Nanaimo's steep-faced waterfront has been restructured with tiers of walkways, banks of flowers, marina boardwalks, and floating restaurants. Called Pioneer Waterfront Plaza, the area fills on Fridays with the local farmers' market. The Bastion, a white fortified tower, rises above the harbor as a relic of the 1850s when this area was the site of a Hudson's Bay Company trading post (it now holds a summer tourist information center).
Nanaimo's busy natural port has ferry links to Vancouver, Horseshoe Bay, and to Tsawwassen to the south, as well as to lovely Gabriola Island and to Newcastle Island, a car-free provincial park on the harbor's northern flank. Throughout the day, floatplanes buzz in and out of the boat basin, shuttling commuters back and forth to Vancouver. If you're up for a walk, the Harbourside Walkway stretches 4km (2 1/2 miles) from the heart of the city all the way to Departure Bay.
The old downtown, just behind the Bastion and centered on Commercial, Front, and Bastion streets, is a series of pleasant winding streets behind the harbor. Artisan's Studio, 70 Bastion St. (tel. 250/753-6151), is a co-op gallery that displays the work of local artists and craftspeople.
Another good stroll is the Old City Quarter, an uptown section of the city center that was severed from the harborfront area when the Island Highway cut through downtown. Now reached from the harbor by walking up the Bastion Street overpass, the 3-block area has been redeveloped into housing, boutiques, and fine restaurants.
Only in Nanaimo: The World Championship Bathtub Race -- From its beginnings in 1967, Nanaimo's signature summer draw has grown into a weeklong series of events that shows off the city's good-natured spirit. In the early days, fewer than half of the original racing vessels -- old claw-foot tubs fitted with engines -- completed the crossing of 58km (36-mile) Georgia Strait from Nanaimo Harbour to Vancouver's Fisherman's Cove. These days, most contestants race in specially designed tubs that look like single-person speedboats. The race is the climax of late July's Marine Festival, which includes a street fair, parade, and traditional "Sacrifice to the Bathtub Gods." For information, go to www.bathtubbing.com.
Ferrying to Newcastle Island
Just outside Nanaimo harbor, Newcastle Island Provincial Park (tel. 250/391-2300 for BC Parks, South Vancouver Island District) is an ideal destination for hikers, cyclists, and campers. The island was home to two Salish Indian villages before British settlers discovered coal here in 1849. The Canadian-Pacific Steamship Company purchased the island in 1931, creating a resort with a dance pavilion, teahouse, and floating hotel. The 300-hectare (741-acre) island has now largely returned to its natural state. It now attracts outdoorsy types with its many trails; selected walks range from 2 to 4km (1.3-2.5 miles). The popular Mallard Lake Trail leads through the wooded interior toward a freshwater lake; the Shoreline Trail runs across steep cliffs, onto sand and gravel beaches suitable for swimming, and up to a great eagle-spotting perch. The park maintains 18 campsites, with toilets, wood, fire pits, and water. Rate is C$14.
From April to Canadian Thanksgiving (mid-Oct), Nanaimo Harbour Ferries (tel. 877/297-8526) offers ferry service to Newcastle Island from the wharf at the peninsula tip of Maffeo-Sutton Park (just north of downtown), operating daily between 10am and early evening. The round-trip fare for the 10-minute crossing is C$8 for adults and C$6 for children 12 and younger.
Exploring Gabriola Island
Much of Gabriola (pop. 4,000) is reached along North Road and South Road, two country lanes that provide a loop route around the island. A third road, Taylor Bay Road, departs from the ferry dock to access Gabriola's rocky northern reaches. It takes about half an hour to drive from one end of the island to the other.
The main commercial center is just up the hill from the ferry terminal and is often referred to as Folklife Village. Stop by Gabriola Artworks, 575 North Rd. (tel. 250/247-7412; www.gabriolaartworks.com), an excellent gallery of local arts and crafts.
Sandwell Provincial Park is one of Gabriola's nicest beaches and picnic areas, with paths leading through old-growth forests and to views of the Entrance Island lighthouse. Turn off North Road onto Barrett Road and follow the signs.
At the southern end of Gabriola is Silva Bay, a marina resort featuring an excellent restaurant and pub. Just south of Silva Bay is Drumbeg Provincial Park, which has a good swimming beach.
Gabriola Island and the area around Nanaimo are rich in prehistoric petroglyph rock carvings. On the South Road, near the United Church (about 10km/6 1/4 miles from the ferry terminal), a short path leads to a mix of fantastical creatures and abstract shapes scratched in sandstone. Park in the church lot and follow the signs. Note: The Snunéymuxw regard these petroglyphs as sacred and frown on people taking pictures or rubbings of them.
Taylor Bay Road leads to more parks and beaches on the north end of the island. Gabriola Sands Provincial Park protects two of the island's best beaches, at Taylor Bay and Pilot Bay. Toward the end of the road (now called Berry Point Rd.) is the Surf Lodge, 885 Berry Point Rd. (tel. 250/247-9231), with a pub and restaurant overlooking the Georgia Strait.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.