I’d never really been smitten with Nanaimo. It’s the type of town where I’d stop for lunch on my way to Tofino or Campbell River.
Nanaimo, 70 miles north of Victoria on the east side of Vancouver Island, is the island’s second largest city. More than 2,000 years ago it was the home of five Coast Salish villages and became a Hudson’s Bay Co. outpost in the mid-1800s.
My impressions of Nanaimo are far less historical: those chocolate and custard cookie Nanaimo bars and jazz singer and Nanaimo native Diana Krall.
After spending several days in Nanaimo recently, however, my feelings have changed.
While attending a conference in this city of 77,000, I had a free afternoon and the sunshine and cherry blossoms were out in full force. A walking tour revealed a vibrant city with an interesting history, a growing skyline, beautiful views, and lots of places to hike, bike, picnic and camp.
My tour started at the water. Harbourside Walkway is Nanaimo’s top attraction. The 3-mile path meanders along Nanaimo Harbour between Harbour Park Mall and the Departure Bay Ferry Terminal.
Rising above the pedestrian path on Front Street is the Nanaimo Bastion. Built in 1853 by the Hudson’s Bay Co., it’s Nanaimo’s oldest structure. On May 18, the Bastion will open for tours and events, for the summer season with a cannon firing and celebration beginning at 11:40 a.m.
Nearby is the Downtown Farmers Market, open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays, April 13 to Oct. 5.
My first stop was at Troller’s Fish and Chips, down a ramp from Harbourside Walkway amidst the fishing and pleasure craft in the city’s Boat Basin. It’s no surprise that a sign on the wall reads, “Our fish slept in the sea last night.”
Troller’s features tasty fish and plenty of outdoor seating, but lines do get long in summer. Servings are huge, so order accordingly. Another alfresco choice is the nearby Penny’s Palapa, an outdoor floating restaurant.
Heading south along the dock I made my way to the Protection Connection ferry. I walked inside the “terminal,” which is in fact a boat transformed into a waiting room. Once an hour, the Island Queen departs for nearby Protection Island.
I sat on a bench in the sun and chatted with a young woman who lives on the island. Soon the Island Queen arrived and Bruce the captain collected our fares – $6 roundtrip for adults, $4 for bikes, $2 for dogs.
The small blue and white boat made it to the island in about 10 minutes and we docked at the Dinghy Dock Pub &Family Restaurant, touted as Canada’s only floating pub.
Follow one of the public trails on the island; it takes an hour or so to circumnavigate it. Pirates Park is a good spot for a picnic lunch.
Back at the Dinghy Dock Pub, I sat outside, soaking up the sun and suds, a nice cold mug of Molson Canadian in front of me. It’s the perfect spot to look back at downtown Nanaimo, with its rising skyline and Mount Benson in the background.
If you have kids in tow, no problem; the pub has a family section.
Another nearby destination is Newcastle Island, a provincial park accessible by passenger ferry from Maffeo Sutton Park on the Harbour Walkway. The ferry runs May through October and is a fun spot for hiking and biking.
Newcastle is steeped in history. It was home to Salish First Nations villages, a coal mine, a herring saltery and sandstone and pulp stone quarries. Today, a visitor center and gift shop are housed in a 1930s dance pavilion originally built by the Canadian Pacific Steamship Co.
It’s also a good spot for camping.
After taking the Island Queen back to Nanaimo, I went on my own walking tour; pick up a heritage tour map at the Downtown Nanaimo Information Centre, 150 Commercial St.
I discovered the Old City Quarter, a part of town that I’d missed on previous visits. Just blocks from the Waterfront and Arts Districts, the old quarter has plenty of shops, restaurants and historical buildings across Bastion Bridge.
St. Andrew’s United Church, with its tall bell tower and picturesque roofline, was built in 1893. The Victorian Italianate-style Occidental Hotel, opened in 1887, is the oldest remaining building in the area.
Lunch had long worn off so it was time for a Nanaimo bar. I went into Flying Fish, an upscale kitchen and gift shop and asked, “Where can I find Nanaimo bars?”
The friendly clerk directed me to the bakery at Thrifty Foods, in Port Place Shopping Centre, about a 10-minute walk away. The bars were lying in state in a glass case, and only 99 cents each.
So what is a Nanaimo bar? Its origins are somewhat of a mystery, but legend traces its roots to Nanaimo’s coal mining days. Another version is that Dutch settlers brought the rich treat to Nanaimo in the early 1900s. The most common explanation is that it was inspired by a recipe contest.
It’s so popular that the city even has the recipe on its Web site.
The next morning, I awoke to drizzle and gray skies. I had a few hours to explore before heading home, so I borrowed an umbrella from the front desk at my hotel and headed out.
With a single tall nonfat latte from Javawocky in one hand and my bumbershoot in the other, I headed north along the Harbour Walkway. I walked past the Vancouver Island Conference Centre that’s under construction and scheduled to open next year. It will house a conference center, condominiums, 140-room hotel and retail space.
I watched planes depart and arrive at the Port of Nanaimo Seaplane Terminal and continued on to Swy-a-Lana Lagoon Park with its tide pools and sandy beach. This wasn’t the time to linger. The rain was pouring down.
But I know that I’ll be back in Nanaimo, for more than just lunch.
Sue Frause is a Whidbey Island freelance writer and photographer. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.