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Nanaimo: the City and the Bar

Entering Nanaimo, the Harbour City

“Thar she blows”!  Sure enough, just 200 yards ahead of our zodiac was a small pod of killer whales (Orcas), surfacing repeatedly with spumes of vapor shooting from their blowholes.  Rebeka, a very knowledgeable marine naturalist and our tour guide with Vancouver Island Whale Watch, even knew some of their names and so much more:  These were  “Transient” as opposed to “Resident” whales, both of which can be found in coastal waters from California to Alaska. The two species do not communicate or interbreed. Transients eat mammals such as seals and sea lions whereas Residents eat fish, primarily salmon.  The baby in this Transient pod was born last year and may live up to 50 years, barring unforeseen events such as toxic poisoning from the mother’s breast milk or pollution from oil spills.

Transient Killer Whale with baby (photo by Rebeka Pirker)

After watching these magnificent creatures from a respectable distance for nearly an hour, we moved on to observe and learn about seals, sea lions, eagles, cormorants and a variety of geological features such as cliffs and ocean passes.  Opportunities to appreciate Nature, as we experienced on this whale-watch tour, are just one reason that Nanaimo (Nah-n-eye-mo), British Columbia is one of our favourite destinations in Canada.

Situated on the eastern shore of Vancouver Island, this “Harbour City” has picturesque ocean and mountain views and an abundance of activities for visitors.  To explore this popular tourist destination, we booked the first week of July into Brannen Lake RV Resort, a big-rig/host-friendly campground with shady sites, conveniently located close to downtown.

Our 5th wheel at Brannen Lake RV Resort

Since our home base is Victoria at the southern tip of Vancouver Island, we simply drove a couple of hours north on Highway 1 to arrive in Nanaimo.  If you’re not already on the Island, you’ll need to take one of four ferries to get there:  A Washington State ferry from Anacortes to Sidney, a Black Ball ferry from Port Angeles to Victoria, or a BC ferry from either Tsawwassen or West Vancouver on the mainland directly to Nanaimo.

Whenever we arrive in a new location worthy of exploration, our first stop is a visitor centre to gather information about various activities such as museums, tours, trails, and entertainment.  The Internet is also a useful source of information, especially about restaurant ratings.  The Visitor Centre in Nanaimo provided enough brochures to keep us busy for the week, including one on the Nanaimo Bar Trail.  The Nanaimo Bar is a layered dessert with a crumbly base, a creamy custard filling, and chocolate topping that is definitely a West Coast treat … just like its namesake city of Nanaimo.  On Tourism Nanaimo’s list of Top 10 Things to do, this Trail was rated #1. As avid hikers and dessert aficionados, my wife Sandy and I were particularly interested in visiting some of the 39 stops featuring Nanaimo Bars and recent derivations.  This was going to be a tough assignment, but somebody has to do it!  Reportedly, the first published recipe of the Nanaimo bar was in 1952 in the Women’s Hospital Auxiliary Cookbook, on display at the Nanaimo Museum.  

Nanaimo Museum and Bastion    

Various exhibits in the downtown museum display artifacts and provide information about Nanaimo’s history, including a temporary exhibit (Nanaimo Mysteries) with fact or fiction questions about historical events, involving solved and unsolved murders, buried treasure, and the use of a psychic to find a missing person.  We spent three hours learning about the coal-mining, logging, and fishing industries that helped shape the city, in addition to First Nations history and more recent lifestyle activities, including Nanaimo’s largest event of the summer – its annual offshore Bathtub Race, attracting participants and spectators from all over the world.

The award-winning Coal Mine exhibit takes you into a darkened room that has the look and feel of an actual underground mine shaft.  In this interactive exhibit, you can hear the stories of men who actually worked in the local mines between 1852 and 1952, when coal mining in Nanaimo provided steady employment for European settlers. Maps of the underground mines show a labyrinth of tunnels extending for miles under the sea.  When the main mine, referred to as No. 1, closed in 1938, it was the oldest and most productive mine in the province.  Today, retail and tourism are major contributors to the local economy.

