Nanaimo: 113km (70 miles) N of Victoria
For over a century, Vancouver Island's second-largest city (pop. 79,000) was the center of vast coal-mining operations, without much in the way of cultural niceties. In the last 30 years, however, Nanaimo has undergone quite a change. With its redeveloped waterfront, scenic surroundings, good restaurants and lodging, and a location central to many other Vancouver Island destinations, downtown Nanaimo makes a pleasant stop for a few days. Note, however, that Nanaimo is a fairly sprawling city, complete with lots of suburban strip malls and plenty of traffic, so it may not hold the same charm as the island's less populous destinations.
Just a 20-minute ferry ride from Nanaimo Harbour is Gabriola Island, though it feels a world away. Gabriola makes a marvelous day trip, providing a little of everything -- sandy beaches, galleries, petroglyph sites, tide pools, and a sense of wooded serenity.