Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 17, 2017

© Jason Felker

The rock cliffs, beaches and winding trails of Neck Point Park make it a great location for photographers.

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Shore leave

Nanaimo is a budget-friendly base to explore Vancouver Island — and the best place to get dessert

When I told my friend Jason I was going to wrap up my trip to BC with a short visit to Nanaimo to write about it for Doctor’s Review, he was skeptical. “You’re kidding,” he said. “Is it some sort of punishment? There’s nothing to do!” Since Jason lives in Nanaimo, I was taken aback. But a week later there I was, on the 20-minute flight from Vancouver, peering out the window of a small seaplane and preparing for what turned out to be three days of invigorating island exploration, with Nanaimo as my base. By the end, even Jason admitted that, being a local, he’s jaded as to the charms of his harbour town and the beaches, parks, golf courses and markets that are a short drive away.

Nanaimo Bar-hopping

After stepping off the seaplane onto the dock, I checked into the Coast Bastion, a two-minute walk from the harbour seawall. Fourteen storeys high, the hotel is hard to miss, being one of the tallest buildings in town. I got a room with a Juliet balcony and harbour view, where I could see a logging ship.

“They’re sending the logs to China,” explained Jason, with a raised eyebrow. “Then China sells them back to us as bookshelves and cabinets.”

Jason’s father is a Vancouver Island trucker and Jason drives a cab to supplement his income as a photographer. I figured the first thing we should do is take a walk around town.

Nanaimo, population 84,000, is known as Hub City, due to its central location on the east coast of Vancouver Island. It was discovered by the Spanish, became a trading post and then was mined by the British for coal. For a while, its main claim to fame was the 1887 Coal Mine Explosion, when 150 miners were killed. It was one of the largest man-made explosions in history — until the Halifax (ship) Explosion in 1917, which left 2000 dead.

As we walked down Commercial Street, the city’s main strip, and around downtown, we passed the Nanaimo Museum, which has a noted coal mine exhibit, the Art Gallery, the Port Theatre and numerous places to sample the namesake Nanaimo Bar (crumb-based wafer on the bottom, vanilla filling, chocolate square on top), from the traditional (McLean’s Specialty Foods) to an ice cream variety (2 Chefs Affair), organic (Danforth Deli and Grill), gluten free (Mon Petit Choux), and, if you still have room, deep fried (Pirate Chips).

While not what one would call quaint, Nanaimo has a palpable historical feel. Residents say that it’s full of ghosts — and they don’t mean the crack and crystal meth addicts who haunt certain parts of town. And in the winter, with the sky grey and misty, the atmosphere is said to be Pacific Northwest Gothic.

But on my weekend in late April, the sun was bright, and the air fresh and clean. Indeed, in 2011, the World Health Organization tested 1100 cities in 91 countries and ranked Nanaimo (tied with five other North American cities) fourth in the world for air quality. And just outside of the city centre there’s the forest, with plenty of hikes short and long.

Tall trees and beach bustle

There are 1200 hectares of parklands and 130 kilometres of hiking trails in the city of Nanaimo (the district of Nanaimo is much larger).

On the first day, I walked the Cable Bay Trail (parksgo.ca/nanaimo/cable-bay-trail)(, a 15-minute drive south of downtown. It descends 1.9 kilometres to an empty, driftwood-strewn beach, which locals say is one of Nanaimo’s best-kept secrets. On the second day, I went to Neck Point Park (parksgo.ca/nanaimo/neck-point-park), 15 minutes north of town, which has excellent views of the Strait of Georgia and the mountains to the east as well as good spots for swimming and diving (years ago, Jacques Cousteau said that Nanaimo had “the best temperate water diving in the world, second only to the Red Sea”).

On the third day, I drove 45 minutes to Cathedral Grove in MacMillan Provincial Park (env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/macmillan). It’s an old-growth forest with tall-standing Douglas firs and cedars, and is easily accessed from the free roadside parking lot.

