Nanaimo Harbour Island Tours
Fav ride for all
What's this, you ask: touring Nanaimo Harbour? Is this serious?
Well - this is the easiest cycling tour amongst these recommended favourites. But it's also a great chance to hop on a couple of ferries from Nanaimo's harbour waterfront to check out the wonderful nearby islands of Newcastle and Gabriola.
If you're coming over to Vancouver Island on a ferry to Nanaimo, or riding into Nanaimo from up or down the Island, check out this ride if you're interested in a relaxing few days with fine campgrounds, wonderful seaside views, parks to hike and some special island ambience.
From Newcastle Island, looking east across Georgia Strait to the mainland mountains. If you look carefully, you'll see a couple on the bench soaking in the views
Some trip highlights:
Strolling Nanaimo's bustling harbourfront walkway
Hiking the trails of Newcastle Island
Riding the sparsely trafficked roads of Gabriola out to Silva Bay and Entrance Island lighthouse
Watching the evening ferries pass by, lit up like festivals
Catching that Island vibe
Seaside at Gabriola Sands Provincial Park, ~2 kms north of Descanso Bay campground. The park’s 2 sandy beaches form an isthmus between Taylor and Pilot Bays - providing important ecosystems for migratory and breeding shorebirds and marine invertebrates that live in the sand.
Many have only seen Nanaimo as they pass through along the busy highway. But check out the waterfront and you'll find a vibrant, attractively developed, popular stretch, complete with views to die for, parks, restaurants and shops to entice you. Bustling marinas with boats, ferries and seaplanes coming and going. All a few blocks from the downtown core.
Coming off the Departure Bay ferry from Vancouver, if you're heading south, you can ride the wide sidewalks of Stewart Avenue for over 1 km, then 2+ kms on the brilliant multi-use Harbourfront Walkway.
See the map of the downtown harbourside below. Departure Bay ferry terminal would be another km+to the east/right. In the lower mid-right, you'll see where one catches the foot ferry to Newcastle Island near Swy-a-Lana Lagoon in Maffeo-Sutton Park. The little ferry (see 2nd pic below) has lots of experience with loaded bicycles. At the far left bottom corner, you'll see the docks for the car ferry to Gabriola Island.
That's former Nanaimo mayor Frank Ney (he of the famous bathtub race) immortalized in bronze, in Maffeo-Sutton Park. In the lower right, you can see a group loading onto the small ferry for the 10 minute crossing ($5 return) to Newcastle Island in behind
Days for Ride:
There's all sort of itinerary options here. Both Newcastle and Gabriola warrant an overnight stay, and both have enough to do (including some chill out time), that you could arrive one afternoon, stay 2 nights and leave the next morning.
You could also split the 2 islands into 2 separate overnight trips, perhaps on a weekend if you are coming over from Vancouver to Departure Bay on the ferry.
If time is short, you can fit both islands in to an overnight weekend. Head over to Newcastle on the 1st 10 minute crossing at 9am, check out some trails and have an early lunch, at the Tea House (in season). Then head back to Nanaimo for the short ride down to the Gabriola Ferry. Camp at Descanso Bay, and plan to ride up to Gabriola Sands Park (pic above) and Entrance Island Lighthouse in the NW .
View from the trails at the west end of Newcastle Island, out over Departure Bay. A ferry is departing for Horseshoe Bay (West Vancouver)
Difficulty: Real easy.
Coming from Departure Bay, it's only a couple of (flat) kms to the harbourfront (most of the way on the seaside walkway). Between the Newcastle dock at the west and the larger Gabriola terminal to the east is ~2kms, again almost all on the seaside walkway.
Sailings to Newcastle depart every half hour. There are no roads on Newcastle - no permanent residents for that matter, as the whole island is a Provincial Marine Park. The campground area is set back from the docks ~1/4km. That said, there's a fine network of trails around Newcastle, most open to bikes. I took several hours to ride 10+kms around the Island. The views are often stunning.
