I start off with a tour of the island led by Clem, a dignified elderly man with a delightful Irish lilt. Right away he brags that his wife is the best hooker on the island. After asking several awkward leading questions he shows me a gorgeous tapestry and says she ‘hooked’ it. Fogo Island—a place so innocent even the word ‘hooker’ has wholesome connotations.
He takes me around the island specifically the area he’s from—a small town known as Tilting where the Irish immigrants settled at the end of the 17th century. They didn’t spread around the small island, they’ve stayed in their own small corner for over 200 years, which looks like the snapshot of an 1800s fishing village. Little has changed in Tilting and this time capsule gives me a genuine feel for what life felt like back then. Quiet, simple, clean air. No wifi. My mind feels quieter already.
He tells me all about Tilting in an accent I’d swear was Irish, save for the hint of Canadian. Rounding the corner, Clem slams on the breaks. “Curabou!” I follow him out of the cur trumping through the thigh deep snow with no idea why until I spot the backside of a magnificent animal. Oh, caribou. We follow him quietly over a ridge—jackpot! There are about a hundred.
I’m awestruck and slightly afraid at the power of the pack. This really does feel like I’ve fallen off the edge of the map. Standing atop a desolate ice mountain with no civilization in site watching a caribou stampede in hundred mile an hour winds I really do feel I’m at the edge of the universe—the final stop for gas before heading to the next galaxy.
There’s nothing like leaving the harsh frozen tundra, a wind-whipping-snow-darts storm worthy of the Hunger Games arena, and walking back into five-star luxury. I immediately go to the bar and order a hot toddy.
Dinner that night is incredible. Fatty cod belly followed by salt lamb with dumplings—salt lamb means that the lambs were raised on oceanside cliffs so basically they’ve been brining their whole lives. It’s even better than it sounds. Something about the salt keeps the tissue tender —it’s the least gamey lamb I’ve ever eaten. Cod’s paired with an incredible chardonnay from Niagra falls. The lamb with another Canadian pinot—everything here is as local as possible. Now to my ignorant American brain Canadian wine’ sounds about as appetizing as Kansan sushi, but I stand corrected. This is quite literally as good as a nice French chard, and not dissimilar in properties, tastefully missing the oak that has come to dominate the US wine market.
After a hardy meal and a few drinks I’m ready to go celebrate St. Paddy’s day!! Where do we go? A club belonging to St. Paddy himself of course! It’s a converted old parish in Tilting. I try to order a champagne spritzer. Nope, sorry California girl, it’s whiskey or beer for you. The Irish in me is delighted. I order one of each and drink them with the hardened ease of my potato farming ancestors.
There’s a microphone there for anyone who wants it. I normally avoid open mic type situations at all cost but each of these offerings is totally delightful in its own right. Onstage people sing Irish drinking songs while the crowd sings along, others read witty poems and some belt out sad tunes that bring the drunkenly emotional crowd to tears—myself included. One guy parodies the famous Irish ballad ‘Fifty Shades of Green’ making it into ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ about a poor man whose girlfriend is a dominatrix. “I get no peace, there’s no release from the fifty shades of grey…” Amazing. Between the whiskey, laughter and tears I feel for the first time I’m properly honoring my Irish ancestry. I head home remiss that I can’t stay up until dawn drinking with my Irish brethren.
Words cannot describe the fresh feeling of waking up to a blue sky over vast frozen ocean. I sit in bed staring at the wall of glass before me while sipping superb coffee and noshing on fresh bread topped with homemade butter and molasses. I’ve found my happy place—I try to record this moment in my mind to replay the next time I’m freaking out—which will probably be on the flight back.
I go downstairs to the bright and spacious dining room where I enjoy Irish fiddle music, 180 degree views and order the best (okay only) blueberry-pork sausage with quail egg and caribou moss breakfast I’ve ever eaten. Absolutely divine. All of the tiny blueberries are picked in blueberry season on the island and then dried. They lend a surprisingly earthy quality, not too fruity or sweet. The caribou moss (named for the animal that survives on it) tops a bowl of house made yogurt; it somehow reminds me of Captain Crunch. Then it’s off for a day of adventure. Sitting in their spacious dining room that’s playing soft Celtic music looking out the gargantuan see-through walls at vast space relaxes my mind. I can’t remember being more relaxed—which is good because I’m about to have my ass kicked.
The Foley brothers pull into the parking lot on twin skidoos (snow mobiles.) Phil and Norman Foley tell us to hop on. The two brothers seem to be racing to the cabin. I’m totally afraid zipping over hills and under low branches, convinced I’m going to fly off at every turn. One heart attack later we get to a cabin where we find a third Foley brother waiting for us. They offer me a glass of water that tastes particularly delicious. “Where is this water from?” I ask naively. “Dat dere pond,” replies an enthusiastically pointing Phil. I finish the glass with less fervor. I apprehensively prepare for a snowshoeing trip. Everyone’s going nuts about the fact that its 5 degrees here today, like Christmas came early. Okay, I’m from California and get chilled from a spring sea breeze so please stop referring to today as ‘hot’. Nonetheless, I don snowshoes and head out into the wild. The views are topped only by the stories Phil and Norm have to tell about growing up on Fogo Island in a family of 12. Next we skidoo down to a lake to go ice fishing! This time I drive, first timidly and then faster until I’m rocketing like a bat outta Hell. Suddenly I find myself doing donuts on the frozen lake and the tables have turned—now I’m the one scaring Norm.