Nanaimo Bar benches in Museum

Smack dab in the middle of the exhibits are benches resembling giant Nanaimo Bars with information about this world-renown dessert (Nanaimo Bars were served at a White House State Dinner in 2016).  The earliest recipe is on display for anyone who would like to replicate the original.  Some eateries in Nanaimo still claim to sell the “traditional” Bar, while others have modified the recipe to include “specialties.” But Whoa!  I’m getting ahead of myself … back to history!

Bastion & outdoor cannons

The nearby Bastion, a three-floor wooden structure overlooking the harbour stands as an iconic symbol of Nanaimo’s coal-mining industry.  First built as a defensive structure by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1853, the second floor had two cannons for short-range defense with two longer-range cannons outside. Every day at noon during the summer, a brief bagpipe ceremony includes a ceremonial firing of one of the outside cannons, a “must-see” activity for visitors.  The Bastion, containing numerous mining artifacts, is operated by the Museum and also serves as a visitor center during the summer months.

The Harbour

This two-mile stretch of sheltered waterway is one of the busiest we’ve seen anywhere:  Row after row of marinas and docks provide space for charter boats, private yachts, float planes, three different ferry terminals, yacht and cruise ship anchorages, and various companies that rent seadoos, kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddleboards.

Downtown marina

We rented a couple of kayaks from Coastal Expression to explore the western shore of Saysutshun Island (previously called “Newcastle Island”), traditional land of the Snuneymuxw First Nation and site of the first coal mines.  During our leisurely half-day paddle, we observed raccoons, seals, otters, starfish (sea stars), bald eagles, and Canada geese leisurely feeding on sea-grass along the shore.  Cliff-side sandstone sculptures, formed from eons of erosion, slowed our pace as we marveled at the intriguing shapes.  Reportedly, this Island is the only place on earth with white raccoons, but none came to greet us.

Totem pole on Saysutshun Island

Paddlers and sailors frequently visit the floating Dinghy Dock Bar on nearby Protection Island for eats, drinks, and entertainment. We tied off our kayaks at their easy-access dock for a bite and a sip.  Aye Matey, you’d be hard pressed to find a more swashbuckling interior for wanna-be pirates!  Nautical paraphernalia hangs from every nook and cranny with mermaid and pirate photo-ops.

Mermaid Sandy & Pirate Larry

Even their address is #8 Pirate Lane. Their outdoor patio provides spectacular views of anchored yachts, the harbour, and towering Mount Benson, a forested peak overlooking Nanaimo.  Our lunch was outstanding, complementing the surroundings.  If you’re less inclined to kayak, a walk-on ferry runs hourly from the downtown marina to this popular restaurant and pub, providing not only a mariner’s perspective, but a designated driver as well!

Trails

Strolling along the Harbour Front Walkway from the Bastion northward to Maffeo Sutton Park is also very popular with both visitors and locals.  This short dog-friendly stretch, suitable for wheel chairs and strollers, allows access to numerous quaint shops, restaurants, a Zip Line, a walk-on ferry to Saysutshun Island, captivating sculptures, buskers, and occasional musical entertainers.  The Park includes a man-made pond and sandy beach suitable for children.  A multicultural dance festival and a dragon-boat race were occurring during our visit.  Strategically placed benches allowed us to observe the sights and festivities while enjoying Nanaimo Bar gelato from one of the nearby shops … very photogenic surroundings and a fun place to visit. 

Hiking, biking, and historical trails are abundant in the area. “Grandpa’s Trail” in our campground is a mostly shaded walk to nearby Brannen Lake, which offers a private sandy beach, dock, and swimming platform.  Deer, bullfrogs, barred owls, and Canada geese graced our presence along the way.  In Saysutshun Island Provincial Park, totem poles serve as reminders that this island was once home to native peoples more than 2000 years ago.  Arbutus trees, lilies, ferns, berries, and cattails are abundant during the summer months along a dog-friendly scenic trail that circumvents the island.  Ten additional easy hikes can be found on the Internet (see Info).  In one of these locations, Bowen Park, we hiked a few trails; then attended an outdoor Beatlemania Concert under a cluster of willow trees with a tranquil duck pond as backdrop, reminiscing about the good old days of rock and roll.

