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Nanaimo: food, fun and adventure on Vancouver Island

The Harbour City of Nanaimo was my gateway to the natural beauty of Vancouver Island, a city by the water with easy access to all kinds of outdoor adventure. I’d driven up from Victoria to find a friendly West Coast community, more small town than big city in feel, but with no shortage of things to see and do. Many will arrive at Nanaimo on the ferry from Vancouver but it’s well worth pausing here and using the city as a base for exploring this corner of Vancouver island, with a fantastic food scene in the Cowichan Valley and an unexpected artistic experience in nearby Chemanius.

Nanaimo Harbour in Canada

Nanaimo Harbour in Canada

A walk around Nanaimo Harbour

Having checked into the Coast Bastion Hotel overlooking Nanaimo harbour, I started with a stroll along the harbour front, where the ferry arrives from Vancouver and small fishing boats and pleasure craft are moored in the marina. It’s easy to see why Nanaimo is known as The Harbour City and is a popular stop for sailors who are exploring Vancouver Island, with waters that are sheltered by Newcastle Island and Protection Island. On a sunny day you can hire a kayak or take the ferry over to Newcastle Island which has no cars but lots of hiking trails and swimming spots.

The Harbour in Nanaimo Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

The Harbour in Nanaimo

On the harbour front is a white wooden tower of The Bastion, a well known Nanaimo landmark, which was constructed in 1853 by the Hudson Bay company as a refuge for its employees if the harbour came under attack. The Bastion is open daily and a canon is fired at noon when it’s open. Beside the tower I spotted some information boards about the city’s history which are part of the Nanaimo Heritage Walk, with three different routes covering the Coal, Harbour and Railway connections and a leaflet available from the Nanaimo Museum.

Harbour in Nanaimo Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Harbour in Nanaimo

The Downtown area of Nanaimo

Just a couple of blocks back from the harbour I walked along Commercial Street, the heart of Nanaimo’s downtown area, with shops and cafés. As Nanaimo is a big student town there were several consignment stores, a cross between the charity shops and vintage stores that you’d find in the UK, where I enjoyed rummaging for antiques, second hand clothes and accessories.

Another interesting stop was at the Nanaimo Museum to learn more about the history of the town, including notable residents such as Frank Ney who served as the town’s mayor for 21 years. He helped to establish Nanaimo’s popular bathtub race which takes place in the harbour each summer and was often seen dressed as a pirate at official functions – you’ll see a statue of him on the harbour front.

Downtown Nanaimo in Canada Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Downtown Nanaimo in Canada

Old City Quarter of Nanaimo

From the downtown area it was 10 minute stroll up Fitzwilliam Street to Nanaimo’s Old City Quarter. In the 19th century when The Hudson Bay Company had thriving coal mining interests in Nanaimo, this was the commercial centre of town. Now the heritage buildings have been restored in colourful painted style, with an eclectic mix of businesses selling fashion, gifts, homeware as well as cafés and restaurants.

Old City Quarter in Nanaimo photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Old City Quarter in Nanaimo

At the end of a small covered arcade, I stopped at Bocca Café to try one of their speciality Nanaimo Bars and just across the road called in at McLean’s speciality foods where they stock 150 varieties of cheese from France and around the world. A little further down the road were colourful paintings on the side of a building, part of the Art Lab project by Nanaimo Art Gallery who run youth art programmes.

Old City Quarter in Nanaimo photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Old City Quarter in Nanaimo

If you go: More information on the Old City Quarter Website and Tourism Nanaimo website

Read More: How to spend a perfect weekend in Victoria

Snorkeling with seals in Nanaimo

While the town is a pleasant place to wander, Nanaimo’s biggest attraction is its easy access to some exciting adventure and outdoor activities on Vancouver Island. As a taster I joined a boat trip that would take us up the coast to swim with the seals that bask on the rocks around Snake Island. The West Coast of Canada is well known for its mild but wet climate and there was quite a lot of the “Liquid Sunshine”, as we joined Captain Ed of Sundown Diving at the jetty and our boat headed out past Newcastle Island.

