POPULATION: 98,000 (Metro, 2011)
MUST DO: Attend the Annual Bathtub Race; Stroll the Harbourside Walkway; Eat a Nanaimo Bar!
Known as the Harbour City, Nanaimo is also a major entry point for travelers to Vancouver Island.
With over 70,000 people, this is the island’s second largest city and its central location makes it perfect for day tours of central Vancouver Island and the Gulf islands.
For thousands of years, the sheltered harbour was home to First Nations’ who fished the waters and hunted the surrounding forests. Spaniards were the first Europeans to visit the region, arriving in the late 1790s. Like many Vancouver Island communities, it was the discovery of coal nearly 60 years later that began Nanaimo’s march to prosperity. At the peak, there were 10 working mines.
The coal was eventually played out, but Nanaimo continued to prosper as a port entry and service center for central and north Vancouver Island. Today, it is a bustling commercial and tourism center with hundreds of thousands of people arriving on Vancouver Island at either of the city’s two ferry terminals – Departure Bay and Duke Point.
Incorporated in 1874, Nanaimo abounds with plenty of things to do, starting with a stroll on the Harbourside Walkway. This four-kilometer network of paths provide great views of the working harbor and Newcastle, Protection and Gabriola islands. Passing through several parks, the walkway takes strollers past the Bastion – a fort built in 1853 by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Every day at noon the fort’s cannon is fired. You’ll also pass the Nanaimo Museum where the history and heritage of the area are displayed, including an exhibit highlighting Nanaimo’s Chinatown that existed from 1906 to 1960. At Mafeo-Sutton park you can board a ferry for the short trip to Newcastle Island Provincial Marine Park. With 18 kilometers of hiking trails, beaches, picnic sites, camping and wildlife, the island is great for outdoor enthusiasts.
Other local hiking trails include Dodd Narrows Nature Trail starting near the Harmac pulp mill and ending five kilometers at Dodd Narrows. The year-round trail is great for viewing seabirds all year, sea lions in the fall and spring and bald eagles in December. Inland, the Extension Mining Trails is a series of old roads and trails through second-growth forest and abandoned mining sites. Use caution, as there are some old mine shafts along the way.
A more strenuous hike is up Mt. Benson. Accessible in a number of ways, the hardest way to the summit is a 3 1/2-hour steep hike. On Nanaimo’s southern boundary, check out the petroglyphs (ancient rock carvings) in Petroglyph Provincial Park.
For the saltwater fishermen, Nanaimo offers a number of hot spots for coho, chinook, pink, sockeye and chum salmon. Try the Neck Point, Five Fingers and Snake Island areas.
Freshwater fishing is particularly good in the Nanaimo Lakes if you’re after rainbow and cutthroat trout. A series of four lakes accessible by Nanaimo River Road, the lakes are best from April to June and September and October. Some camping is available at the first and fourth lakes. Long Lake, right on the Island Highway in North Nanaimo, is stocked with rainbow and cutthroat trout. It’s also a great lake for smallmouth bass.
Nanaimo’s harbor has moorage for over 500 boats, making it the ideal base for boaters planning to explore nearby areas. Kayaking is big in Nanaimo, with the sea sculpted cliffs of nearby islands offering sheltered waters and incredible rock formations. The harbor is also where you can sit and watch floatplanes take off and land.
Home to a number of festivals, the most famous is Nanaimo’s annual World Championship Bathtub Race in July. Racers in homemade boats (they have to have a bathtub), race from the harbor, around offshore islands and back to the city.
Nature lovers will enjoy a number of local nature sites, including the Morrell Nature Sanctuary, Buttertubs Marsh Bird Sanctuary, and the thousands of sea lions that arrived between October and March to feed on herring.
If you’re a scuba diver, the HMCS Saskatchewan, sunk off of Snake Island in 1997, is now an artificial reef teeming with marine life. Nanaimo and the surrounding area is also teeming with shops, stores, theatres, hotels, lodges, bed and breakfasts and restaurants to satisfy every taste. The region is also a golfer’s paradise with over 20 courses within an hour’s drive.
And one thing never to miss is the world-famous Nanaimo Bar, a chocolaty confectionery that will satisfy any sweet-tooth.
IF YOU GO
BY ROAD: From Victoria, Nanaimo is a quick hour-and-a-half drive north on the Trans Canada Highway. From Port Hardy, take the Island Highway south to Mud Bay where you connect to the new Inland Island Highway. The trip is between five and six hours.
FERRIES: If you’re coming from Vancouver, take either the Tsawwassen ferry to Duke Point (just south of Nanaimo), or the Horseshoe Bay ferry to Departure Bay, near the downtown area.
BY AIR: Scheduled airline connections are out of Vancouver direct to Nanaimo Airport. Floatplane service to Nanaimo Harbor is also available.