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Why Nanaimo?

It’s an oceanfront city on Vancouver Island littered with parks and lakes, where it’s affordable to own a home. Author Susan Juby wonders, where’s the love?

I once waited in a television studio green room with a writer who lived on one of the Gulf Islands. When I told him we lived in Nanaimo, he charmingly replied: “Why would you want to do that?”

Why? For one thing, it doesn’t put on airs. For another, those of us who live here know that once you get off the main strips, the place is affordable, convenient and, in the right light, a faintly disreputable paradise.

Before readers from Victoria scoff, let me point out that in my version of paradise, people can afford their mortgages. Housing prices in Nanaimo are far lower than in the Capital Region or the Lower Mainland. Currently, the average house price in Nanaimo is just over $316,000. A friend recently bought a sweet little fixer-upper bungalow for under $200,000. Let’s see you try that in Vancouver. Or Edmonton, for that matter.

As for Nanaimo’s rough-and-tumble reputation, which dates back to its time as a mining town, I’ve never seen open drug deals taking place on the median between traffic lanes, as I have along Douglas Street in Victoria. Nanaimo has come a long way, but it retains enough of that original character to give it a certain rakish, keeping-it-real quality.

Comber | Both Blueback Beach and Jack Point Park (opposite) underscore the fact that Nanaimo has the best ocean access of any city in B.C.
Comber | Both Blueback Beach and Jack Point Park (opposite) underscore the fact that Nanaimo has the best ocean access of any city in B.C.

The town of nearly 90,000 is famous for shopping malls but less well-known for its super abundance of parks and the extensive network of dedicated cycling and walking trails, includes the E&N trail, which connects the waterfront with the north end, and the Parkway trail that stretches the length of the city and joins the university, the Aquatic Centre and many other destinations. Other outstanding parks include Morrell Nature Sanctuary, Neck Point Park and Linley Valley. Each offers an intimate view of the straight-up splendour of Vancouver Island’s landscapes.

And I haven’t even gotten to the lakes. Westwood Lake bans gas-powered watercraft and is ringed by a popular walking and running path. Long Lake, a slender finger of water in the middle of town, is home to the rowing club. In summer, it’s furious with water-skiers, swimmers and paddle-boarders, while in the winter the stocked lake is mostly the domain of those who love toy sailboat regattas.

Window | This isn't Photoshopped: it's just a ho-hum view of an idyllic harbour, open ocean and snow-covered peaks that’s commonplace in Nanaimo.
Window | This isn’t Photoshopped: it’s just a ho-hum view of an idyllic harbour, open ocean and snow-covered peaks that’s commonplace in Nanaimo.

And, fresh from our outdoor pursuits, we can tuck into the greatest collection of carbs in the Commonwealth. In the Old City Quarter, you will find the boutique cheese shop McLean’s Specialty Foods—home of tattie scones and my personal weakness, the Cornish Yarg covered in nettle dust. Across the street is the cupcake-sized A Wee Cupcakery. Columbia Bakery, a Nanaimo institution and purveyor of fine rye breads, soft pretzels and other carbolicious essentials, is located just down Bowen Road. In the North End, bread fiends—i.e., every citizen—love the offerings from Bodhi’s Artisan Bakery on Rutherford Road.

For restaurants, The Nest Bistro is a reasonably priced spot that has roast beef on Yorkshire pudding sliders with horseradish, which is about as perfect as it sounds. Spring to fall, Penny’s Palapa floats on the waterfront and serves fish tacos and mint iced tea in the perfect setting for fish tacos and mint iced tea. In the winter, Baby Salsa in the University Village carries the Mexican food mantle admirably and, this being Nanaimo, affordably.

And though Lantzville isn’t Nanaimo, I claim Riso Foods as part of our constellation of dining establishments. It features superb breads and desserts as well as brunches, lunches and dinners by Sarah Wallbank and Takashi Ohya. (Wallbank was anointed as one of the West’s 40 Foodies Under 40 by this esteemed mag, to boot.) And I’m just getting started. Why Nanaimo? Why not. WL

Susan Juby’s Nanaimo Hit List

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Threat | Nanaimo is a city where in one day you can bike the Parkway Trail (top) and take a stroll on the accesible waterfront (middle) to build up an appetite to eat the amazing food at Riso Foods (bottom).
Threat | Nanaimo is a city where in one day you can bike the Parkway Trail (top) and take a stroll on the accesible waterfront (middle) to build up an appetite to eat the amazing food at Riso Foods (bottom).

Hikes & Cycling

E&N Trail: A super-easy starter—it’s paved—but it covers eight kilometres that span the waterfront to the north end of the city.

Morrell Nature Sanctuary: 275 private acres just south of town with 11 kilometres of trails that range from wheelchair accessible to multi-hour nature escapes.

Linley Valley Cottle Lake Park: With 800 undeveloped acres inside city boundaries this is Nanaimo’s Stanley Park, right down to the resident beavers.

Water Please

Long Lake: You catch a glimpse of it as you drive up-island, but a short detour and all its charms unfold—rowing, fishing for cutthroat and ogling the waterfront houses that sell for the same price as two- bedroom condos in Vancouver.

Westwood Lake: The best swimming lake (above) is just five minutes from downtown.

Newcastle Island Marine Provincial Park: Located in Nanaimo Harbour, this is like a less touristy Alcatraz with no prison but plenty of hiking trails and great kayaking, all a short water taxi ride away.

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5 Essential Nanaimo Bites

1. A soft German pretzel at Columbia Bakery.

2. Cornish Yarg covered in nettle dust at McLean’s Specialty Foods.

3. A cappuccino and Vancouver Island Sea Salt cupcake at A Wee Cupcakery.

4. Fresh-smoked kielbasa at Piper’s Meats.

5. Organic rye bread at Bodhi’s Artisan Bakery (250-585-6015).

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