A trail on the north side of the road leads to Western red cedars, and blue and quiet Cameron Lake; on the south side a network of trails lead to the giant Douglas firs, a few of which are 800 years old and stand 75 metres high. It’s a peaceful place, although there is an element of danger. Tourists are warned to stay off the trails on windy days since root-system disease can cause some old trees to topple. A bad windstorm in 1997 knocked down hundreds of trees. The park is still recovering and a few of the trails are still closed.

A 20-minute drive from Cathedral Grove will take you back to the ocean, specifically to Qualicum Beach, a cottage community with the oldest average population in Canada (60.9). We stopped for lunch at the Shady Rest (3109 West Island Highway, Qualicum Beach; tel: 250-752-9111; shadyrest.ca), a waterfront pub that has been open since 1924 with outdoor seating and fantastic views. As might be expected, spring break activity on the beach was minimal; not a person was in sight and the action consisted entirely of an eagle swooping around trying to steal fish from screeching seagulls.

Off the grid, on the links

From Qualicum Beach, you can look across the Strait of Georgia and see Lasqueti Island. Proudly off the grid, Lasqueti is home to 425 people and can only be reached by foot-passenger ferry. It’s not connected to BC Hydro and there are no paved roads or public transportation — although picking up hitchhikers is said to be mandatory.

Described on BC websites as “neither tourist friendly nor tourist hostile” (the RCMP, for their part, described it in 2004 as a “marijuana mecca”), Lasqueti does have one hotel and restaurant, a couple of bed and breakfast places, a few food stalls and a cookie stand that operates on the honour system.

Of course, a more traditional pastime in Nanaimo is golf, and there are eight courses in the city and surrounding district. All are open year-round and all have a problem with Canada geese.

We played at Fairwinds (3730 Fairwinds Drive, Nanoose Bay; tel: 888-781-2777; fairwinds.ca/golfing) in Nanoose Bay, a half-hour drive from town, and had a chance meeting with Eddie the Eagle, who, along with his falconer Anne Sison, is responsible for “goose management.” Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see Eddie in flight since Anne had him on her glove, explaining that it was too windy and that a strong gust could carry Eddie off, whereupon he might decide to explore parts unknown and be free of goose management forever.

Swans in ponds and hops on poles

Since one cannot subsist on Nanaimo Bars alone, we investigated other dining opportunities in and around town, two of which I would say are must-do.

The first is Mahle House (2104 Hemer Road, Cedar; tel: 250-722-3621; mahlehouse.ca), a family-owned, fine-dining restaurant in nearby Cedar, a rural community 10 minutes from downtown. It’s in a 1904 Heritage House that’s painted bright orange, with vegetables, herbs and edible flowers growing in the garden. The atmosphere is relaxed and the food — duck breast, rack of lamb, halibut — is creative, especially on “Adventurous Wednesday,” when owner/chef Stephen Wilson cuts loose (five courses, $44 per person).

A five-minute drive away is the Crow and Gate Pub (2313 Yellow Point Road, Cedar; tel: 250-722-3731; crowandgate.ca). Set on beautiful grounds with a mountain backdrop, it’s more British than most pubs left in Britain. You order your food or a pint from the walk-up bar, and can then eat inside on thick, dark wood tables or at the picnic tables outside, while black swans splash in the pond and hops grow on tall poles in the nearby field.

A more urban option, 10 minutes north of town, is Longwood (5775 Turner Road, Nanaimo; tel: 250-729-8225; longwoodbrewpub.com). The first brew pub on Vancouver Island, it’s become a sophisticated meeting point for Nanaimoites of all stripes. It has a dining room upstairs — book ahead for Sunday brunch, which is always packed with families — and a pub downstairs with over 40 types of beers. Back in town, there’s the Modern Café (221 Commercial Street, Nanaimo; tel: 250-754-5022; themoderncafe.ca), a Nanaimo landmark since 1946. Once a Chinese café, it now has international food, a patio, and live entertainment on weekends.

With my three days up, I flew out of town on the early morning seaplane, feeling that I had just touched the surface of Nanaimo. My formerly skeptical friend Jason agreed, pointing out that I had yet to visit Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park; Englishman River Falls; Coombs Old Country Market, where goats stand on top of the grass roof; the Silly Boat/Bathtub Regatta that attracts 10,000 people in July; and so on. Not bad for a town with nothing to do.

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