Nanaimo may be hard to say, but visitors to this warm harbor city will want to stay.
Nanaimo is a popular cruising destination on the southeastern shore of Vancouver Island where boaters often hole up to wait for favorable conditions before they venture across the Strait of Georgia and destinations farther north. Such was the situation during our last visit.
Known as the “Harbour City” for its incredible downtown harbor district, Nanaimo is the second-largest city on Vancouver Island. It was first known as Snuneymuxw — “great and mighty people” in the language of the Salish natives — and the first settlers who arrived in the mid-1800s translated the name into English as Nanaimo (pronounced na-nai-mo). In 1853 the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) built a fort to protect the town. As the city grew, the fort’s bastion (blockhouse) acted as the city hub and, like spokes of a wheel, roads branched out.
Ready, Set, Fire!
The Bastion is the last of the original free-standing HBC bastions and is operated as an exhibit that is open for tours daily during the summer. Each day at about 11:30 a.m., a bagpiper dressed in a kilt begins to play outside the Bastion, just above the Port Authority Marina. His piping attracts an appreciative crowd, and many remain to observe the process of swabbing, priming and loading the antique cannon. At noon sharp, the bagpiper stops and they fire the cannon. With the touch of the torch, a cloud of smoke bursts forth and the great gun leaps in its shackles.
Not stuck in the past, Nanaimo’s characteristics — from bridge fishing in the downtown core to floatplanes sharing waters with orcas along the waterfront — give it a distinct identity and a unique personality. Local creativity is displayed throughout Nanaimo’s galleries and farmers markets, while visual arts, theatre and music are showcased in the Arts District and culminate during summer festivals.
Just north of the Bastion, at Pioneer Waterfront Plaza, a Farmers Market with entertainment is held every Saturday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., from mid-May to mid-September. Just up from the marina is Nanaimo Museum where visitors learn the history of the area, from its First Nations occupants to the discovery of coal in the area.
Start Your Engines
Visit Nanaimo during July and join the locals in celebrating the month-long Marine Festival. Since 1967, Nanaimo has been hosting the annual Nanaimo Marine Festival and World Championship Bathtub Race, which consists of a weekend’s worth of activities. Each year contestants participate in the time-honored “Sacrifice to the Bathtub Gods” boat burning ceremony the evening before the race. The following day, skippers pilot boats made from bathtubs and attempt to navigate a 36-mile course. Other highlights of the festival include concerts, a street fair, a parade, fireworks and more.
The Nanaimo Port Authority (NPA) oversees two marinas: W.E Mill Landing & Marina and the Inner Boat Basin. W.E Mill Landing & Marina offers 20-, 30-, and 50-amp power, water, Wi-Fi and a security gate. The Inner Boat Basin is located closest to town and offers water, 20- and 30-amp power on all floats, and 50- and 100-amp on some, showers and laundry facilities. Boaters are requested to hail the Port Authority on VHF Channel 67 for a slip assignment prior to entering the marinas. Reservations are suggested for both facilities.
More Than a Marina
With all Nanaimo has to offer, it’s one of the nicest harbor cities in the Pacific Northwest. Many visiting boaters enjoy a great time in Nanaimo without ever wandering more than a block or two from the boat basin. Several coffee shops, restaurants, an ice creamery, and gift stores can be found in and around the Nanaimo Boat Basin. Seasonally fresh seafood is sometimes sold at the Nanaimo Fisherman’s Market dock in the inner basin. Fishermen sell live crab, fresh prawns, halibut and salmon from their boat.
We always use Nanaimo as a provisioning stop, and there is no better place to purchase dwindling galley items than at the Port Plaza shopping center immediately south of the Boat Basin. A Thrifty Foods supermarket, a B.C. liquor store, a London drugstore, and a variety of shops are all within easy carry-back distance to the boat. There are also several fast-food and sandwich shops.
Should you need some boat repair parts or fishing equipment, Harbour Chandler is located south of the boat basin at the intersection of Esplanade and Port Way. It’s worth a visit just to wander the aisles. I can’t count the times I’ve purchased something I didn’t know I needed.
Nanaimo’s renowned cuisine goes beyond the classic dessert bar that shares the city’s name, including inspired fresh produce and seafood harvested from the surrounding area. Culinary options range from Indian to Thai, Mediterranean to Ukrainian; there’s something to suit any crewmember’s palate.
For lunch Arlene and I split a generous and delicious order of fish and chips at Trollers, a floating seafood restaurant in the basin. Another fine restaurant in the basin, with fine Mexican cuisine, is Penny’s Palapas. For many people, one of the highlights of Nanaimo is a visit to the Dinghy Pub on Protection Island. The Protection Island foot ferry departs from the south end of the Boat Basin at 10 minutes after the hour and takes pub patrons and island residents on a short crossing to the pub’s dock. The Dinghy Pub has family and “adults only” seating areas and features music on summer evenings.
One of our Nanaimo must-stops for dinner is Gina’s Mexican Café. Fondly known as “The Pink House on the Hill,” Gina’s is a funky Mexican cantina that has been in business for more than 33 years. The short uphill walk from the Boat Basin is well worth the effort.
During one visit we took an after-dinner stroll through the Diana Krall Plaza (across the street from the Boat Basin) and the outdoor plaza was packed with hockey fans watching the Stanley Cup Finals on a large screen high on the side of the building and cheering for their beloved Vancouver Canucks. It was one big sports party with everyone dressed in blue and green.
Night on the Town
Nanaimo’s Commercial Street Night Market is held Thursday evenings from 5 to 9 p.m., from late June through August. Commercial Street is closed to traffic between Terminal Avenue and Church and Chapel streets, and downtown merchants and vendors display their wares.
Many downtown venues cater to night owls. Whether you want to eat or drink, catch a concert or dance the night away, there are venues that will fit the bill. Queen’s Hotel, Cambie, Lighthouse Pub, Nanaimo Bar, Corner Lounge, Modern Café, Old City Station Pub, Taphouse, Palace Hotel and Vault Café are some good bets. For dance clubs, try Level 2, Koncept and Evolve.
It’s little wonder why boaters on their summer cruise north or south include a day or two in Nanaimo. There is something of interest for both captain and crew.
Newcastle Island Side Trip
Be sure to include a stop at Newcastle Island Provincial Park, in Nanaimo’s harbor. Traditionally known as Saysutshun by the Snuneymuxw people, this family-friendly marine provincial park is only accessible by foot-passenger ferry from Nanaimo’s Muffeo Sutten Park or by private boat. Definitely worth the effort to get there, the park offers a panoramic view of the Harbor City and the Coast Mountains. Activities include swimming, kayaking, hiking and more, and don’t miss the Newcastle Island Café, which is situated in a historic dance pavilion.