Exploring Nanaimo with Julia Crawford
I’ve always been drawn to British Columbia’s coastal communities. They tend to capture my imagination, from the quaint and slightly dilapidated buildings that have weathered decades of moisture in the salty sea air to the eccentric characters—whether real or historic—that hold a million stories you will never get to hear.
In the summer, these coastal communities promise secret beaches and warm, shallow waters. But in the winter, the mild climate means you can walk through a still-green forest surrounded by the heady scent of fir and pine.
While I’m familiar with many of the towns that occupy our lonely coast, Nanaimo has never really crossed my mind as a place to visit—especially during the colder months. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered a fun winter destination worth veering off the highway for.
Nanaimo, unfairly, is often bypassed by road trippers and visitors en route to other Vancouver Island destinations. The four-lane highway that dissects the town offers a convenient thoroughfare but tends to obscure the places I’ve since come to unearth. Adding to this is the town’s unique layout: a long, slender piece of land that stretches from Cedar in the south to Lantzville in the north, with neighbourhoods, cafes, businesses, and residential homes on either side. It may lack the overt beauty of Victoria (to some) and the charm of a smaller town like Ucluelet, but in this mid-sized city, I found a vibrant and strong sense of community; a burgeoning dining, arts, and entertainment scene; and plenty of winter fun.
Read on to find out what I did and where I ate, shopped, and slept.
Day One: Vietnamese, Virtual Reality and Nanaimo’s Newest Vegan Restaurant
My winter trip started with a lunchtime visit to Huong Lan Vietnamese Restaurant on Bowen Road. Well-deserving of its reputation as Nanaimo’s best Vietnamese restaurant, I opted for a bowl of lemongrass prawns over vermicelli noodles and steamed veggies. One could easily warm up with a steaming bowl of pho on a cold day, but on a sunny, clear day like this one, I wanted something light and fresh. A strong Vietnamese iced coffee, thick with condensed milk, helped re-energize me for the afternoon ahead.
To work off the calories I consumed, I headed onto my next activity: virtual reality. That may sound like an oxymoron but after spending just an hour moving and twisting my body in various alternative worlds, I can report VR might just count as exercise too. VrKade Nanaimo opened up its doors three weeks ago, which meant my friend, Danielle, and I were among the first to test it out. Having never experienced virtual reality before, I learned that VrKade is a true virtual reality arcade: instead of sitting down in a chair, you are brought to your own small area, each one partitioned off by a curtain, to allow you the physical space to move around. Slipping on my headset, I was blown away at how surreal and disorienting it is at first. Taking a few hesitant steps to my left and right, I watched an animated version of myself on screen. By now, I could hear my friend Danielle laughing in the other room and me along with her. An hour later, we emerged still giggling and absolutely delighted. We danced. We played dodgeball. It was silly and fun. VrKade is a great addition to Nanaimo’s entertainment scene—and the best part is it’s open late. On dark winter nights it may help to keep your cabin fever at bay.
Conveniently located next door is Wa-Ku, a tiny and inviting Japanese restaurant specializing in soup and rice bowls. In need of a snack, we recounted our experience over crispy edamame, ebi tempura, fragrant miso soup and a frosty mug of Sapporo beer.
By now it had gotten dark, so we headed to our accommodation to check in and let our stomachs grow hungry again before dinner. Inn on Long Lake is a motel-style property located off the highway on the north end shore of Long Lake. Despite being close to the highway, the lake is lined with trees, which quiets the hum of the traffic outside. Over the next two nights we would make good use of the property’s hot tub – located in a separate wood-framed building with floor-to-ceiling windows and a skylight, just metres from the shoreline. Slipping into the steaming water, surrounded by the inky night sky, was the perfect way to end each day.