There's 16 sailings daily to Gabriola (check BC ferries schedule). Descanso Bay Regional Campground is only 1+kms from the island terminal to the north along Taylor Bay Road. Gabriola is a much bigger island (see map below): if you headed up to the Entrance Island lighthouse, then backtracked to ride the loop out to the east end of the Island (including fine Silva Bay), you'd have more than 40kms of paved, sparsely trafficked island riding. Some hills up above 100m, but nothing too tough.
I loaded my bike onto the little ferry and headed over to Newcastle Island, to camp at the Provincial Marine Park Campground. There's 8 spacious, private walk-in campsites, and 5 group sites. Fees are $18 per night in season. You'll likely have nautical neighbours, as the protected waters just off the dock are a favourite mooring spot for boaters (see pic below). There's outhouses and flush toilets, showers and potable water. In season, it appears there's a tea house. I was there in mid-September. I really like this campground: in season, it might get busier, and reservations are no doubt a good idea.
See my campsite at the top left of collage above. Top right shows a stretch from the fine trails that criss-cross the island. Bottom right is a jaunty raccoon - you really have to bundle your food securely, as this gaze of raccoons (new word use for me) must have been genetically enhanced to open clasps and zippers. Finally, bottom left is from the docks where the ferry drops folks off. That's my trusty bike taking a breather.
Dusk - looking from Newcastle Island docks across to downtown Nanaimo. This is a Marine Park, and most of the moored boats have someone sleeping aboard - your nautical neighbours
Newcastle has an interesting history. The Snuneymuxw First Nation (A Salish Nation) has been living on the island since early history. European newcomers took up coal mining in the 1800s (the Island is named after the English coal mining town). Japanese settlers were active in the fishing industry in the 1900s, up until internment during the Second World War. In 1931 the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company purchased the island and operated it as a pleasure resort, building a dance pavilion (now the visitor centre), teahouse, and other structures.
Taken from the back of the car ferry heading off to Gabriola Island. Check out the Nanaimo ferry docks at the left side. It's September, and it appears the line of geese are already on their way south.
The next day I hopped on the bigger, car-carrying ferry for the 20 minute ride to Gabriola Island. The Island has a population of ~5,000, but is big enough (almost 15kms long) that one can still get that laid back Island vibe.
Gabriola Island has a reputation for its active artisan community, with painters, sculptors, photographers, glass artists, musicians, dancers and writers, not to mention festivals and galleries. Ancient petroglyphs were carved by early Snuneymus First Nation residents. Hikers, bikers, kayakers and beach walkers are all attracted to Gabriola.
There's 32 campsites at popular Descanso Bay Regional Campground on the 40 hectare waterfront property. Open year round, $17/night in season. A short ride to shops and several restaurants just up from the ferry terminal.
My mother and father at Orlebar Point, NW Gabriola Island, 6kms north of Descanso Bay. That's the famous Entrance Island Lighthouse in behind
From the location/route map below, you can get a good sense of how much larger Gabriola Island is, and how nestled in along the Nanaimo town harbour Newcastle Island is. You can also get the sense of how both these excellent islands are easily reached from Nanaimo's vibrant waterfront. Note also how close the harbourfront is to the main Departure Bay Ferry Terminal at the upper left.
For both Islands, the camping options are near the ferry docks. The routes you see on the map below - trails on Newcastle and roadways on Gabriola - are just me poking around on some side trips. If you wanted to just kick back at the fine seaside campgrounds.
This is the easiest of all the cycle tours I've explored on Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast. It's accessible to riders (and non-riders) of all capability levels. With the trails of Newcastle and the roadways of Gabriola, you can still get yourself a good workout, then enjoy a great night's sleep at an excellent campground.
These are beautiful islands, complete with that special Island vibe, well worth the visit. Some time when you're looking for a laid back cycle tour, don't forget Nanaimo Harbour.
Fine habour and marina at Silva Bay, at the NE tip of Gabriola, about a 30kms loop from Descanso Bay Campground. I saw a little restaurant overlooking the harbour, and plan to go back and eat there some day (not sure if it's open year round) to enjoy the tremendous view