Vancouver Island Travel Guide: Nanaimo

You know how when one of your dreams comes true and you actually do something that you’d been dreaming and scheming about for years? And then, even months after you’ve done it you still can’t believe that you really did it and how amazing it was? That’s how I feel about our trip to Canada. Earlier this year our family spent a month travelling in Canada: two weeks on Vancouver Island, B.C., and two weeks Winnebago-ing around the Rockies. You can read my travel guide to charming Victoria, capital of British Columbia, here. But today I’m here to tell you about our escapades travelling up the east coast of Vancouver Island and hopefully impart some useful hints and tips along the way. Let’s go!

View from the Malahat

Starting in Victoria and driving the Trans-Canada Highway up the east coast of Vancouver Island, you pass through the Cowichan Valley region, known for its lush vineyards and wineries. Sophie and Tom, being only 4 and 2 years old, are not big wine-drinkers, so we decided to skip the wine-tasting and focus on getting to our next destination, Nanaimo!  Nanaimo is about 1.5 hours drive north of Victoria and on the way it’s definitely worth stopping at the Malahat, a sacred mountain lookout point located on Malahat Drive, a portion of the Trans-Canada Highway 27km north of Victoria. The 356m high viewpoint is named after the Malahat First Nation for whom the mountain is a holy place. Legends tell that the mountain is the home of the Thunderbird and other supernatural beings venerated by the Salish People of the Pacific Northwest. The view from the lookout is spectacular and takes in the Salish Inlet and and the Salish Sea below.

Graycliff Cottage B&B
Graycliff Cottage Garden

In Nanaimo, we stayed at Graycliff Cottage Oceanfront Bed and Breakfast in Lantzville, a sweet suburb north-west of the town centre, conveniently close to the Woodgrove Shopping Center (for picnicking supplies and White Spot lunches – more about that in a minute!). The B&B is indeed located right on the oceanfront: the header image for this post shows the unobstructed sea view from the B&B’s backyard at dusk. The accommodation was probably the nicest of our entire trip – just the right combination of comfort, privacy, cute decor and cozy homeliness. The catloving owners, Jan and Warren, made us feel very welcome and cooked us yummy pancake breakfasts in the mornings. We chose to go crazy and take both of the Garden Suites so we had plenty of space for the four of us. The garden was lovely and filled with plum and apple trees and flowers (by the way, if anyone can identify the plant pictured above, I’d be mighty grateful – so far it falls into the category of ‘Enigmatic North American Plant that Nobody Recognizes’).

Westwood Lake

Once we’d dropped off our luggage at the B&B we headed straight to beautiful Westwood Lake, west of downtown Nanimo. I’d remembered bathing there as a kid on visits to my grandparents’ when I’d loved the fresh water and the natural setting, with forest stretching right down to the water. Our return visit didn’t disappoint. It was a baking hot day at the beginning of August and I spent some time kicking myself on the shins about having left my bathing suit back at the B&B. But I guess someone had to stay on the beach with Tom, who was snoozing in his buggy. So I sat and sweated and gazed longingly at Sophie and Mr Olive as they splashed about in the cool water. When Tom woke up (extremely grouchy) we had a picnic and Sophie met a mermaid (well, a girl wearing one of those mermaid tails you can actually wear swimming), with whom she was greatly enamoured and still talks about four months later.

The next morning we found a playground a short walk from our B&B so that kept us amused until lunchtime (clarification: it kept the kids amused and them being amused kept us amused. Mr Olive and I are, unfortunately, past the stage where we can get turned on by slides and see-saws. Even if they are in the shape of airplanes and zebras). We had a lunch date with my grandma and aunt at the famous Canadian chain restaurant White Spot. While I must clarify that, in my normal life, I’m not big on the kind of fast food commonly served at North American chain restaurants (pizza doesn’t count, right?), I developed a bit of an obsession with White Spot while we were in Canada, which Mr Olive teased me about ceaselessly. The food was decent (we enjoyed the Candied Salmon Spinach Salad) but I think that my warm fuzzy feeling about the restaurant may also have been due to eating there with my elderly grandma and my aunt, who I hadn’t seen for years. Also, the fact that Sophie was spotted eating a hamburger there. Not just the bun. The actual burger. (I’m not saying she’s a picky eater, but…).

View to mainland Canada from Pipers Lagoon Park
Lovely red-barked Arbutus in Pipers Lagoon Park

Tom fell asleep on the drive back to Graycliff Cottage and I spent his naptime pretending to be a pirate trying to capture a mermaid called Sophie. Then it was off to wild and beautiful Pipers Lagoon, halfway between Lantzville and downtown Nanaimo, for a sunny windy walk along the shore, a short climb up a rocky hill and along a shady path winding between Garry Oaks and stunning Arbutus trees. Of course we kept our eyes peeled for mermaids along the way (you may be sensing a theme here…).

Colourful lanterns hanging from the ceiling in Coombes Old Country Market

The next morning dawned rainy and we packed our bags and continued on up the coast towards Campbell River (all about Campbell River in our next travel post!). But on the way we stopped off at the famous Coombes Old Country Market. In my opinion, no visit to Vancouver Island is complete without a visit to the market, or just ‘Coombes’, as we like to call it (since the settlement seems to grown up around the market, rather than the other way round).

Goats on the roof!

There is a whole complex of shops, restaurants, stalls, and covered areas, but the highlight is the market itself with its famous grassy roof on which goats graze. Yup, there are goats on the roof. The roof is covered with sod from which the grass grows, an idea inspired by Norwegian homes that are built directly into the hillside, where the sod roof becomes an extension of the hill itself. This is an environmentally sustainable way of building since the sod and grass provide insulation in winter and evaporation in summer. And you can put some goats up there too. So, like, win-win-win.

The market is a delightful cozy cavernous place filled with all kinds of interesting gourmet and exotic grocery items, a bakery, a coffee shop, a restaurant and a vast array of beautiful gift items, both locally made and imported. There is a particularly good selection of wooden toys, kind of a Waldorf wonderland. We ended up buying a little string of felt dwarves as a gift for Sophie’s Steiner kindergarten.

And let’s not forget the Nanaimo Bars! For those who have never encountered these delectable squares of sin, a Nanaimo Bar is essentially a three-layer cake bar consisting of a bottom Graham Cracker crumb layer, a middle layer of custard-flavoured buttercream and a top layer of chocolate. Basically an endorphin injection in bar form. We bought a bunch of ’em and proceeded to use them to alter the moods of our children over the next few days. Just kidding. But not really.

Nanaimo is my mum’s hometown and, for that reason alone, it will always hold a special place in my heart. I had many wonderful childhood visits there and our return trip this summer brought back lots of memories. I only wish we could have stayed longer! Till next time, Nanaimo…

Next stop: Campbell River!