Dinner that night was at newly opened Eve Olive, Nanaimo’s first-ever vegan restaurant (and the only vegan restaurant on Vancouver Island to be fully licensed). My dietary preferences tend to lean toward veggies anyways, but it’s a misconception that plant-based cuisine lacks flavour or substance. We feasted until stuffed on a cheese platter with a variety of locally-made nut cheeses, including flavours of goat cheese, smoked gouda, and a cheddar, followed by a spicy and flavourful cashew coconut curry and a sweet potato ravioli in a delicate plant-based cream sauce. For dessert, we had a salted caramel cashew-based ice cream that would fool even the most discerning dairy lover.
Day Two: Cafes, Art and Happy Hour
By now Nanaimo had taken me by surprise. I was excited to see what day two had in store. We started at Drip Coffee Social, located steps from the water on Departure Bay Beach. This bright, modern space features wood beams, vaulted ceilings, and big picture windows that overlook the beach. I couldn’t resist the scent of waffles and opted for both the savoury and sweet version to go with my Americano. Drip Coffee has been only open since early November—but judging by the amount of locals leisurely sipping their drinks, it promises to be a popular option.
Buoyed by caffeine, we were ready to tackle the challenge of an escape room. Brechin Lanes Bowling Alley (which has been around since 1978) recently renovated to add two fully immersive escape rooms to their location. Despite failing miserably at the Sorcerer’s Study, I was impressed by the care and attention to detail that went into it. It’s not an escape room without a challenge, right? Like VrKade, which is located nearby, it’s a fun option if you’re looking to also escape the dreary weather outside. Similarly, over in the Old City Quarter you’ll find The Board Game House, a cute, cheerful cafe with a variety of board games to test and try play.
Changing gears, Danielle and I made our way downtown for a taste of arts and culture. The waterfront core is a quaint and neatly compact area that is home to a number of art spaces and galleries, cafes, and restaurants. I loved wandering around the open and contemporary space of the Nanaimo Art Gallery, taking in pieces from the current exhibition, the Poetics of Space, currently on loan from the Vancouver Art Gallery. Past exhibitions include a selection of contemporary and important works (the Canadian visionary Lawrence Harris among them) and highlight the calibre of art being shown in this space. Down from the street from the art gallery is the Nanaimo Art Museum featuring many wonderful and interactive displays that cover Nanaimo’s rich history and culture, including the Snunéymuxw exhibit: housed in a stunning cedar wood and glass case carefully displaying objects used in everyday life from intricately woven baskets to stunning textiles. One block further still sits Merrick Gallery, which opened in 2018 and casually displays contemporary artwork by Canadian artists throughout the two-level space. Our arts tour culminated at Nanaimo’s first ‘urban art gallery,’ at the intersection of Commercial and Terminal streets, which is a series of bright murals painted by local artists on a former derelict building. The murals are produced by Humanity in Art, whose mission is to make art accessible and support marginalized voices in the arts community.
Ready for a bite to eat, we stopped in at Gabriel’s Cafe. What started out as a food truck, then a small cafe on Commercial Street, quickly expanded into a full-sized restaurant that easily turns out hundreds of dishes a day. Breakfast is served until 3pm, and all meat and egg options on the menu come from local, sustainable farms. We tried the roasted beet and kale salad, dressed in a bright and tangy apple cider vinaigrette and the quinoa and chickpea fritters with Sriracha mayo dipping sauce. For something sweet after one could easily head to Cold Front Gelato or Mon Petit Choux; both are located across the street. Another favourite is Greek restaurant Asteras, located in a heritage home in the Old City Quarter, whose olive tapenade I still dream of. Its cheerful blue and yellow decor is enough to brighten up any rainy day.
Refreshed, we continued our downtown tour of Nanaimo poking around various shops and stores. Plants and Leather, newly-opened, offers a great selection of plants and planters, plus vintage clothes, artwork, and trinkets. I was also tempted by the wonderful Indigenous artwork and gifts found in Hill’s Native Art Gallery on Bastion street.
Happy hour soon beckoned. At White Sails Brewing, we sampled a flight of beer in front of the warm glow of the fireplace. Over at Wolf Brewing, located south of downtown, we tried the seasonal Harvest Ale, a wet-hopped pale ale using a selection of fresh—and random—hops from local taproom regulars.