Snorkeling with seals in Nanaimo Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Snorkeling with seals in Nanaimo

I’d already kitted up back at the Sundown Diving shop, easing myself awkwardly into the thick wetsuit over my swimsuit, with masks and snorkel at the ready. On the way out Ed pointed out a pair of river otters who were playfully diving in the channel behind us, as well as some albino racoons watching us from the beach.

Once Snake Island came into view, we could see the seals resting on the rocks, with a narrow sheltered channel which was like their own private swimming pool and playground. With flippers and masks on, it was time to jump from the end of the boat into the water, the bit I hadn’t been looking forward to! Once in, any concerns about being cold and wet disappeared, as the extremely buoyant wetsuit was toasty warm and kept me floating effortlessly on the surface.

Snorkeling with seals in Nanaimo Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Snorkeling with seals in Nanaimo

We swam closer to the seals which dived into the water on our approach, observing us from a safe distance, their whiskered heads peeping out of the water. Ed had explained that there would normally be a couple who were more curious and might approach us, especially the younger pups who had less fear and more curiosity. Sure enough, two of the seals swam within a few metres of us, popping their heads up to observe us before playfully diving down again, even brushing against the legs of some of our group.

Seals in Nanaimo Photo: Sundown diving

Seals in Nanaimo Photo: Sundown diving

With the snorkel mask we had the opportunity to observe them underwater, but it was so murky green that I decided I’d see more of the seals from the surface. After around an hour in the water it was time to swim back to the boat and Ed pulled out the thermos flasks of hot coffee to warm us up, as the boat took us back into harbour. It had been a thrill to get close to some of the seals, swimming among them to feel we were part of their natural environment. Although I’d wished for blue skies, it didn’t matter at all to the seals, who were enjoying the water from any direction.

Snorkeling with seals in Nanaimo

Snorkeling with seals in Nanaimo

If you go: More information about Snorkeling with seals in Nanaimo on the Sundown Diving Website . The experience lasted around 4 hours, including the time to get equiped in the diving shop and getting out to the seals with around an hour in the water. The experience runs 5 days a week and the group size is normally 4-6 people. If you want to take photos of the seals you’ll need a waterproof camera and be sure to have it secured to you with a strap.

Take a kayak to Newcastle Island

That afternoon, we had planned to try another adventure experience, paddling a kayak across to Newcastle Island, which is just a stone’s throw from the Alberni Outpost Adventure Centre. The gulf islands stretch all along the coast of south Vancouver island and are rich in First Nation history as well as offering lots of rocky caves and inlets to explore by kayak. Sadly, the weather was against us and the expedition was cancelled, so instead of arriving by kayak, we took the ferry to Dinghy Dock pub on Protection Island for dinner.

Read More: How to spend a perfect weekend in Victoria

Kayak tour in Nanaimo harbour photo Alberni Outpost

Kayak tour in Nanaimo harbour photo: Alberni Outpost

Dinner at Dinghy Dock Pub

Unlike Newcastle Island which is a provincial park, Protection Island has 350 residents and lots of houses, although it’s only accessible by the small ferry that goes back and forth each hour. The Dinghy Dock Pub is a popular Nanaimo institution – it’s on a floating dock which is attached by a ramp to Protection Island, with an outdoor patio and plenty of space inside too. We settled in at one of the banquettes among the flags, ship signs and other vintage nautical memorabilia, to order a beer from the friendly staff and enjoy the atmosphere.

Dinghy Dock Pub in Nanaimo Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Dinghy Dock Pub in Nanaimo

The menu had something for every taste, including plenty of seafood dishes – I ordered the tasty Urban Mist Salad topped with garlic prawns and a side of crispy Yam fries. Seafood lovers could choose from clam chowder, fish & chips, a pint’o’prawns, wild salmon and Salt Spring Island mussels, as well as salads, wraps, ribs and burgers with quite a few veggie and gluten free options.

