“The Harbour City” of Nanaimo is situated on the central east coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. In addition to its natural beauty, Nanaimo offers plenty of attractions, and outdoor adventures. With a humble beginning as a coal mining town, the city now has a population of close to 79,000.
From Vancouver, you can take a ferry or seaplane to get to Nanaimo. For my adventure, I took a Harbour Air seaplane from Coal Harbour in downtown Vancouver to Nanaimo Harbour. Remarkably this affordable and scenic flight took only 20 minutes. If you’re ever visiting Vancouver for a few days, this is definitely a trip you can do in a day.
From the beautiful harbor city of Nanaimo, you can see the Bastion standing tall as a formidable defense outpost against the hostile forces of its time. This three-storey building was built in 1853 by the Hudson’s Bay Company to protect the town that is now the city of Nanaimo.
The Hudson’s Bay Company, now a well-known Canadian department store, started out 150 years ago as a series of forts that traded and stored furs for shipping to Europe. In Nanaimo, however, the company built the Bastion, meaning “stronghold” as a company office, storage facility for coal, and a safe haven for coal miners and their families if there was an enemy attack. It is the only known Hudson’s Bay Company fort that focused primarily on coal mining rather than fur trading.
This building is a testimony to the skill of the builders of the day. According to Hudson's Bay Company journals, the fort was constructed entirely by hand, without the aid of power tools or cranes. The logs were painstakingly cut by hand using an axe, ensuring a close fit and smooth surface. Amazingly, no nails were used. Among the skilled laborers involved in the construction were eleven Hudson’s Bay Company employees and a group of First Nation men.
The Nanaimo Bastion is worth a visit to learn about Nanaimo’s coal mining history. It was a privilege to visit the oldest freestanding building in Nanaimo, and perhaps the second oldest freestanding building in British Columbia. Quite an accomplishment for a structure built without nails!
During the summer months, be sure to check out the ceremonial firing of the cannon daily at 11:45 am in the waterfront plaza adjacent to the Bastion. Make sure you plug your ears as the cannon makes quite a blast!
Legend has it that the Nanaimo bar, a popular Canadian dessert with custard sandwiched between a layer of crumbs and chocolate, came to fame when families in England would send these delectable bars in care packages to their relatives working in the coal mines of Nanaimo. Hence, the name Nanaimo bars.
On the waterfront of downtown Nanaimo
Telephone: (250) 753-1821
11 Bastion Street
Nanaimo, BC V9R 6E4
Tel. 604.274.1277 (Lower Mainland)
Tel. 250.384.2215 (Victoria)
Tel. 250.714.0900 (Nanaimo)
Tel. 250.537.5525 (Ganges, Saltspring Island)
Tel. 1.800.665.0212 Toll Free in North America
What do sandstone cliffs, sunny beaches, rocky caves and Douglas fir trees have in common? They are all found on the beautiful island of Newcastle, just a 10-minute “pickle” boat ride from Nanaimo.
As I approached Newcastle Island on the green foot-passenger ferry, I noticed not one but two islands, Protection Island and Newcastle Island. During high tide they appear as two distinct islands; but at low tide they are linked together and become one. Newcastle Island is a marine provincial park while Protection Island accommodates a number of residents.
Smooth, light colored sandstone cliffs greet you as you approach Newcastle Island. As you step off the dock and across a huge open field, a pathway leads you to hiking trails, interpretive programs, more fields, campsites and playgrounds. The island also offers a Pavilion that can be rented for weddings, picnics, dances and social functions.
Although the island has worn many different masks over the years, one thing has not changed since the 1930s: the island can only be accessed by boat and explored either on foot or by bike. There is much to discover on this island, with its rich commercial history.
Before coal was discovered on the island, there were traces of at least two Salish First Nations villages. In 1849 coal was discovered and the island was then named after the British coal-mining town of Newcastle. This discovery put Nanaimo on the map and by 1861 the city had become the fourth largest city in British Columbia. The Hudson’s Bay Company built a coal-mining site and the island was mined from 1853 to1883. Shortly after, a fish-salting operation, a sandstone quarry, and a shipyard were established.
In 1931 the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company purchased Newcastle Island to operate it as a pleasure resort where families could enjoy picnics and outings. Unfortunately its popularity declined after the Second World War due to lack of transportation to the island.
In 1961 Newcastle Island became an official provincial park. And the rest is history.
As I watched people lounging and playing in the captivating surroundings of the island, it was hard for me to imagine what Newcastle must have been like in its heyday as a rich commercial operation. But I am glad visitors today can enjoy all that the island now has to offer: kayaking, canoeing, camping, bird watching, interpretive programs, hiking, biking, beach combing or relaxing with a picnic basket in the grassy field. It’s a beautiful getaway that is only 10 minutes away from the City of Nanaimo.
Nanaimo, British Columbia
Telephone: (250) 754-7893
Nanaimo Office: (250)729-8738