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Stretched like a long, lean finger along the east coast of south-central Vancouver Island, British Columbia's sixth-largest city gets its identity, history and a wealth of recreation from a lovely, island-sheltered harbour right in the heart of town. Hiking, boating, kayaking, biking and world-class scuba diving and snorkeling are everyday activities at the bustling waterfront, as seaplanes take flight from sparkling blue waters.
Today, Nanaimo (population 84,228) is a fast-growing urban centre that is no longer merely the premier gateway to Vancouver Island. A boldly revitalized downtown core, delightful harbourfront walkway, sparkling new museum, affordable art galleries, and a wealth of cool shopping and dining alternatives are good reasons to park the car, find accommodations and stay awhile.
Getting here is an (ocean) breeze via BC Ferries routes into the Departure Bay and Duke Point ferry terminals. The flight to Nanaimo's inner harbour from Vancouver, Seattle and Victoria, meanwhile, requires less time than it takes to watch a sitcom.
Longer-term visitors use Nanaimo's central location as a base of operations for exploring Vancouver Island. British Columbia's capital Victoria, Mount Washington's superb skiing (in the Courtenay/Comox area) and the wild Pacific Ocean beaches of Tofino and Ucluelet can all be reached within two-and-a-half hours' drive at most.
Pick up Tourism Nanaimo's annual Travel Planner and Maps & Attractions Guide at the city's Visitor Centre. Brochures, maps, information, and friendly advice on how best to utilize one's time in Nanaimo is freely dispensed.
As is quickly evident to visitors who remember the Nanaimo of old, this historic BC industrial centre has lost many of its rough edges while evolving quickly into a vibrant, progressive-minded 21st century city.
The historic downtown is now divided into three, neatly designated zones: The Old City Quarter with its restaurants and heritage buildings; the Arts District, a city-centre focal point for artist galleries and performance spaces; and a sweeping harbourfront walkway dotted with public plazas, shops, dining spots, parkland and a swimming lagoon.
The downtown waterfront promenade is also the site of passenger-ferry departure points for two nearby island gems: Protection Island (home of Canada's only floating pub) and the historic, picnic-perfect Newcastle Island. Gabriola Island, an idyllic artist's colony and getaway spot, is also in regional waters and is serviced from downtown by a car ferry.
North Nanaimo is perhaps best known for the shopping malls strung along the Island Highway (#19A) – notably the Woodgrove Shopping Centre, the largest such megamall on Vancouver Island. What many visitors miss is the northside's lovely waterfront parkland accessible from Hammond Bay Road. Neck Point, Piper's Lagoon and Sealand parks in particular are excellent hiking, picnicking and walk-in diving spots. First-rate pubs, fine B&Bs and neighborhood bakeries (selling their own versions of the world-renowned, ultra-sweet Nanaimo Bar) can also be found off the four-lane throughway.
An easy drive west of Nanaimo takes outdoor enthusiasts to the edge of Vancouver Island's wild places. Westwood Lake is a favorite swimming spot staffed in the summer by lifeguards; the adjoining parkland features loop trails for walking and mountain biking as well as the trailhead that leads up challenging Mount Benson, Nanaimo's highest neighboring peak at 1,023m/3,356ft. Long distance treks are easy on the paved, tree-lined Parkway Trail, which runs for 22km/14mi alongside the Nanaimo Parkway (Highway 19).
Heading south towards Victoria on the Trans Canada Highway (#1) for ten minutes takes one past the Nanaimo River Estuary, the Duke Point ferry terminal and onwards to the rural farms, orchards and community of Cedar. Farmers work the soil while raising vegetables, cranberries, apples, blueberries and more. One of the favourite neighborhood pubs, the Crow and Gate, is here, along with a busy Sunday farmer's market and a slew of accommodation options ranging from B&Bs to oceanfront resorts. Also in the area: the renowned WildPlay Elements Park, an activity zone where one can bungee jump and clamber around a tree-top obstacle course.
For more information on Nanaimo's sights, events, activities and things to do, pop in at the local Visitor Centre.
Information courtesy of: hellobc.com