Dinghy Dock Pub in Nanaimo Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Dinghy Dock Pub in Nanaimo

There’s often a live band playing at the Dinghy Dock Pub and Wednesday nights May-September are Sailboat nights, when you can sit on the deck with a drink and watch local sailboaters doing friendly time trials in Nanaimo harbour. After dinner we were back on the ferry as dusk was falling, giving us a great view of the harbour and the Nanaimo shoreline as we headed back across to the ferry landing stage.

Dinghy Dock Pub in Nanaimo Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Dinghy Dock Pub in Nanaimo

If you go: More information on the Dinghy Dock Pub website. The ferry can be caught on the harbour jetty in front of the corner of Front Street and Promenade Drive ($9 return), which has a waiting room. Ferries run every hour (schedule on the Dinghy Dock Website) but if there are enough people they will make more than one crossing to ensure everyone gets across.

On the Nanaimo Bar trail

If you have a sweet tooth like me, you’ll enjoy trying the Nanaimo Bar in various cafés around town, a well known speciality that even has its own display in the Nanaimo Museum. The cake has a biscuit base with layers of sweet vanilla custard and a chocolate ganache topping, originating in the 1950s when the cake was a popular choice for charity teas and fund-raisers.

So many cafés and businesses serve the Nanaimo bar that they’ve created a Nanaimo Bar Trail, and you can pick up a leaflet with details of where to find it around town. Not only have different cafés created their own variations of the classic bar, but you can find Nanaimo Bar ice cream, fudge, cocktails and even a pedicure with Nanaimo bar scents of chocolate and vanilla.

Nanaimo Bar trail in Nanaimo Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Nanaimo Bar trail in Nanaimo

On my wanderings around Nanaimo, I took the opportunity to try a few different variations, such as the classic bar at Mon Petit Choux, a peanut variation at Bocca Cafe, Nanaimo bar ice cream on the harbour front at Waterfront Confections and a spring roll at Noodlebox. After a while I had to admit sweet defeat from the rich and chocolatey Nanaimo Bar, so you might want to spread out your tastings over a few days to avoid sugar overload.

If you go: More information about the Nanaimo Bar Traildownload a leaflet with all the places that are part of the trail.

Read More: How to spend a perfect weekend in Victoria

Where else to eat in Nanaimo

Mon Petit Choux in Nanaimo

Mon Petit Choux is a French style bakery and café which makes a great coffee or lunch stop. They serve wholesome salads, sandwiches, pastries and vegetarian options, as well as the gluten free Nanaimo bar with rice crisp base and butter cream filling which I tried with my coffee.

More Information: Mon Petit Choux Website 101-120 Commercial Street, Nanaimo

Mon Petit Choux in Nanaimo Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Mon Petit Choux in Nanaimo

Gabriel’s Café in Nanaimo

This is one of the most stylish cafés in town and was my choice for breakfast in Nanaimo, with cool artwork, country music playing and backrests made from Nicaraguan coffee sacks. The café supports the farm to table movement and they source their meat, vegetables and other produce from local, family-run farms. By eating local you can expect produce that is fresh and full of flavour with traceable origins, so you know you’re not eating any nasties and are supporting the local economy.

Breakfast is served until 3pm and I tried the gorgeous fluffy pancakes, piled high with apples, bananas, blueberries and yoghurt with honey to pour over. It certainly set me up for the rest of the day and there were lots of other options such as scrambled eggs with pulled pork or chorizo sausage with roasted peppers. For lunch (if you can even manage it) they serve soups, salads, burgers and rice bowls with plenty of choices that are veggie or gluten free.

More Information: Gabriel’s Cafe website 39A Commercial Street, Nanaimo

Gabriel's cafe in Nanaimo Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Gabriel’s cafe in Nanaimo

Where to stay in Nanaimo

I stayed at the friendly Coast Bastion Hotel, which has a great position on Nanaimo’s waterfront. From my upper floor room I could see across the harbour to Protection Island and Newcastle Island, with sailing boats moored in the bay. My room was comfortable, bright and modern, with a couch near the window to relax and take in the view. The bathroom was clean and spacious with modern fittings. This hotel is very well located close to the ferry terminal and downtown area, with an adjoining car park, making it a convenient base if you are touring the area or staying in Nanaimo a few days.

