FOGO ISLAND & CHANGE ISLANDS – (Preserving The Past)

Fogo and Brimstone Head (July 2021)

This summer was my first visit to Fogo Island and Change Islands. I really had no pre-conceived notions of what to expect, other than it being known world-wide as “Iceberg Alley” from the myriad of migrating icebergs every spring, the famous Fogo Island Inn and numerous hiking trails. One thing I did take away from our trip was that these two rugged islands go above and beyond to preserve their past, from Museums, Salt Box Houses and Newfoundland Ponies, right down to the colour of fish stages.

The Ferry

GETTING HERE

Farewell Change Islands – Fogo Island

The MV Veteran is the ice-class passenger/vehicle ferry that operates the Fogo Island and Change Islands route. It departs from the community of Farewell, located 84km north of Gander and has carrying capacity for 200 passengers and 60 vehicles. You pay your fare on the Farewell side for a ‘return’ trip to Fogo Island and/or Change Islands. Vehicles travelling to Change Islands are loaded first and passengers are encouraged to arrive 30-60 minutes prior to departure. The traffic is busiest during the tourist-driven summer months and around holidays when people return home for a visit.

Schedule Information: 1-833-653-3779 or 709-729-3835

Crossing Times:
Farewell to Fogo Island (13 km): 1 hour & 15 minutes (via Change Islands), or 45 minutes (direct)
Farewell to Change Islands (6 km): 20 minutes

https://www.gov.nl.ca/ti/files/ferryservices-schedules-pdf-old-fogo-ci-farewell-rates.pdf

Change Islands

Change Islands encompasses three islands that are separated by narrow straights known as “tickles”. Only two of the islands are populated. The islands were permanently settled in the early 1700’s. Despite its name, not much has changed here. Structures are unvarying, saltbox houses are white and fish stages that line the shores are painted traditional red. The setting is that of an earlier time.

The Change Islands Interpretation Centre, located on the main road 12km from the ferry terminal, was our first stop. The centre offers locally made crafts, a tea room and an impressive Geological Exhibit of Change Islands rock formations, some of the oldest rocks in North America. Also on display are Change Islands prehistoric bi-faces stone tools from one of the largest caches ever found in Newfoundland, dating back 2000 years.

The Olde Shoppe Museum was our next stop. Upon entering this barn-like structure we could hear the diddley-diddley-dee of Peter Porter playing his accordion. Mr. Porter, the owner and operator of the museum, is not only a gifted musician but also a masterful storyteller, never stuck for a word as he provides a detailed description of his prized Newfoundland artifacts.

For lunch we stopped at the Harbour View Cafe where I had one of the best club house sandwiches ever. Choosing to sit outside we enjoyed our lunch in the sun as we took in a lovely inlet view. 

The last stop before heading back to the ferry and carrying on to Fogo was the Newfoundland Pony Sanctuary. The sanctuary, established to preserve and protect the island’s dwindling population, operates a breeding program as there are less than 400 Newfoundland ponies left in the world. Widely known as the “Poor Man’s Horse”, the Newfoundland Pony was the backbone of rural Newfoundland. Their strong physical characteristics, stocky build, thick coats and sure-footed hooves made them better able to endure Newfoundland’s harsh winters and rugged island terrain. Tirelessly they would haul fish from the stages, firewood on sleds and plows in the field. The Newfoundland Pony is a loyal and gentle soul. Sadly we didn’t stay here long. It was hot, the wind was minimal and the stout numerous and relentless. The ponies weren’t too pleased with the pestering either yet they happily approached the wooden fence to check us out in search for treats or a good old scratch.

The Bridge and The Tickle

Fogo Island

Fogo Island is made up of 11 communities, Fogo, Fogo Island Central, Barr’d Islands, Joe Batt’s Arm, Deep Bay, Island Harbour, Seldom, Little Seldom, Shoal Bay, Stag Harbour and Tilting. Though you can drive the entire island in a few hours there is enough to see and do here to keep going for a month!

Fogo Island’s history will take you back to the early 16th Century when the French and Portuguese frequented and mapped the shores. By the mid 1700’s the English and Irish arrived to settle permanently. They all came for one thing, cod fish! For hundreds of years the cod fishery was the way of life. But in 1992 the northern cod fishery collapsed leaving thousands of Newfoundland fishermen out of work. Fogo Island, more remote and isolated than other outports, endured its fair share of hardship. Today it is a world renowned tourist destination with the Fogo Island Inn leading the way. B&B’s, restaurants, museums, craft shops, artist studios, boat tours, hiking trails and countless icebergs and whales (that arrive every spring) now make up the fabric of this majestic place.

One of our stops was to the Marconi Wireless Interpretation Centre that sits high on a hilltop overlooking the town of Fogo. The original Marconi Station, built in 1911, played a vital role in wireless communication, keeping island residents, local fisherman and passing mariners safe. Another place of interest was Mona’s Quilt & Jam Shop in Joe Batt’s Arm, an old saltbox house handed down to the owner by her family. Serving as a store and family museum every square foot of space is utilized with locally made patchwork quilts covering the walls, doors and stair rails. Crafts, knits, jams and jellies can be found in the remaining nooks and crannies.

Another highlight in Fogo was our close encounter with wildlife, a caribou and a fox. The caribou, a male, was travelling solo away from the 200+ Woodland Caribou Herd that call Fogo Island home. Nearing dark he crossed the highway in front of us, perched himself on top of a hill, gave us a nostril flaring sniff and carried on his way. Minutes later, on the same highway, a fox dawdled up the road, posed for a picture and veered off into the woods. Both were wonderful sights to see.

