Nanaimo – West Coast Party-Town

By Andrew Kolasinski
OverviewNanaimo, British Columbia, is mid-way up the east side of Vancouver Island off Canada’s Pacific coast. Since its pioneer coal mining days this city of 85,000 has partied hard.

The “Harbour City” has a lively nightlife with more bars per capita than any other city in B.C. The large university with its thriving student culture can be relied on for parties.

Among Nanaimo’s crazier excuses to throw a party is the International Bathtub Race across the frigid waters of the Pacific Strait of Georgia. This is a city that loves a good party.

Over the past few years the downtown has experienced a re-design with a conference center, condo towers, and hotel planned to revitalize the once seedy city center.

The mountainous coastal area is great for outdoor activities like skiing, sea kayaking, surfing, sailing, scuba diving, fishing, hiking, etc. Nature is a big part of Nanaimo’s appeal.

If you go into any tourist information office on Vancouver Island, or become exposed to tourism ads you’ll soon be nauseated by the expressions “World Class” and “Four Season Paradise”.

What the city is known for – Nanaimo’s history of mining, logging, and fishing left it a reputation as a rough place; a town where you’ll see bikers brawling with loggers in middle of the street. These days it’s a little tamer. But despite the civilizing effects of a university, a theatre, and a growing population of upwardly mobile urban transplants, Nanaimo is still a bit on the wild side.

One legendary wild man is the late Frank Ney who was mayor for about 20 years. Frank loved to dress up as a pirate (even when he met the Queen of England or the Prime Minister of Canada), ride a Harley with the Angels, drink gallons of booze, and chase women. But he was a damn good administrator!

Other local notables include blues man, David Gogo, and jazz Diva, Diana Krall. You might bump into Diana and hubby Elvis Costello as they shop for records at Fascinating Rhythms on Commercial Street. Actress, Pamela Lee Anderson is also from the area.

Getting There and Away – Most visitors arrive to Nanaimo by sea. There are hourly B.C. Ferries from Vancouver to two terminals, Departure Bay in Nanaimo and Duke Point 15 miles south. It’s a two hour trip and costs $50 for a car and driver in peak summer season. There’s also a faster passengers-only ferry between downtown Nanaimo and Vancouver.

Visiting boaters from California and Alaska lay over for repairs, provisions and party-times. The Boat Basin in between downtown and Newcastle and Protection Islands is where to drop anchor.

Nanaimo is halfway between Comox and Victoria, both of which have major air connections. Cassidy Airport, 7 miles south of Nanaimo is a regional airport. There are also seaplanes connecting Nanaimo Vancouver, Seattle and the Gulf Islands.

Nightlife – The Queen’s Hotel has live music every night. The nightclub manages to attract some big names (recently James Cotton, Jr. Wells, Maestro Fresh Wes, Bif Naked, Tegan and Sarah, Big Sugar, Wide Mouth Mason, Buckwheat Zydeco). Generally acts touring between Vancouver and Seattle that get hijacked by the Queen’s.

The Patricia Hotel also has live music every night but the bands are local. The Pat makes up for this by drawing a lively crowd, being on the edge of Nanaimo’s urban Indian Reservation.

The Pressroom and the Jungle both fill up with young singles every weekend. Muddy Waters on Stewart Avenue has lately become a pick-up spot for a very young crowd. The Velvet Underground at the Malaspina University-College Campus gets pretty hot when student loan money comes in.

Bars – At most downtown bars you can buy artwork from local Native artists who cruise through showing carved masks, dream-catchers, jewellery, and wooden plaques.

Towards Departure Bay, Muddy Waters, Miller’s Landing, and Nauticals front onto Newcastle Channel which is lined with marinas and boat-yards. In summer you’ll be rubbing elbows with the yachting crowd. In winter you’ll probably be drinking with people who fix yachts and smell like fibreglass resin or diesel fuel.

A great boating bar is the floating Dinghy Dock Pub half a mile across the Harbour on Protection Island. For a couple of bucks you can take the hourly passenger ferry to the pub. The Dinghy Dock has weekend entertainment, but the real show is when visiting boats pull up to the pub’s docks (free moorage and use of the laundry and showers if you dine here). One incompetent yachtsman rammed his bowsprit through a table. He managed to send half a dozen people to hospital and caused thousands of dollars in damage, but luckily he didn’t sink the pub. Now whenever a boat approaches regulars lift their drinks up off the table, just in case. You can go fishing through a hole in the floor, or feed your leftover fries to the pub’s resident harbour seal.

Take a walk around Protection Island while you’re there, and visit Charlie (a huge cedar statue of a “perfectly proportioned” naked man). Protection Island is home to about 400 eccentric people. Some of the homes on Protection look like they were built by hillbillies on acid (which they were). There’s no vehicle ferry so there’s no official roads, but islanders leave communally shared cars along the trails.

Back downtown, across the harbour, there’s no shortage of drinking holes. The Cambie Hotel (formerly the Terminal Bar AKA Breakfast Club used to open at 8 a.m.) attracts a mixture of students, professional drinkers, gamblers, and assorted lowlifes. The Cambie has alternative bands on weekends and gets packed with dedicated partiers. The Cambie also runs a restaurant/bakery and a youth hostel upstairs.

If you’re waiting for your ride off Vancouver Island you can drink at the Lighthouse Bistro while watching your sea plane or Harbour Link ferry tie up at the dock.

And for a nice break from Nanaimo’s frantic atmosphere the Red Martini Grill has low-key jazz performers on weekends.

Wholesome Fun - Outdoor opportunities are all around. For scuba divers there’s crystal clear water and an artificial reef that attracts marine life like moray eels and giant octopus. At Sealand Market in Departure Bay you can rent kayaks, and there’s a ski resort an hour north of Nanaimo. The surfers head for Tofino on the West Coast of the Island. And for mountain bikers there are plenty of challenging trails.

Standard tourist activities include whale watching tours and salmon fishing charters. High flyers can jump off a bridge over the Nanaimo River canyon at the Bungy Zone. Once a year you can jump for free, if you’re naked.

For a little culture the Port Theatre brings in symphonies, opera, ballet, pop music, plays and drama, etc. Nanaimo Theatre Group also produces stage drama at the university theatre.

The Nanaimo Museum has a standing exhibit of the area’s history. Nanaimo Art Gallery and Gallery 223 both showcase local artists.

Food – If it’s warm and sunny out the Lighthouse Bistro is the place to watch people along the waterfront walkway. Acme Food Company is lively and stylish, with jazz bands, art exhibits, and an eclectic food and drink selection.

Nauticals Bar and Grill serves great seafood. Try the wild chinook salmon in summer, the fresh halibut in spring and the chowder anytime. In the south end of town Alice’s Restaurant is a traditional greasy spoon with basic food and low prices, a good place to take your hangover.

After the nightclubs close, Mambo’s Pizza serves up some terrific slices.

Lodging – The Cambie Hotel youth hostel has dorm beds or cheap private rooms. The Nicol Street hostel also offers dorms or rooms.

There are plenty of budget motels along the Old Island Highway just north of downtown. A sentimental favourite (because of the vintage neon sign) is the Castaway.

If money’s not the problem there’s the Dorchester, a pricy boutique hotel, or the Coast, the only high-rise hotel.

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