Upon arrival, Norm is irritated that there are already people here fishing…until he gets close enough to discern that the competition is none other than his own niece and nephew—more Foleys! We stand on the frozen lake and after a short while I feel a tug. It’s tugging really hard and I start to freak out because I’ve never been fishing before. Norm grabs the line and helps me pull it up. I pull up an empty line with neither fish nor bait—outsmarted by a trout. The Foleys are more successful and I scream watching them squirm. Luckily they threw him back, though I was slightly remiss to not see Norm’s fishing ritual. While most let their catch suffer on the ice until it reverse-drowns, Norm puts it out of misery by biting its head. No, I’m not shitting you.
Next we go to Foley cabin #2 where we encounter yet another Foley, their brother-in-law Aiden. I ask why he chose to take his wife’s last name and he says, “I didn’t.” They are second cousins on both sides. Tiltingers like to marry other Tiltingers, and with a town of 180 people, most of whom are Foleys as far as I can tell, options are limited. In the second cabin we make lunch—moose soup, fried moose and home caught cod. I watch in awe as they build a fire on the snow and throw frozen cod wrapped in tin foil on top, along with the rusty tin can “kittle” (or kettle as I learned after many confused questions.) We chow down on the feast drinking Bud Light along with our tea of course. I’m completely stuffed and exhausted.
I don’t know if it was the my innards meeting moose for the first time or the pond water, but my stomach feels like I swallowed a can of live bait. I head back to the inn for a hard earned rooftop sauna. The bartender, Jacob, has taken the time to ask the other bartenders what I ordered while he was away and invents a cocktail based on this. It’s perfect for me—like he knows my own palate better than I do despite the fact that we just met. He makes a Negroni-champange mix that I am in love with. My next drink is on the rocks and he breaks out some iceberg ice!!!!!! Jacob says he literally walked down to the shore and chiseled it off himself during last June’s iceberg season (yes, there is a whole season in early summer where stray icebergs float by continuously. And I thought this trip was perfect.) The block of iceberg ice has a faint blue glow. He takes it out, puts it in a bag and pounds it with a mallet.
While having a cocktail at the bar with Jacob I talk to a gorgeous young couple who I kind of have a crush on. They are both architects and came here for their dream honeymoon, which I am crashing. Just then who walks in? Why, a couple of Foley’s of course! Norman and Phil sit down to grab a beer. I’m delighted to see that the locals also hang out here, fulfilling the inn’s founder Zita’s dream of giving guests a true Fogo emersion.
The Foleys don’t have to twist my arm to get me to come out with them. But not before a fantastic dinner of to-die-for salt lamb pate and braised local pork belly. I’m having so much fun talking to Jacob that I shyly ask him if it’s ok for me to stay and eat at the bar with him. He of course says yes and proceeds to force-feed me a flight of cocktails more lethal than the one I took from Goose to Gander. Jacob keeps me well entertained with tales of Newfie history, Newfie jokes, even playing me some contemporary Newfie music, which I love. Jacob, a native Newfie, trained sommelier and former head of food and beverage for the famed Fairmont in Vancouver, curated the entire wine list, cocktail list and stocked the bar himself with booze as close to home as possible. The bitters are made with herbs and berries foraged right here on Fogo Island.
After dinner, the people at the inn kindly give me a lift to Norman’s house where my new friend Julie and I have a blast exploring the small, salt box home so typical of Tilting. He shows me around, the third floor looks as though it’s built for a hobbit. I have the uniquely empowering experience of having to duck to get through doorways for the first time in my life. Apparently they kept it this small so it was easier to keep warm with the tiny wood stove downstairs. His mother’s room is untouched, left exactly as it was when she was alive reflecting the overwhelming reverie for the past that characterizes Tilting. Sonya and Luke are there too and we drink Bud Light and laugh, looking at old family photos and talking about our most painful life experiences with humor and ease—I’m beginning to feel a bit like a Foley myself.
The next day, with a broken heart and equally fragmented liver, I hop in the car headed for the ferry. A kind man named Fabian drives me and we talk all the while. “People are so nice here,” I muse. “Well, bein’ nice is easier than bein’ mean,” he states plainly. This stops my mind. Around the world governments try to figure out how to keep crime at bay, religious organizations preach about how not to cause harm and it all boils down to this one simple statement—be nice, it’s easier.
We get on the ferry. The people kindly invite me to come up to meet the captain. “Name’s Allen. Allen Foley.” You gotta be fucking kidding me. I found the last Foley brother. My journey is officially complete. Like all Foley’s he’s a delightful charmer— he even lets me drive the boat!
I go down below and order a cup of the phenomenal ‘Flat Earth’ coffee, which has to be the only great ferry coffee in the world, and get to meet the handsome founder of the Fogo Company. I don’t have cash so he gives me the two pounds of coffee on the house. I tell him I’ll pay him on PayPal when I get back. “Either way,” he says warmly. Which reminds me, I still need to pay him.
As we sail back into Gander I can feel a palpable shift—I’ve gone back through the looking glass. The ferry stops and I sadly step down onto the Gander earth like an angel banished from heaven.
At the airport a lady pushes in front of me in line, taking my place at the open counter and making me spill my coffee at the same time. She doesn’t stop to say sorry. She doesn’t even glance back, she just marches up to the counter to complain about the flight delay…Toto, we’re not in Fogo anymore.