By Keith Norbury
Known as Vancouver Island’s Harbour City, Nanaimo features marine activities galore – scuba diving, fishing, swimming, beachcombing, sailing, kayaking, strolling along the waterfront, or simply enjoying the sunset from a floating pub. Landlubbers will also find many non-marine activities and attractions to their liking in Nanaimo, a city of about 90,000 that has a rich history as a Hudson’s Bay Company outpost and coal mining town. Attractions include museums, art galleries, bike and Segway rentals, parks, golf, farmers’ markets, and bungy jumping.
Among the city’s most famous treats is its namesake Nanaimo Bar, a confection of wafer crumbs, icing, chocolate and other goodies that come in more than two dozen varieties. Long before the Nanaimo Bar came into being in the 1950s, the Coast Salish people were preparing their own mouth-watering goodies. Today, visitors to nearby Newcastle Island can partake of a salmon barbecue prepared by members of the Snunéymuxw First Nation.
“There’s not a want of things to do,” said Sasha Angus, Chief Executive Officer of Nanaimo Economic Development Corporation and Tourism Nanaimo.
Attendees at the Association of Canadian Port Authorities Annual General Meeting and Conference, Aug. 18-21, will find no shortage of sights to see or things to do in Nanaimo. The challenge will be choosing among a plethora of riches. What follows is a selection of those choices.
Within walking distance of downtown Nanaimo
Nanaimo Museum (100 Museum Way): Located in the $72 million Vancouver Island Conference Centre, the site of the ACPA conference, the museum has permanent exhibits on life in a Snunéymuxw longhouse, a replica coal mine, forestry, and the city’s Chinese heritage, among other things. “The Nanaimo Museum is a really great way to spend an hour or two,” said Jenn Houtby-Ferguson, destination development officer for Tourism Nanaimo. From Aug. 13 to Nov. 2, the museum’s featured exhibition, on loan from the Canadian Museum of Civilization, is about the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913-1918. The expedition “was one of the world’s last greatest journeys of discovery before the age of modern communication and airborne technologies,” says the museum website, www.nanaimomuseum.ca.
The Bastion (Front Street at Bastion Street): Built in 1853, the Bastion is Nanaimo’s original Hudson’s Bay Company outpost, although its original location was on the other side of Front Street. “If you like history, then it’s absolutely worth seeing,” Houtby-Ferguson said. Operated by the Nanaimo Museum, the Bastion has historic cannons that are fired each day from 11:45 a.m. to noon during the summer.
Vancouver Island Military Museum (100 Cameron Rd.): About 100 metres from the Conference Centre, the museum has displays dating back to the War of 1812 and bills itself as “the most significant military museum in British Columbia.”
Harbourfront Walkway: The five kilometre promenade, just steps away from the Conference Centre, stretches from downtown to Maffeo Sutton Park along Newcastle Channel. The walkway passes shops, boats, cafes, and a bronze statue of legendary former mayor Frank Ney, who spearheaded the city’s famous bathtub races (which take place in July). Current Mayor John Ruttan says the walkway is a great place to watch float planes take off and land, and see tugboats pulling log booms. “It’s an active harbour and that’s an exciting thing,” Mr. Ruttan said.
Commercial Street: Two blocks inland is a street that the Canadian Institute of Planners named the greatest in Canada in 2011. The pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare boasts art galleries, the Port Theatre, and Diana Krall Plaza, named for the city’s famous jazz diva (and husband of Elvis Costello). “It’s a small town environment,” said Bernie Dumas, CEO of Nanaimo Port Authority. “We’ve got lots of little shops. It’s fun just to walk around here.”
Port Theatre (125 Front St.): The 800-seat theatre is “literally right around the corner from the Convention Centre.” On Aug. 20, during the ACPA Conference, “Good Timber, Songs and Stories of the Western Logger” performs at the theatre. Described as “a rollicking musical revenue,” it celebrates “a time when loggers climbed trees.” Additional information is available at www.porttheatre.com/events/aug-2013.
Beach Boys: The 1960s California surfer band (although not with all the originals) plays the Port Theatre Aug. 21 and 22. Founding member Mike Love and Bruce Johnston, a Beach Boy since 1965, lead the iconic rock ensemble. More information about events in and around Nanaimo can be found at www.harbourliving.ca.
Summertime Pops by the Sea: On Aug. 17, 6-8 p.m., the evening before the ACPA Conference begins, a free family concert takes place at Maffeo Sutton Park. It features tenor Ken Lavigne, violinist Calvin Dyck, pianist Sarah Wood, and members of the Vancouver Island Symphony and the Abbotsford Youth Orchestra. Visit Mr. Dyck’s website at calvindyck.com/concerts.html for more information.
