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Three-Day Getaway: Nanaimo

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Otter seaplane at the dock in Nanaimo

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You may have previously travelled through Nanaimo after arriving on Vancouver Island from a BC Ferries voyage. But, did you know this harbour city makes for its own fun and outdoorsy coastal getaway? 

Culture and dining, beach walks, boat rides, waterfalls, whale watching, and forest adventures are all on the roster when you stay a little longer in this classic West Coast city. And, if that’s not enough, those with a sweet tooth might be pleased to know that its world-famous treats live up to their reputation (there’s a Nanaimo Bar tasting trail, by the way).

Snunéymuxw Exhibit at the Nanaimo Museum

Day 1: Explore Downtown

The lands around Nanaimo have always been traditional gathering grounds for the Coast Salish peoples, and the city remains a gathering place for travellers to this day. The city has grown plenty since its beginnings as a small Hudson’s Bay Company outpost and coal mining community in the 1800s, though has managed to maintain its historic feel. Book a timed admission to the Nanaimo Museum to learn about the city’s vibrant culture and history—the Snunéymuxw Exhibit is an interesting showcase of Indigenous culture, art, and traditions.  

Spend time browsing boutiques, sampling food, and enjoying the architecture in Nanaimo’s Old City Quarter, where you’ll find a collection of independent businesses and heritage buildings. Download the On This Spot app to learn more about popular historic sites around town. 

For some physically distanced art appreciation, stroll through Nanaimo’s outdoor art, featuring 25-plus murals on a building at the corners of Commercial Street, Terminal Avenue, and Wallace Street.

Grab fresh-baked goodies and French-style coffee at Mon Petit Choux before hopping on the 10-minute ferry to Saysutshun/Newcastle Island Provincial Park (don’t forget your face mask). This island perch offers views of Nanaimo Harbour and the many moods of the Salish Sea (also known as the Strait of Georgia). Hike the trails, view old village sites, and book an interpretive tour with an Indigenous guide to learn about Snuneymuxw traditions and present culture. Keep your eyes peeled for the elusive albino raccoon living on the island. 

Round out your evening with a visit to Nanaimo’s newest craft brewery, Cliffside Brewing, followed by axe throwing at the Axe and Grind Nanaimo across the street. You might opt to enjoy dinner in the heart of downtown: bite into a gourmet burger at Top Notch, try elevated fusion cuisine at Melange Restaurant, or savour West Coast fare at Modern Cafe (known for its Nanaimo Bar Martini). Wind down with a stroll along the Nanaimo Waterfront Walkway.

Scenic views on a hike near Nanaimo | @mike.andy

Day 2: Enjoy an Outdoor Adventure

Nanaimo, surrounded in every direction by forest or ocean (or both), is the perfect launchpad for outdoor adventure. For every forest to explore, there’s a shoreline to paddle. The landscape offers a kaleidoscope of colours: cotton-candy skies, earthy coastal foliage, emerald forests, and glittering ocean. 

Start your day with an oceanfront java at Drip Coffee Social. Then, climb nearby Sugarloaf Mountain to capture views of Departure Bay and Saysutshun or continue on to waterfront parks like Pipers Lagoon or Neck Point Park for a scenic stroll and photo ops. 

Grab a picnic lunch at Smokin’ George’s BBQ before you head out for a longer hike to Ammonite Falls. Or, visit Westwood Lake at the foot of Mount Benson for hiking, fishing, and trail running (Piccadilly Bistro makes for a great lunch stop nearby). WildPlay Element Parks, offers a heart-pumping alternative, with an aerial tree course, zipline, bungee jumping and canyon swing. 

 

When it comes to mountain biking, Nanaimo is known as a bit of a hidden gem on Vancouver Island, with virtually year-round riding due to its temperate climate. There are three different areas to ride—Stevie Smith Bike Park, Doumont Trails, and Westwood Lake Trails—offering plenty of options for most ability levels.

If the ocean is your happy place, Nanaimo’s generous coastline delivers in spades. Rent a kayak or book a guided kayak tour through Coast Expressions. You can also book a private whale watching tour with Vancouver Island Whale Watch

After a good day of activity, head for a pint and a bite at one of Nanaimo’s BC Ale Trail stops—Longwood Brew Pub and Restaurant is a favourite.

Views from Gabriola Island near Nanaimo | @kfranzke

Day 3: Visit Gabriola Island

Dubbed the “Isle of the Arts,” Gabriola Island has one of the highest concentration of artisans, makers, and creatives in the country. Take the 20-minute BC Ferries ride from Nanaimo to Gabriola for a day trip filled with art, nature, and yummy bites. 

There are over 120 kilometres of trails to explore on the island—many with spectacular ocean views. Explore the beaches in Descanso Bay Regional Park, Sandwell Provincial Park and Drumbeg Provincial Park and visit the distinct sandstone formation at Malaspina Galleries, which look like a barrelling wave. Rent a kayak and enjoy views of the islands in Silva Bay and explore nearby marine parks, or hit the mountain biking trails (there are more than 20 to choose from).

 

Gabriola is best explored at a leisurely pace. Check in with the Gabriola Arts Council to see how you can connect with local artists while you’re on the island. Drive or bike the island, visiting farm stalls to pick up fresh produce, eggs, cheese, garlic, flowers, and more. Be sure to check in advance to ensure they are ready to receive guests. You can also enjoy regional fare on the new patio at Woodfire Restaurant or sample the eclectic menu at Robert’s Place.  The Surf Lodge and Pub, situated at the northern tip of the island overlooking the Salish Sea, specializes in fresh ingredients from land and sea: tuna poke nachos, seafood mac and cheese, and crab cakes are just a few tasty menu items.

