Touring Nanaimo Harbour

What's that, you say? Touring Nanaimo harbour!?

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.

That's former Nanaimo mayor Frank Ney (he of the famous bathtub race) immortalized in bronze above, 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.

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 map below).

Newcastle Island is gorgeous. Can you see the couple on the bench soaking in the views across Georgia Strait to the mainland mountains behind?

I loaded my bike onto that little ferry and headed over to Newcastle Island, to camp at the Provincial Marine Park Campground. The island is 360 hectares, about 3kms long, with a 10+km circumference, crisscrossed with great walking (or riding) trails. There's 8 spacious, private walk-in campsites, and 5 group sites, just in from from the ferry docks. 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 2nd pic below). There's outhouses and flush toilets, showers and potable water.

My campsite at the top left. Top right is a view from the Newcastle trails, looking out over Departure Bay, as a seaplane lands and a BC ferry sets sail. 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 - rumour has it they've started experimenting with reconnaissance drones. Finally, bottom left is from the docks where the ferry drops folks off. That's my trusty bike taking a breather.

Dusk - view from Newcastle Island across to downtown Nanaimo.

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.

One of the fine trails on Newcastle Island - well worth setting aside a half day to explore.

The next day I hopped on the ferry back to Nanaimo and cycled a few kms south to the ferry terminal for Gabriola Island (see map below). This is a bigger, car-carrying ferry for the 20 minute ride (16 sailings a day) to bigger 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.

My mother and father on Orlebar Point, NW Gabriola Island. That's the famous Entrance Island Lighthouse in behind.

Gabriola Island has worthwhile camping and biking options. From the Island ferry terminal at Descanso Bay, one can ride ~6kms north to Orlebar Point (pic above), then ride a 30+km loop out to Silva Bay at the east end (pic below). Turns out there's a little restaurant overlooking the wonderfully scenic sheltered bay (gotta return and try it out). Silva Bay energized my father, as he had memories of visiting the harbour from his navy days.

Descanso Bay Regional Park Campground is 1+kms north of the ferry terminal along Taylor Bay Road. There's 32 fine campsites on the 40 hectare waterfront property. Open year round, $17/night in season. Close to shops and several restaurants. The picture below shows one of the 2 adjoining bays that the campground fronts.

Gabriola Island has a reputation for its active artisan community, with painters, sculptors, photographer, glass artists, musicians, dancers and writers, not to mention festivals and galleries.

Ancient petroglyphs were carved by early Snuneymus First Nation residents. Hikers, biker, kayakers and beach walkers are all attracted to Gabriola.

Seaside at Gabriola Sands Provincial Park above, ~2 kms north of Descanso Bay campground. The park’s two sandy beaches form an isthmus that divides Taylor Bay and Pilot Bay. This isthmus and sandy beach are relatively uncommon in the rocky Gulf Islands, and provide important ecosystems for migratory and breeding shorebirds and many marine invertebrates that live in the sand.

From the map above, you can get a good sense of how much larger Gabriola Island is, and how nestled in along the town harbour Newcastle is. You can also get the sense of how both these excellent islands are reached from Nanaimo's special, vibrant waterfront.

Newcastle Island, from near the docks. Looking across to nearby Protection Island, reached by another small ferry from along the Nanaimo harbour front, which very sensibly unloads passengers right at the Dingy Dock Pub, should you be in need of food or drink.

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, there's enough exertion and sites to visit to tucker cycle tourists out, so they can enjoy a great night's sleep at the two excellent campgrounds.

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.

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