Beatlemania Concert at Bowen Park

For more adventurous hikers, Ammonite Falls is a 30-minute hike with a rope-assisted descent to view the peaceful falls. Likely the most challenging local hike is a two-hour climb to the summit of Mount Benson, which on a clear day provides expansive views of Nanaimo and across the Georgia Strait to the mainland. This strenuous hike alone will certainly work off a few Nanaimo Bars!

Tours 

Self-guided tours such as the Railway Connection Walk, Harbour Connection Walk, Coal Connection Walk, Chinatown, and Nob Hill Park provide a glimpse of Nanaimo’s history, including numerous century-old buildings. Just taking a walk along Commercial Street in the historic downtown core, where many of the buildings display Edwardian-style architecture, gave us the feeling of stepping back in time.  Every Thursday night during the summer, this street is closed to traffic and a popular Market has artisan and food vendors displaying their wares with interactive family fun and live entertainment. 

One of our favorite sections of Nanaimo is the Old City Quarter, a few blocks from the harbour.  Cobbled walkways between century-old buildings, sidewalk cafes, restaurants, boutiques, specialty shops, and old fashioned street lamps adorned with hanging baskets of colourful flowers offer unique sights and scents … not to be missed.  

Old City Quarter

During our visit, a New Orleans Jazz Band, composed of local musicians, entertained an appreciative audience.  To embellish the ambiance, we savoured Nanaimo Bar lattes from a nearby coffee house while we tapped our toes to the Dixieland rhythms.  We both agreed that life doesn’t get much better than this!

So much more

You’ll need more than a week if you want to experience all that this vibrant city has to offer, including sail-boat and float-plane sightseeing tours, fishing charters, golfing, tennis, pickleball, lawn bowling, wineries, breweries, a casino, military museum, an art gallery, and a seemingly endless variety of entertainment at various venues.  

OK, now here comes the sweetest part of our week!

Nanaimo Bar Trail

All of the eateries we visited were downtown, so we didn’t require our GPS to navigate this delectable self-guided adventure. Our first stop was Serious Coffee adjacent to the Museum, which claims to use the original Nanaimo Bar recipe. We tried the traditional Bar in several other restaurants as well.  Each year, Nanaimo runs a competition to select the “best” traditional Bar. Based on our limited sampling, Sandy and I both agreed that Serious Coffee would get our vote this year.

We diligently searched out some of the eateries that serve Nanaimo Bar specialties, including ice cream, peanut butter crunch, deep-fried, bartini (it’s actually a martini, get it?), latte, cheesecake, cupcake, and a spring roll – all sweet, all decadent, and all decidedly delicious.  

  

Spring roll Nanaimo Bar

Sheepishly, we justified our glutinous ways by the occasional hike, sometimes to the next eatery on the Trail!  Driving a few miles beyond Nanaimo’s city limits from Cedar in the south to Lantzville in the north, or taking a ferry to nearby Gabriola Island provides additional stops along the Trail.  Assuredly, a return trip to this charming coastal city with its iconic treats is already in the planning stages.  One could say that by the end of our current visit, we had certainly received our just desserts!

For more information

Washington State ferry:  http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries/

Black Ball ferry:  https://www.cohoferry.com

BC ferries: https://www.bcferries.com

Brannen Lake RV Park: https://brannenlake.com

Tourism Nanaimo: https://www.tourismnanaimo.com

Vancouver Island Whale Watch:  https://www.vancouverislandwhalewatch.com

Coastal Expression:  https://www.coastalexpression.com

Dinghy Dock Pub and Restaurant:  https://dinghydockpub.com

Easy hikes:  https://www.vancouverislandview.com/top-10-nanaimo-walks.

Serious Coffee:  https://www.seriouscoffee.com/vancouver-island-conference-centre/

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