The Fogo Island Inn

The Fogo Island Inn is located in beautiful Joe Batt’s Arm. Built in 2013 by Zita Cobb, a Fogo Island native, the inn is an architectural marvel. It sits high on stilts above a rugged, barren coastline giving its 29 rooms unobstructed panoramic views of the North Atlantic Ocean. Building the inn was Zita’s way of giving back to her homeland, with hopes to bring prosperity back to the island. Its contemporary architecture and minimalist design is focused solely on sustainability and preservation, leaving as small of a footprint on the area as possible. I wish I could write about staying there, but at $2,075.00 CAD per night for the lowest-priced room, it was a little out of our price range. We did inquire about doing the lunch/tour they offer but were advised that, due to Covid-19 restrictions, it was temporarily suspended and that the hotel was only open to its guests. The best we could do was go for a leisurely sunset stroll around the inn on nearby footpaths and dream of someday staying there.

Fogo Head Trail

Fogo Head Trail is a 4.0km, well-marked, moderate loop trail that incorporates a small section of road through the town of Fogo. Alternatively, you can do a linear hike to one of two lookout points at the top and hike back the same way. The trail is made up of wooden boardwalks, a series of long staircases and benches, in case you feel inclined to rest along the way. It provides spectacular views of Fogo, icebergs and whales (in season) and the stark landscape with its erratic rocks and berry rich barrens. From the top you see lots of tiny islands that spot the coast. This trail is one of four trails located directly in the town. If you have time, you should take it in as the views are stunning.

Brimstone Head Trail

Brimstone Head is pegged to be one of the “Four Corners of the World”, according to the ‘Flat Earthers’, and why not? It looks like one could fall off the edge of the earth here.

This massive granite outcrop stands tall over the town of Fogo. The hike takes you over a barren landscape on wooden boardwalks and up a staircase that wraps around steep, scraggly cliffs. Safety chains are in place to assist in the eeky sections. At the top there is a large wooden deck, a perfect place to rest or have a picnic as you take in the breathtaking panoramic view of the Atlantic Ocean in front of you, or the picturesque town of Fogo behind you.

We chose to hike Brimstone Head at sunset and soak in the soft evening orange glow. Despite it being incredibly windy at the top, we sat to eat our Bangbelly cookies bought earlier that day.

As jaw dropping as the views were going up, the views coming down were just as beautiful as the street lights were coming on, making the town of Fogo look like a magical storybook village. This hike was short but sweet and a wonderful way to end our 2 day trip to the island.

Bangbelly Café

Located on Main Street in Fogo, the Bangbelly Café is must place to eat. Now before I praise them to the high heavens, and I will, there was one problem, they were not open early enough to accommodate two crazed coffee-addicts from St. John’s. Something we learned from this trip, for the next time we visit, is to bring our Jetboil and Thermos to get us through the early morning hours, as most places that do serve coffee don’t open until 11:00am.

The moment we entered the Bangbelly we knew we were in for a treat! The white painted wooden walls and ceiling creates an uncrowded, airy atmosphere. Set to the 1950s/60s, the décor is a vintage mix of brightly coloured benches and bookshelves, chic kitchen tables and chairs and mismatched retro dishes. The menu is high-end, with a unique twist on traditional Newfoundland meals that cater to every appetite, even those with food restrictions. Freshly brewed coffee percolates through the air and the sight and smell of house-made desserts and baked goods will have you drooling as you make your way to your table. The staff, attentive, warm and welcoming, will ensure your time here is perfect. Reservations are highly recommended during all hours as this café is popular, not only with tourists, but the locals as well.

Delighted with our fish-n-chips and seafood chowder, we paid for our meals, but not before filling a box with scones, cookies and cakes to enjoy later on our hike to Brimstone Head.

Growlers

Growlers, located in Joe Batt’s Arm, is the best ice cream on the island of Newfoundland, hands down. It’s name comes from the chunks of ice or “growlers” that break off icebergs as they drift south to warmer waters. The ice cream made here is Fogo Island authentic, using freshly foraged blueberries, partridge berries and rhubarb, creating masterpieces like the partridgeberry jam tart! If I had to live next to this place I’d be as wide as I am tall!

Red Fishing Stages

“Why are all of the fish stages Red?” This being my first time to Fogo Island and Change Islands I was perplexed as to why all of the fish stages were painted red. I think I thought I was going see vibrant, jelly-bean row colors that I have imprinted in my head from living in St. John’s for the past 32 years. But there are no yellows, greens, blues, purples or pinks here. The houses are predominantly white and the stages, sheds and barns red. Fogo Island and Change Islands are frozen in an earlier time.

With some digging I stumbled across a few theories to answer this nagging question. One suggestion was on days when fog was peas soup thick, a red fish stage would provide contrast to the white blanket that surrounded it, acting as a beacon or visual guide for fishermen returning home with their catch. Though this rationale carries some weight, it is not the main reason for the colour red. The answer lies in Red Ochre Paint!

Red Ochre Paint and the Newfoundland Cod Fishery go hand in hand. It was a staple of the time. Since the days of early European settlement, fishing families would make paint using bi-products from the cod and seal fishery (cod-liver oil and seal oil) and red ochre powder that they purchased directly from local fish merchants. In large wooden barrels these two ingredients were mixed creating a deep, red, oily paint. Throughout the winter months it would have to be stirred to keep it from separating so that it was ready to use in the spring. In modern times, locals don’t have to go through such painstaking lengths to produce paint as store bought paint is widely available and comes in an array of colours. But, for whatever reason, Change Islands and Fogo Island residents still prefer the traditional red ochre color. I guess it serves as a direct link to the past, a past of which they have every right to be proud.

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