Coast Bastion Hotel in Nanaimo Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Coast Bastion Hotel in Nanaimo

More information and book here: Coast Bastion Hotel Nanaimo

While Nanaimo has plenty to keep you busy for a few days, it’s also a gateway to attractions in the south of Vancouver Island which can be easily visited by car. After a couple of days in Nanaimo, I was heading back towards Victoria and took the opportunity to stop off and see some interesting places which I can highly recommend.

Read More: How to spend a perfect weekend in Victoria

The Chemanius mural project

Just 30 minutes out of Nanaimo on Highway 1 heading back towards Victoria, I stopped at the small town of Chemanius, where I heard that there were murals around town. Coming from Bristol I’m a big fan of street art, so I knew I had to stop and find out more about this artistic project. Parking outside the Visitor Centre, I picked up an official Mural Map ($3) which gave me a map of the mural sites and the story behind each of them, and was quickly off on my self guided tour.

Murals in Chermanius, Canada Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Murals in Chermanius, Canada

Chemanius once relied on forestry as its main industry, but when the economy faltered, the mural project was conceived as a way of of attracting more visitors. The first murals were completed in 1982 and now the whole town is an open air art gallery, with around 50 murals and sculptures, which depict the life of the First Nation Peoples, farmers and settlers who built the town.

Murals in Chermanius, Canada Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Murals in Chermanius, Canada

Some of the murals show the loggers in the forestry industry at work, cutting trees and operating the sawmill, while others show miners for copper, silver and gold at the Leonora Mine. The faces of First Nation Peoples look out hauntingly from the murals and many notable local characters are there too, from the lumber barons to the postmaster, the hockey team and the volunteers who worked on the mural projects.

Murals in Chermanius, Canada Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Murals in Chermanius, Canada

The mural project has made Chemanius a centre for the arts, with a theatre, bandstand and events throughout the holiday season. You’ll find gift shops and cafes too, making it a very pleasant place to spend a couple of hours and get an insight into life on Vancouver island in this mill town turned outdoor art gallery.

If you go: Chermanius Website and Chemanius Murals Website. There is a free car park in front of the visitor centre where you can get all the information you need about the murals and things to do in the town and surrounding area.

Unsworth winery in the Cowichan Valley

After visiting Chemanius, I continued along Highway 1 through the beautiful Cowichan Valley, and stopped between Nanaimo and Victoria for lunch at the Unsworth Winery. The Cowichan Valley has always been fertile for agriculture, but since the first commercial vineyards were planted in the 1970s it is becoming well known as a wine making area too. There are plenty of cider makers, distilleries and craft breweries just off Highway 1, so perfect for a stop-off when you’re travelling between Nanaimo and Victoria, although make sure you have a designated driver if you’re planning to do some wine tasting.

If you’d prefer to leave the car behind while spending a day exploring all the best food and wine stops (how sensible) there are a number of companies offering tours from Nanaimo, Victoria and Cowichan depending on where you are based – check out more information about tours on the Cowichan Tourism Website.

Unsworth winery in Cowichan Valley, Canada photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Unsworth winery in Cowichan Valley, Canada

At Unsworth Winery I met with winemaker Tim Turyk, who bought the vineyard in 2009 and has developed it into a beautiful property, with a tasting room overlooking the pond and a restaurant set in the 100 years old farmhouse. Tim had happy memories of the area after spending childhood summers nearby and was looking for a new challenge after taking early retirement, when he came across the vineyard for sale.

The area has a warm and temperate microclimate with plenty of West Coast rain, so the winery has planted new mildew-resistant Blattner grape varieties that suit the growing conditions, combined with the better known Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.