Newcastle Island: Take a 10-minute, passenger-only Nanaimo Harbour Ferry from the Maffeo Sutton Park dock to this historic provincial park. Walk or bike along the island’s 22 kilometres of trails and learn about its coal mining, sandstone quarry, and herring salters history. Motorized vehicles aren’t permitted. For an additional fee of $1, you can take a bike on the ferry. The Snunéymuxw First Nation has interpretive signage on the island, known traditionally as Saysutshun, and holds a salmon barbecue on Mondays during the summer. Reservations are recommended. Or you can snack at the Q’Uluc’Tun Bistro on the island’s pavilion every day during the summer. For more information, click on www.newcastleisland.ca.
Dinghy Dock Pub: On Protection Island, an inhabited enclave within Nanaimo’s city limits that connects at low tide with Newcastle Island, this drinking hole is billed as “the only registered floating pub in Canada.” A ferry departs from downtown Nanaimo at Front Street and Promenade Drive. (On request, and if demand warrants it, the Nanaimo Harbour Ferry also transports passengers from Newcastle Island to Protection Island.) Mayor Ruttan said the pub is a great spot to watch the sun set over the City of Nanaimo to the west. For more information go to www.dinghydockpub.com.
Gabriola Island: One of the Gulf Islands, Manhattan-sized Gabriola is home to about 4,000 people. To see most of its attractions, such as the Malaspina Galleries (an overhanging ledge of sandstone created by erosion), it helps to have a car. But it’s also a short walk for ferry foot passengers to Gabriola’s main village, as well as to the site of a farmers’ market that takes place every Saturday from May to Thanksgiving. A BC Ferries car and passenger vessel departs from downtown Nanaimo and takes about 20 minutes to reach Gabriola (www.gabriolaisland.org).
Nanaimo Bar Trail: Find out about the 28 edible and non-edible variations of the signature Nanaimo confection. Tourism Nanaimo has compiled a brochure of where to find those variations. Hot off the press, the brochure will be available at Tourism Nanaimo’s booth at the ACPA Conference. You can also find out more about the trail at www.tourismnanaimo.com by clicking on the “Things to Do” tab.
Farmers’ markets: Nanaimo and area have several farm markets, including a downtown market 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Fridays during the summer. Details of that and other markets are on the www.tourismnanaimo.com website.
Vancouver Island Exhibition: This 118-year-old country fair takes place Aug. 16-18 at the Beban Park Fairgrounds, #4 – 2300 Bowen Rd., about six kilometres northwest of the Conference Centre. It features the usual fair fare, such as livestock, pies, clowns, and zucchinis. Among the main-stage entertainers are rockers The Trews. For more details, check out www.viex.ca.
Beaches and lakes: Nanaimo’s position on the sheltered Salish Sea makes its ocean beaches relatively warm (compared with the Island’s west coast, not with Hawaii). Swy-A-Lana Lagoon, for example, is a favourite for snorkelling, windsurfing, and swimming. For those who enjoy fresh water, check out Long Lake, Westwood Lake, or swimming holes on the Nanaimo River. Once again, there are more details at www.tourismnanaimo.com.
Ladies Night at the Queen’s Hotel: The Femme Fatales play every Tuesday night, including Aug. 20, at the Queen’s, 24 Victoria Crescent, which has live music seven nights a week. Check out www.thequeens.ca. More information about events in and around Nanaimo can also be found at www.harbourliving.ca.
Salmon fishing: Like most places on the Island’s east coast, the waters around Nanaimo offer ample opportunities for salt-water sport fishing. August is an ideal time to hook into a Chinook salmon, which can reach 30 pounds or more as it dashes to the spawning grounds. Several Nanaimo companies offer charters and boat rentals. Check with the experts first about local openings and closures. And make sure you have a valid tidal-water fishing licence with a salmon stamp. Try Bob Meyer of Silver Blue Charters (silverbluecharters.com) or google Nanaimo fishing charters and take your chances.
Scuba diving: This is another of Nanaimo’s claims to fame. Three sunken vessels have been transformed into artificial reefs in the area. HMCS Cape Breton is known as the largest upright artificial reef in the world. Other sunken vessels are the destroyer HMCS Saskatchewan and the rescue tug the RivTow Lion. Nanaimo is rated as one of the premier temperate water diving locations in the world. “I know (Jacques) Cousteau when he was here many, many years ago was so impressed with the area for scuba diving,” Mayor Ruttan said. While the waters aren’t freezing cold, a dry suit is recommended. There’s lots of providers that can support that as well,” Ms. Houtby-Ferguson said. They include Nanaimo Dive Outfitters (www.nanaimodiveoutfitters.ca).
