Nanaimo’s Changed in Recent Years
Below is an article I found in the Toronto Star. I put it up here because I believe the writer, Reb Stevenson, is speaking from the heart. I say this because her observations hold similarities to my own as we have both obviously grown up in towns that neighbour Nanaimo before going off to see what else Canada (and in my case the world) has to offer.
I do have to admit that I think she’s being a bit over dramatic about how Nanaimo used to be, but in an age where you need to make everything epically dramatic just to grab anyone’s attention for two seconds, it’s forgivable.
Rejuvenated Nanaimo now a place to be
NANAIMO, B.C.–When I was growing up in a small town on Vancouver Island, every weekend I longed to hear my dad say these magical four words: “We’re going to Nanaimo.”
But the thing is, in our minds Nanaimo wasn’t a city – it was a mall.
I didn’t even discover that Nanaimo, which lies 115 kilometres north of Victoria, had a downtown until I was in my late teens.
The buildings were neglected and dilapidated. A scent of danger (in the form of cigarettes and booze) was in the air. Characters who looked like their mailing address was simply “JAIL” stumbled around.
Let’s not mince words here. It was a dive. A hole. A forsaken piece of real estate that looked like it had already been annexed by hell. Or at least the Hell’s Angels.
Yet beneath the grime, Nanaimo had the makings of a charming city. Its waterfront location was superb. The main drag – Commercial St. – was lined with Edwardian buildings.
Too bad they were full of seedy pawn shops and used bookstores.
Joel Johnston, owner of Bygone Books on Commercial St., gives me the evils when I mention this.
“You don’t equate bookstores and pawn shops,” he chides me.
But perhaps Johnston simply wants to put the past behind – and I don’t blame him.
Nanaimo is in the midst of a renaissance.
The facades have been cleaned up. The sidewalks have been widened and spruced up with hanging baskets. There are new condos, refurbished hotels, ethnic restaurants and – best of all – there is life on the streets again. “People who haven’t been downtown for 10 years are saying, `It’s awesome here!'” says Corry Hostetter, Tourism Nanaimo spokesperson.
Visitors who walk will especially appreciate Nanaimo’s layout: accommodations, attractions, shops and food are located within a few blocks. The third-oldest city in British Columbia after Victoria and Fort Langley, Nanaimo was settled by the Snuneymuxw First Nations thousands of years ago. They feasted on local delicacies like salmon, clams, herring, halibut and seals.
Today, Nanaimo’s signature cuisine is a little sweeter.
That would be the Nanaimo bar, a layered custard, coconut and chocolate confection that originated in 1952 and put the little town on the map (the big news ’round these parts is the bars recently became available in New York).
In its hometown, the Nanaimo bar comes in several creative variations: you can get a super fluffy version at Mon Petit Choux French bakery, a Nanaimo bar martini (vanilla vodka, Crème de Cacao, coconut syrup, espresso and chocolate) at the Modern Café and Nanaimo bar ice cream at numerous vendors along the waterfront.
Tempting all sorts of gastric discomfort, the folks at Pirate Fish and Chips go one step further: They deep fry the delicacy.
Purists will be relieved to hear that the original recipe is on display at the newly renovated Nanaimo District Museum.
Another historic icon is the Hudson’s Bay Company Bastion, which has maintained watch over the harbour since 1853. In fact, it’s the only free-standing structure of its kind left in North America.
No longer on the lookout for naval threats, the Bastion witnesses Nanaimo’s myriad aquatic festivals, like the Silly Boat Regatta and the even sillier World Championship Bathtub Races.
One of the most exciting aspects of visiting downtown Nanaimo is leaving it in your wake.
“It’s really quite cool to have an island park, with tons to explore, only five minutes from downtown. And it’s even cooler to have a floating pub,” says resident Matt Carter.
He’s talking about Newcastle Island and Protection Island – two chunks of land that are connected to Nanaimo by way of cute little ferries.
Newcastle Island was a Canadian Pacific Railway-owned recreation destination in the 1930s, complete with a dance pavilion, restaurant and sports grounds. Today, it maintains that old-fashioned, idyllic vibe. The vehicle-free provincial park is perfect for camping, hiking and picnicking.
Nearby Protection Island lures tourists with the Dinghy Dock floating pub, where the line between gently undulating on the waves and losing motor skills, because you’ve had too much Vancouver Island Brewing Company beer, is rather blurry.
For $8 round trip, pedestrians hop a boat at the marina that takes them to the watery watering hole.
Back on the mainland, a stroll along the four-kilometre waterfront walkway is a chance to commune with craftspeople and consider again Nanaimo’s turnaround.
The changes to the city have impressed me so much I’ve almost forgotten that blasted mall. Only it’s hard to ignore because it’s now the largest shopping centre on Vancouver Island. But the next time someone says, “We’re going to Nanaimo,” I’ll leap for joy. I’ll leave my Nintendo. And go straight downtown.