Settled in the 1850s by European farmers, Chemainus quickly became a major timber-milling and -shipment point, due to the town's Horseshoe Bay, the oldest deepwater port on the Canadian West Coast. Prosperity saw the building of handsome homes and a solid commercial district. By the mid-20th century, the sawmills here were among the largest in the world, fed by the seemingly unending supply of wood from Vancouver Island's vast old-growth forests.
When the mills closed in 1983, the town slid into decline. Economic prospects for Chemainus seemed dim until someone had the bright idea of hiring an artist to paint a mural depicting the town's history. Tourists took notice, and soon mural painting became the raison d'être of this town of only slightly more than 3,500 residents. Chemainus claims to be Canada's largest permanent outdoor art gallery. Much of downtown is now covered with murals, most dealing with area history and local events.
Stop by the Chemainus Visitor Info Centre, 9799 Waterwheel Crescent (tel. 250/246-3944), open from May to early September, for a walking-tour map of the murals, or go to www.muraltown.com for an online map. Across the street from the visitor center in Heritage Park is an informational kiosk where you can join a horse-drawn wagon tour of the murals from Chemainus Tours (tel. 250/246-5055; www.chemainustours.com) for C$12 for adults, C$5 for kids. Or simply follow the yellow shoe-prints painted on the sidewalks.
Much of the town is quiet and pedestrian-oriented, making it a pleasant place for a stroll and a good spot for lunch. Old Town Chemainus, along Willow and Maple streets, is filled with Victorian cottages converted into shops and cafes. The Chemainus Theatre, 9737 Chemainus Rd. (tel. 800/565-7738 or 250/246-9820; http://chemainustheatrefestival.ca), is a late-19th-century opera house that now serves as a popular dinner theater. The season runs February through December; call ahead to reserve.