Snorkelling with the Seals: Sundown Diving (www.sundowndiving.com) will take you on a 15-minute boat trip to uninhabited Snake Island, not far from the Cape Breton reef, where you can cavort with harbour seals. The company provides all the gear. Just bring a towel and bathing suit, as well as a camera.
Getting around Nanaimo
While many attractions are within easy walking distance of downtown Nanaimo, visitors might wish to explore the environs as well as other locales on Vancouver Island. As a small city, though, Nanaimo doesn’t have the most comprehensive or frequent bus service. (The Island doesn’t have any passenger train service at all at present). For that reason, Tourism Nanaimo’s Houtby-Ferguson recommends that visitors going any distance rent a car. “Most of our places have free parking or very low cost parking relative to other major destinations,” Houtby-Ferguson said. The more energetic can rent a bicycle (www.hubcitycycles.ca) to get around the city, or a Segway scooter (phone toll-free 1-888-809-4285) for a tour of Bowen Park, which is about 15 minutes from the city centre. And anyone with the appropriate licence can partake of a guided motorcycle tour of the area (discoverymotorcycletours.com).
Parks: The Nanaimo area has about 200 parks, said Houtby-Ferguson. There are too many to list here. Notable ones include “gorgeous” Piper’s Lagoon Park, on Departure Bay Road about 20 minutes north of downtown, Petroglyph Park, just south of town, Morden Mine, a former coal mine also south of the city, and Englishman River Falls Provincial Park, near Errington, about 45 kilometres north of Nanaimo. “Probably one of the things we get asked the most about is mountain biking and parks and trails,” Houtby-Ferguson said.
Golf: The area around Nanaimo and Parksville has several public goal courses, including 18-hole Nanaimo Golf Club (www.nanaimogolfclub.ca), 18-hole Morningstar Golf Club (www.morningstargolf.com), and the nine-hole Gabriola Golf & Country Club.
Bungy jumping: WildPlay Element Play Parks, 35 Nanaimo River Rd., 12 kilometres south of downtown offers plenty of thrills for adventures, including zip lines through the forest, a giant swing, and a 46-metre bungy jump toward the Nanaimo River. For more information, click www.wildplay.com/parks/nanaimo.
Cedar and Yellow Point Trail: For a more serene experience, take a tour of this bucolic area, just east of Nanaimo airport, and its artisan attractions, such as McNab’s Corn Maze, and Yellow Point Lodge. A brochure is available at Tourism Nanaimo visitor centres or on the website, www.tourismnanaimo.com.
Whale watching: The closest whale watching company to Nanaimo is Ocean Ecoventures (oceanecoventures.com) at Cowichan Bay, about 60 kilometres south of the city. Orcas (a.k.a. killer whales) are the star attractions. But watchers might also encounter humpback, minke, and grey whales as well as sea lions, seals, and harbour porpoises.
Attractions elsewhere on Vancouver Island
Besides its reputation as the Harbour City, Nanaimo is often called the Hub City because of its centralized location on Vancouver Island. Most of the Island’s major tourist destinations are an easy day trip from Nanaimo – for early risers in any event.
As Bernie Dumas, CEO of Nanaimo Port Authority pointed out, many delegates to the ACPA Conference are coming to Nanaimo from the other side of the country. So it would make sense for such visitors from afar to visit other parts of Vancouver Island while in the neighbourhood. The following are just few of the Islands many other interesting attractions:
Victoria: B.C.’s capital city is on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, 110 kilometres south of Nanaimo. With a population of about 340,000, Greater Victoria has a plethora of attractions. They include the Parliament Buildings, Royal British Columbia Museum, Fairmont Empress Hotel, Fort Rodd Hill National Historic Site and Butchart Gardens.
Tofino and Ucluelet: These communities on the west coast of the Island, about 180 kilometres from Nanaimo, bookend Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. Try surfing on Long Beach (you’ll need a wetsuit). Check out the Eagle Aerie Gallery of famed First Nations artist Roy Henry Vickers in Tofino. In Ucluelet, watch waves crash against the rugged rocks along the Wild Pacific Trail, which began as the pet project of the colourfully named Oyster Jim.
Coombs: En route to the coast, stop by the Old Country Market, about eight kilometres from Parksville, and marvel at the goats on the roof.
Campbell River: Along with Port Alberni, Campbell River portrays itself as Canada’s Salmon Fishing Capital. About 150 kilometres north of Nanaimo, Campbell River’s Discovery Fishing Pier enables anglers to fish for salmon without a boat. A valid fishing licence is required. Tackle is available for rent. (Phone 250-286-6199 or go to www.rivercorp.ca/visitor-centre/discovery-fishing-pier.)
Alas, those represent a fraction of the things to see and do on Vancouver Island. For a more comprehensive look, go to the website of Tourism Vancouver Island, www.tourismvi.ca.