Thousands of tourists from all over the world visit this charming little town overlooking the Strait of Georgia on Vancouver Island. It wasn’t always that way. Forestry was the principal industry when Chemainus was established in the mid-1800s and continues to a lesser extent since the economic downturn of the 1970s. At that time, the townspeople got together and decided to diversify their economy by appealing to the tourism sector.
One idea was to have renowned artists capture the community’s heritage by painting murals on the walls of buildings and carving sculptures, reflecting the history of the First Nations people and the lives of the settlers who lived and worked here. Since 1982, 55 murals and 9 sculptures have been created, providing the largest permanent outdoor art gallery in Canada. Tourism is alive and well!
Trans-Canada Highway 1 runs from Victoria on the southern tip of Vancouver Island up the east coast to Nanaimo, a distance of 99 kilometers (62 miles). Chemainus is located just east of this highway about 30 minutes south of Nanaimo or 60 minutes north of Victoria. Most RVers exploring Vancouver Island drive right past it on their way to more popular destinations such as Tofino, Nanaimo, Comox, or Victoria. My wife Sandy and I, home-based in Victoria and full-time RVers for 12 years, were definitely among that group. However, in early October 2020, we were returning to Victoria from a month in Tofino, when we decided to stop for a few days and check it out. We’re glad we did … Chemainus truly is a destination worth exploring.
If you’re visiting from the States, you’ll likely take either a Washington State Ferry or the Blackball Ferry, which will deposit you in or near Victoria. If you’re already on the British Columbia mainland, you have a choice of BC Ferries from either Horseshoe Bay or Tsawwassen, both near the port of Vancouver, which will deposit you in Nanaimo. Yachters in the Strait of Georgia can simply dock at the Chemainus Marina and walk a few blocks to the downtown area.
Several full-service RV Parks are within 10 minutes of Chemainus. We chose Country Maples RV Resort, just 5 minutes south off Hwy 1. After settling our 5th wheel into a large, full-service pull-through site, we drove into town. Most of the streets are quite narrow so it’s best to leave your large RVs in the campground.
Whenever we arrive at a new destination, our first stop is the Visitor Centre to gather information about activities and attractions in the area.
I mentioned to the Volunteer lady that we were here for a few days and asked her: “What are the top three things we need to see or do.” Without hesitation, she replied: “the Murals, the Theatre,” and pointing out the window at Scoops By The Sea Ice Cream Shop … “their homemade ice cream.” A half-hour later with an armful of brochures, we eagerly made our way to Scoops to try what is “the best ice cream ever” only to be disappointed that the shop had just closed for the season.
Another disappointment: because of the covid-19 pandemic the renowned Chemainus Theatre Festival had canceled its year-round live professional theatre productions, limiting services to a Wednesday night dinner in their Playbill Dining Room. We attempted to make a reservation but they were fully booked during our stay.
To learn more about the various murals, we picked up a brochure that numbers the artwork on a map and provides a brief description of each. If you don’t have a brochure, simply follow the yellow footsteps painted on the sidewalks throughout town. When I asked the very informative lady “which of the 55 murals is most popular,” she suggested #12 Native Heritage, illustrating four First Nations historical figures from the region.
The brochure also references five murals that reproduce the work of world-renowned Canadian artist Emily Carr, who had a reverence and fascination for the First Nations people and the breathtaking landscape of the BC coast.
Recently, a novel mural was unveiled on a specially constructed box located in front of the Chemainus Public Market, showing a gray whale and two orcas. A blue piano, available for public play, is incorporated in the underwater scene.
Our dog Bella was waiting for someone to play so she could howl along, but no one came so we browsed shops in the Market. Nine sculptures are also referenced in the brochure, including a peace pole, sea captain, waterwheel, and a statue of H.R. MacMillan, a lumber baron whose company employed hundreds of immigrants during the forestry heydays.
Located next to the Visitor Centre in beautiful Waterwheel Park is the Chemainus Valley Museum, which provides a step back in time through historical photos, stories, and artifacts from the early days through the present. Their gift shop includes unique items, including adorable crocheted animals made by a lady volunteer. Alongside the museum is an observation area with a view of the existing sawmill, log booms, cargo ships at anchor, and a busy harbor framed by the beautiful Gulf Islands. During the summer on Tuesdays, the Park has musicians performing on an outdoor stage and Wednesdays a Farmer’s Market, featuring creations by local artists, fresh-farm produce, and treats. A labyrinth meditation walk, Children’s Ship playground, restrooms, and picnic tables make it ideal for a family outing. The functioning water wheel, a replica of one that powered an earlier sawmill, with its mural background is a must photo op.
During your downtown walk-about, you’ll find a number of trendy boutiques, antique shops, art galleries, and restaurants, including Baby Bear’s Ice Cream Shop in a wonderful park-like courtyard with plenty of garden seating. By the way, with apologies to Scoops, their salted caramel is yummy! If your culinary preferences lean more toward handcrafted beer, mosey over to the Sawmill Taphouse or Riot Brewing for samples of their various brews … both are within walking distance of downtown so you won’t need a designated driver!
OTHER NEARBY ACTIVITIES
After your mural excursion, if you still have the energy for a hike and you happen to be staying at Country Maples RV Resort, consider the one-kilometer trail from the Resort to the Chemainus River. Bella enjoyed our daily strolls through mossy trees accompanied by occasional bunnies, squirrels, and songbirds.
Nearby Chemainus Lake offers a scenic 2.5-kilometer nature trail covered with woodchips, popular with joggers and dog walkers, around the perimeter of the lake.
If you prefer tennis, pickleball, or beach volleyball, nearby Fuller Lake has courts set up for each. Golfers will enjoy Mount Brenton Golf Course (open year round) just south of town with its shaded fairways, creeks, and ponds … a challenge for every level of golfer. Water enthusiasts will enjoy swimming, kayaking, and paddle boarding in the fresh-water lakes and ocean water at sandy Kin Beach just north of downtown, which also has a boat launch, children’s playground, and picnic tables. Divers can take advantage of the world’s only Boeing 737 artificial reef just off the coast. Historians can wander down Chemainus Road to the site of seven original Mill Houses, which date from the late 1800s.
If you’re interested in landscaping, property pride is evident in some Victorian-style houses located on the north side of town that display magnificent flower gardens and topiary … more photo ops.
Three days were insufficient to absorb all that this charming community has to offer. Hopefully, this brief description will encourage others, especially art lovers, to not pass it by when you’re exploring other destinations on Vancouver Island – the friendly folks of Chemainus will welcome you with open arms and heartfelt gratitude.
Ferries to and from Vancouver Island:
Blackball Ferry Line: https://www.cohoferry.com
Washington State Ferries: https://www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries/
BC Ferries: https://www.bcferries.com
RV Parks near Chemainus
Country Maples RV Resort: http://www.holidaytrailsresorts.com/country-maples-rv-resort/
Chemainus River Campground: https://www.chemainusrivercampground.com
Bald Eagle Riverside Campground: https://www.campgroundreviews.com/regions/british-columbia/chemainus/bald-eagle-riverside-campground-8778
Osborne Bay Resort: https://www.osbornebayresort.com
Other useful websites:
Chemainus District Chamber of Commerce: https://www.chemainus.bc.ca
Chemainus Valley Museum: https://chemainusvalleymuseum.ca
Chemainus Theatre Festival: https://chemainustheatrefestival.ca
Sawmill Taphouse: http://www.sawmilltaphouse.com
Riot Brewing: https://riotbrewing.com