A room overlooking the harbour at Coast Bastion Hotel | Tourism Nanaimo

Where to Stay

There are plenty of places to stay in Nanaimo and the surrounding, from rustic campsites to ocean view guesthouses. Accommodation providers are going the extra mile by introducing additional safety measures including, enhanced cleaning and contactless check-in.  

Experience a true seaside getaway at the recently renovated Coast Bastion Hotel, which overlooks the harbour, steps from the seawall walkway, restaurants, and boutiques. Meanwhile, The Grand Hotel Nanaimo, situated at the north end of Nanaimo features a stunning garden, a whiskey bar, and Grand Cru Restaurant, serving West Coast fusion. 

Book a Stay

Getting There

If you’re driving to Nanaimo, you can choose from two BC Ferries terminals: Departure Bay, arriving from West Vancouver’s Horseshoe Bay; and Duke Point, arriving from Tsawwassen (bring your face mask as they are mandatory on all BC Ferries voyages). Fly into Nanaimo with Sunshine Coast Air, Harbour Air Seaplanes, or Helijet. You can also fly into Nanaimo Airport from Vancouver and Calgary. Start planning your visit.

Featured image: Otter seaplane at the dock in Nanaimo | Harbour Air Seaplanes

MENTIONED IN THIS STORY

Museums & Heritage Sites, Accessibility

Nanaimo Museum

Nanaimo Museum: Discover Nanaimos fascinating history in our museum located in the VI Conference Centre. The main gallery offers a sense of what...

Phone: (250) 753-1821

View Listing

Adrenalin

WildPlay Element Parks Nanaimo

WildPlay is an exhilarating outdoor recreation park thats fun for all ages and experience levels! Whether youre a first-time thrill seeker or a...

Phone: (250) 595-2251

View Listing

Cabins & Cottages, Hotels

Surf Lodge and Pub

Phone: (250) 247-9231

View Listing

Hotels

Coast Bastion Hotel

The Coast Bastion Hotel is located in the heart of charming Nanaimo, near the ferry terminal and within walking distance to the seawall walkway,...

Phone: (250) 753-6601

View Listing

Hotels, Accessibility

The Grand Hotel Nanaimo

See why so many travelers make The Grand Hotel Nanaimo their hotel of choice when visiting Nanaimo. Providing an ideal mix of value, comfort and...

Phone: (250) 758-3000

View Listing

Airlines, Accessibility

Helijet International

Established in 1986Helijet has been a proud and active participant in British Columbia's growth for the past two and a half decades.In 1986, with...

Phone: (604) 231-3509

View Listing

Airlines

Sunshine Coast Air

The Plane is waiting to take you on a spectacular Flightseeing Tour adventure. Soar over stunning coastline, islands and the Sechelt Inlet...

Phone: (604) 740-8889

View Listing

Sightseeing, Airlines

Harbour Air Seaplanes

Founded in 1982 with two small seaplanes, Harbour Air is North Americas largest and first fully carbon neutral airline. With a goal to become the...

Phone: (800) 665-0212

View Listing

Museums & Heritage Sites, Accessibility

Nanaimo Museum

Nanaimo Museum: Discover Nanaimos fascinating history in our museum located in the VI Conference Centre. The main gallery offers a sense of what...

Phone: (250) 753-1821

View Listing

Adrenalin

WildPlay Element Parks Nanaimo

WildPlay is an exhilarating outdoor recreation park thats fun for all ages and experience levels! Whether youre a first-time thrill seeker or a...

Phone: (250) 595-2251

View Listing

Cabins & Cottages, Hotels

Surf Lodge and Pub

Phone: (250) 247-9231

View Listing

Hotels

Coast Bastion Hotel

The Coast Bastion Hotel is located in the heart of charming Nanaimo, near the ferry terminal and within walking distance to the seawall walkway,...

Phone: (250) 753-6601

View Listing

Hotels, Accessibility

The Grand Hotel Nanaimo

See why so many travelers make The Grand Hotel Nanaimo their hotel of choice when visiting Nanaimo. Providing an ideal mix of value, comfort and...

Phone: (250) 758-3000

View Listing

Airlines, Accessibility

Helijet International

Established in 1986Helijet has been a proud and active participant in British Columbia's growth for the past two and a half decades.In 1986, with...

Phone: (604) 231-3509

View Listing

Airlines

Sunshine Coast Air

The Plane is waiting to take you on a spectacular Flightseeing Tour adventure. Soar over stunning coastline, islands and the Sechelt Inlet...

Phone: (604) 740-8889

View Listing

Sightseeing, Airlines

Harbour Air Seaplanes

Founded in 1982 with two small seaplanes, Harbour Air is North Americas largest and first fully carbon neutral airline. With a goal to become the...

Phone: (800) 665-0212

View Listing

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Amber Turnau in Squamish
WRITTEN BY: Amber Turnau

From: Squamish
Amber is a freelance storyteller and outdoor adventurer who has spent nine years living in the beautiful Sea-to-Sky Corridor. When she's not writing, she spends her spare time snowboarding, hiking, biking, and SUPing her way through the wilds of BC. Fun Fact: Amber spent the first seven years of her life living on a sailboat and travelling the world with her family. Now, she has the best of both worlds, splitting her time between ocean and mountains—and loving every minute of it.

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