Unsworth winery in Cowichan Valley, Canada photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Unsworth winery in Cowichan Valley, Canada

In the light and airy tasting room, I was able to try some of the popular Charme de L’Ile sparkling wine, Vancouver Island’s answer to champagne, as well as the rose which is so popular for summer drinking that they had almost sold out this season’s bottles. The knowledgeable someliers will talk you through the different wines you’d like to try and of course there are bottles of everything on sale for you to take away and enjoy later.

Unsworth winery in Cowichan Valley, Canada photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Unsworth winery in Cowichan Valley, Canada

A short tour of the winery took us up to the viewing area overlooking the winery, with information about the wines and how they are made. I learned that around 520 grapes go into one glass of wine – that’s a lot of growing for your enjoyment! We finished in the old farmhouse overlooking the vines, with restaurant tables set in different rooms of the house, creating a relaxed and intimate atmosphere. As I love to try different dishes, we ordered from the Small Plates menu, with dishes that were beautifully presented as well as delicious. I had to try the Spot Prawns which are a local delicacy with a short season, and they came arranged on a gazpacho sauce with soft piles of watercress pesto.

Unsworth winery in Cowichan Valley, Canada photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Unsworth winery in Cowichan Valley, Canada

There were chunky polenta fries with a smoked cheddar and cashew lime dip, and a salad of yellow and red roasted beets with goats cheese croquettes and candied walnuts, refreshed with an orange vinigarette; a wonderful combination of earthy, sweet, salty and sharp flavours. The dishes were beautifully balenced and refined and of course the friendly but professional staff can advise you on the best wine pairings to try with each dish.

If you go: Unsworth Winery Website.

My visit to Nanaimo had given me a taste of what this southern part of Vancouver Island could offer, with plenty of outdoor adventure, an insight into the culture of First Nation Peoples and farming settlers, as well as glorious food, from the atmospheric pub to the refined wineries. Combining a week in Nanaimo and Victoria with a driving tour of this part of Vancouver Island certainly left me wishing I could see more of this temperate and beautiful corner of Canada.

Read More: How to spend a perfect weekend in Victoria

Visitor Information for Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada

You can find more information about holidays in Nanaimo, Vancouver Island and Canada on the Tourism Nanaimo Website, the Hello BC Website and the Canada Keep Exploring Website.

Air Transat flight Heather flew from London Gatwick to Vancouver with Air Transat with a transfer flight to Victoria and then hire car to Nanaimo. Air Transat flies daily from Gatwick to Vancouver from £407 return.

From Vancouver there are several connecting flights each day to Victoria with West Jet. Alternatively, you can hire a car in Vancouver and cross on the ferry to Nanaimo with BC Ferries.

If you’re flying on Air Transat Economy Class, look out for the Option Plus Service which gives you additional benefits such as seat selection, priority check-in, a dedicated check-in counter, extra baggage allowance, priority boarding and a comfort kit for optimal comfort on board.

If you want an extra treat on board, you can order one of the special meals created in partnership with Quebec chef Daniel Vézina which are served free in Club Class and may be purchased in Economy for a supplement of £15 / €20, for one of the six special dishes plus a cheese plate, dessert and glass of wine.

If you’re considering a holiday in British Columbia, check out the 7 night/8 day Vancouver and Victoria hopper package offered by Canadian Affair that includes 4 nights in Vancouver and 3 nights in Victoria with hotels, flights and transfers.

Remember that in addition to a valid passport, UK Citizens need  to obtain an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) in advance. This can be obtained online for $7 CAD here but ensure that you do not leave it to the last moment in case of any problems.

If arriving via Victoria Airport, look out for the YYJ Airport Shuttle which runs a regular bus transfer to downtown Victoria, dropping off at your hotel or other convenient points in town. There is a check-in desk for the YYJ shuttle in the arrival hall of Victoria Airport and the service costs $25 per person one way. The transfer time takes around 30 minutes.

If you need to rent a car to travel on to Nanaimo and explore Vancouver Island, there is a convenient rental location in the downtown area of Victoria with Avis at 1001 Douglas Street and also a desk at Victoria Airport.

