In Part Three of my article on Canada’s West Coast, my wife and I explore a small part of Vancouver Island, from Nanaimo to Victoria, along the island’s southeast coast. From the mainland, you can catch ferries from north or south Vancouver to take you to Nanaimo or Swartz Bay. Another ferry crosses further north.
Coming from the Sunshine Coast, we took the ferry back to Horseshoe Bay in North Vancouver and then another one to Nanaimo. The second ferry ride was about an hour and forty minutes. If you are trying to make connections like this, be sure to check out ferry schedules at BC Ferries. You can also fly if you don’t have a car and want to save time.
Nanaimo: Home of the Famous Dessert
The waterfront City of Nanaimo is scenic and easy to navigate, with less than one hundred thousand people. This was my second visit to the city. Sadly, we did not spend too much time there on either occasion. Cathryn and I had two reasons to visit Nanaimo on this trip. First, to visit some good friends who live there, and second, to drive along the coast to Victoria.
Any sweet tooth will be happy in this city. It’s home to the world-famous Nanaimo bar, made in several flavors and sold everywhere. We spent most of our visit on the scenic waterfront and on Protection Island, a 10-minute ferry ride from the city harbor. Our friends took us to the island for dinner, where we dined at the Dinghy Dock Pub, a cool floating restaurant that offered great views of the Nanaimo harbor.
The food was typical pub grub, but with an emphasis on fresh seafood. Cathryn’s highlight of our mini excursion was getting up close and personal with a giant purple starfish living on the side of a floating dock. The pub was a cool place to sit and watch seaplanes taking off and landing in the harbor.
Chemainus, A Vancouver Island Secret
In our experience, the best way to get good advice and recommendations while travelling is from locals. One of our resident friends proved this theory by recommending we stop in the little town of Chemainus on the drive south to Victoria. Being off the inland highway and on the waterfront, we would have driven right on by completely unaware of this cool pit stop.
Like many former logging towns in British Columbia, Chemainus has had to rediscover itself to stay on the map and draw visitors off the bypass. Fifty-three outdoor murals and colorful turn-of-the-century buildings that have been painstakingly restored make this town the perfect place to get out and stretch your legs. There are unique shops to browse, some with antiques far cheaper than those in bigger cities. And there are places to grab a beer, lunch, ice cream, or even a Nanaimo bar.
Victoria, A Highlight of Vancouver Island
Some think it’s Vancouver, but the City of Victoria is the capital of British Columbia. We spent five days exploring this beautiful waterfront city, barely enough time to see and do it all. From the time we pulled into the driveway at our waterfront Airbnb, we knew we were in for a treat. Our unit was the lower level of a ranch-style home. We had an awesome view of the tree-lined park and walking trail that parallels the river gorge across the street.
All we had to do was follow Gorge Road to get downtown and to the harbor front. The Victorian and century-old buildings capture your eye, with the giant Fairmont Hotel stealing the show, overlooking the main harbor. And just when you’ve focused on that, the historic dome-topped government building nearby screams for attention. Be sure to check it out at night when it’s all lit up. For a great dinner, try Finn’s Seafood, an upscale restaurant with a great deck.
While driving around to get a feel for the city, we discovered great little neighborhoods with pop-up markets. A section of Government Street, downtown, is a pedestrian mall where you can walk to Chinatown and inner-city market squares. The whole core and waterfront are easily walkable.
Chinatown and Fan Tan Alley
With a population of a hundred thousand people, Victoria looks bigger than Nanaimo. However, it’s easily walkable with waterfront boardwalks and cool neighborhoods like Chinatown. Victoria’s Chinatown is the oldest in Canada. It is only second to San Francisco in North America. The neighborhood also boasts the world-famous Don Mee Chinese Restaurant. We ate the highly recommended dim sum brunch there, and it was second to none.
As in the United States, thousands of Chinese immigrated to western Canada to help build the railroads that would stretch across the country. They also worked in the mines. Three thousand settled in Chinatown by 1911, the largest population of Chinese in Canada for a decade.
A famous landmark is Fan Tan Alley, a narrow walkway that was once lined by brothels and opium dens. If you like to explore, don’t stop there. I found more cool alleys with hidden shops, cafes, and cute patios belonging to private apartments. There are also Chinese grocery stores and a giant Chinese-inspired arch that marks the main street.
If you don’t have wheels, take public transportation or a water taxi further into the harbor’s mouth to Fisherman’s Wharf. With its colorful houseboats, shops, and restaurants, it’s the perfect place to spend the afternoon sipping on a cold beer or grabbing a bite to eat. Add people watching to that list. Cathryn spotted Canada’s New Democratic Party leader, Jagmeet Singh, took a selfie with him, and found out he’s from our hometown in Windsor.
If you want a different perspective of Fisherman’s Wharf, jump on one of the water taxis and take a tour. They’ll do a loop of Vancouver Island’s picturesque harbor or drop you off anywhere else along the waterfront. The wharf is family-friendly. Gazing at the brilliantly colored houseboats and buildings, I wanted to break out my crayons and a coloring book.
To me, Butchart Gardens is a world-class example of how to recycle planet earth after it’s been ravaged by man and make it even more beautiful. About a half-hour drive (take the scenic route) from downtown, the extensive gardens were created in an old gravel pit, with giant trees and thousands of colorful flowers expertly planted in 55 acres of manicured gardens. There is every type and color of annual, perennial, shrub, and tree imaginable.
Statuary, garden ornaments, and ponds linked by winding and shaded paths, take you on a magical journey through one of man and mother nature’s finest accomplishments. We thought the admission price was a bit steep at $31 (Can) each but found it worthwhile. You could spend a whole day wandering through the themed gardens, but we found a few hours in hot weather was enough.
The Scenic Coastline of Vancouver Island
If you have a vehicle, there are other places to explore along the coast. We drove from Fisherman’s Wharf, staying along the water on Dallas Road, which heads east and follows the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Dallas becomes Crescent Road, and then Beach Drive, which turns north and continues along the coast. Views of the Salish Sea and Haro Strait are amazing from the winding and hilly road and scenic overlook.
In conclusion, Cathryn and I thoroughly enjoyed the small part of Canada’s west coast that we visited. While the City of Vancouver and the Sunshine Coast were fun to explore, we liked Vancouver Island and Victoria the most. If you enjoyed this segment of Canada’s West Coast, be sure to check out Parts One and Two here at Dreams Abroad. You can see more of my travel stories on my personal website.