Day three: Climbing, Coffee and a Brewery Tour
We started our last day in Nanaimo with something a little more adrenaline inducing: the ‘taste of climbing’ tour at the Romper Room. This fun, one-hour tour (which is only $20!) was a great way to learn the….er, ropes of the sport. If you’re looking for a way to stay active in a warm and dry space this winter, it’s worth checking out.
If you do plan on climbing, here’s another bonus: Regard Coffee, Nanaimo’s first coffee roaster, is conveniently located down the street. To treat ourselves after our workout, we stopped in for a shortbread cookie and a coffee.
We wrapped up our whirlwind winter visit of Nanaimo with a brewery tour at Longwood Brewery (not to be confused with the sister property Longwood Brewpub). It’s an important distinction: you’ll find different beers at each location. Chatting with the brew master, it’s clear the passion and love that goes into their beers; they work with a local malt roaster (ask about the legend of Jeremy) and source barley and hops from the Island as much as possible. The Three Farms Hazy was great but I couldn’t resist taking home the aptly named Big One. With life’s hustle and bustle, it is nice to slow down and enjoy life—maybe over a beer or two.
Some of the places mentioned in this story:
Regard Coffee – Nanaimo’s first (and an excellent) coffee roaster with two locations: one on Bowen Road and the other on Boban Drive. Both are bright, airy spaces.
Drip Coffee Social – modern coffee shop with easy waterfront and beach access. Light on menu options but they plan to add more.
Huong Lan Vietnamese Restaurant – casual Vietnamese food in an easy to access location (with ample parking!)
Wa-Ku – intimate Japanese restaurant specializing in ramen and rice bowls.
Eve-Olive – elegant plant-based cuisine and well-curated menu of vegan wines and beers.
Asteras – long-standing Nanaimo institution serving up rich and delicious Greek dishes. Olive tapenade is a must-try.
Mon Petit Choux – lovely French-style restaurant. Pastries are made on-site and worth indulging in. (You’ll find Nanaimo bars here, too.)
Gabriel’s Cafe – farm to fork cuisine. Breakfast options until 3pm + hearty bowls of south Asian-style rice bowls for lunch. Parking is harder to find; best to find a spot a few blocks away and stroll over.
Cold Front Gelato – newly opened gelato place turning out delicious gelato flavours made on-site (try the Honey Lavender).
Longwood Brewery – Relaxed tasting room with Island vibes and fun artwork. This location is stocked with seasonal and limited run beers.
White Sails – Housed in a former late 1800s hotel. Great ambience, including a nice fireplace to pull up in front of. Free parking out back.
Wolf Brewing – Located south of downtown. Unassuming and convivial atmosphere. Brew master poured our samples and walked us through tasting notes. Try the Harvest Ale (if still available) and look out for the Wee Scotch Ale.
Inn on Long Lake – Comfortable and affordable motel-style property in the north end of Nanaimo. Great hot tub and fitness centre.
Activities and Places to Go
VrKade – Virtual reality arcade. Open late (till 10pm). $25/hour and also offer memberships (if you’re a local).
Escapism Nanaimo/Brechin Lanes Bowling – escape rooms + bowling. Party food (hot dogs, etc.) and snacks on-site.
Nanaimo Art Gallery – beautiful space and interesting exhibits. Free by donation.
Nanaimo Museum – History of Nanaimo in a nutshell. Would make an excellent place to go with kids, lots of fun interactive and educational displays.
Merrick Gallery – newly opened art space. Casual and inviting. Parking harder to find.
Humanity in Art’s ’Urban Art Gallery’ – free! Community art piece with a solid mission.
Plants and Leather – adorable and charming vintage store. Lots of goodies and treasures to find.
Hill’s Native Art Gallery – Look for authentically-made Cowichan knit sweaters here. Hard not to walk out with something.
Romper Room – Nanaimo only rock climbing gym. Intro tour was very helpful and provides all the essential equipment you need.