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Read about the Harbour City of Nanaimo in British Columbia, Canada, your gateway to adventure on Vancouver Island

I was hosted on this trip to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary by Destination Canada and Canadian Affair.

This article is originally published at Heatheronhertravels.com – Read the original article here

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18 Comments

  • Reply
    Zoe Dawes
    September 27, 2017 at 12:29 pm

    What a comprehensive, entertaining and informative article on Nanaimo. You have produced the definitive guide by the look of it. I first heard of Nanaimo on a bear-watching trip to Canada a couple of years ago, when we were introduced to Nanaimo Bars – very moreish!

    • Reply
      Heather Cowper
      September 30, 2017 at 6:09 am

      @Zoe Those Nanaimo bars were delicious, but so sweet so I could only manage one a day!

  • Reply
    Becky Moore
    September 27, 2017 at 4:51 pm

    Looks like you had a wonderful time Heather – a stunning place to visit!
    Becky Moore´s last blog post ..8 of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful vineyards to visit in Tuscany

    • Reply
      Heather Cowper
      September 30, 2017 at 6:08 am

      @Becky Nanaimo certainly has plenty to offer both in the town and nearby

  • Reply
    Anna
    September 29, 2017 at 7:31 pm

    I love cities like this – by the sea, a local and small feel as you say and by the sounds of it excellent foodie experience too! A live band on the dinghy dock sounds like a perfect summer evening spent!
    Anna´s last blog post ..Astor Grill at Cliveden House

    • Reply
      Heather Cowper
      September 30, 2017 at 6:07 am

      @Anna It was a fun place for a drink and great food too

  • Reply
    Kathryn @TravelWithKat
    September 30, 2017 at 8:40 pm

    I’m very envious of your swim with the seals. What a joy that must have been and what great photos, even in the murky water. Such a magical island.

    • Reply
      Heather Cowper
      October 4, 2017 at 12:20 am

      @Kathryn It was a fun experience and those thick wetsuits kept out the cold

  • Reply
    Carrie
    September 30, 2017 at 8:52 pm

    Nanaimo bars are my all-time favorite dessert, so I’m dying to try out the Nanaimo Bar Trail! My mouth is watering just looking at the pictures!

  • Reply
    alison abbott
    September 30, 2017 at 11:38 pm

    I’ve always been a big fan of Naniamo bars (my husbands family is Canadian), but never knew much about where they came from. What a comprehensive guide you’ve given us. I think I would enjoy visiting as much as I enjoy the sweet! The Dinghy Dock Club is a spot I would love.

  • Reply
    Lucy
    October 2, 2017 at 8:13 pm

    Nanaimo looks lovely, I always like harbour cities and being close to the water. It usually means good food too and looks to be the case in Nanaimo (especially those Nanaimo bars!).

    • Reply
      Heather Cowper
      October 4, 2017 at 12:18 am

      @Lucy There was some great seafood in Nanaimo

  • Reply
    golden triangle tour with mathura
    October 3, 2017 at 6:05 am

    Great, That island is awesome to experience wildlife and natural things. Diving is one of the best adventure to experience here. Stunning photos you shared of your trip.

  • Reply
    Emmanuel Turyatunga
    October 7, 2017 at 9:11 am

    Hello
    Am Emmanuel, wooooow I love the beauty you talk about in Nanaimo. Those seals and sea foods must be the best things that will ever happen to me. I hovwever am from Uganda and I would love to invite you to check out the beautiful scenery Heather. It would be better if you came with friens have fun, see the fantastic beasts, enjoy the crispy hot smoked barbeque then scouch your skin with that tender ice warm sunset.Heather, friends, believe me you will love every minute and will be live the story not tell it.
    emmanuelturyatunga1@gmail.com

  • Reply
    Jules
    October 15, 2017 at 1:47 am

    Sounds and looks gorgeous – particularly the old city quarter and Newcastle Island

    • Reply
      Heather Cowper
      October 17, 2017 at 4:39 pm

      @Jules I wish I’d been able to get over to Newcastle, was supposed to kayak there but cancelled due to rain

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