Sampling all Nanaimo has to offer

A public park in Nanaimo, B.C. (Shutterstock)

A public park in Nanaimo, B.C. (Shutterstock)

MIKE KEENAN, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:27 PM ET

Every chef has a recipe for Nanaimo bars, the delectable Canadian dessert that derives its name from Nanaimo, British Columbia. The wafer crumb-based layer, topped by a coating of light custard or vanilla butter icing, is smothered in chocolate from melted chocolate squares. Yum!

The bar originated in the 1950s when a housewife submitted her recipe under the name "Nanaimo Bars" in a contest. Her winning entry made its way throughout the province via recipes shared by housewives, particularly those in the company towns.

Half my fun was getting to Nanaimo from Vancouver aboard a West Coast Air DeHavilland DHC-3 Turbine Single Otter, which seats 14 passengers, operates at an altitude of 3,000 metres and generates 750 hp for an optimum speed of 210 km/h. In 25 minutes, we took off and landed on Nanaimo water thanks to the twin floats. On the return, I sat beside the pilot, and delighted in a tremendous panoramic view of Vancouver's Stanley Park and skyline as well as the many ships parked off shore.

On my way to the nearby Coast Bastion Hotel, at Javawocky Coffee House, a café near Nanaimo's landmark large, white bastion, for pure research, I sampled a Nanaimo bar cheesecake along with coffee. Yum again!

The city of 84,000 is blessed with beautiful scenery, a mild temperate climate, thriving arts and culture, a university and easy access to outdoor activities. It boasts the island's largest performing arts centre, The Port Theatre, a host of arts and culture groups and a vibrant, lively music scene, particularly jazz as this is the home town of Diana Krall. It attracts hundreds of writers, artists, musicians and crafts people.

I soon discovered other tasty "bars," and some great options for tourists. Sticking to downtown, without need of a car, one may visit the Old City Station Pub, the Queens, the Dinghy Dock Pub (Canada's only floating pub) and the Coast Bastion Hotel's modern Minnoz Lounge -- each a different experience. Further a field, the Longwood Brew Pub, located in the north end of town, offers appetizing food and suds brewed on site, including the local favourite, raspberry ale aka Framboise. Another popular pub is located in the south end, The Crow & Gate, which offers home-cooked English pub fare and a pint of Guinness or Kilkenny. Here, I also learned the Yorkshire phrase, "It's varry snod" or real smooth!

I explored all three of Nanaimo's districts. The Arts District in the city's core features shopping in niche record stores, fine native art galleries, excellent used book stores, clothing boutiques, and myriad items such as candles, home decor and kitchenware, teas, urban garden supplies and more. Ample dining opportunities augment a diverse mix of art galleries, music, dance and theatre. In fact, live music plays each evening; there are free concerts throughout the year as well as excellent performing arts at the Vancouver Island Symphony, TheatreBC, the Crimson Coast Dance, the Assembly of BC Arts Councils and Harbour Dancentre. At the Nanaimo Museum, I discovered the fascinating history of Canada's West Coast along with some exhibits of modern day oddities such as the Great International World Bathtub Race, run on the last weekend of July since 1967.

The Old City Quarter, a well-established historic residential neighbourhood, is part of the original economic core of the city. Impressive buildings date from the late 1800s to early 1900s and reflect their heritage charm. Revitalization and the addition of new developments that complement the period architecture has created a boom of up-market retailers in the area. Blocks away from the waterfront, exploring the Heritage Mews, the Old City Square, or Fitzwilliam Gate leads you to numerous boutiques that you can't find anywhere else, and restaurants that include a wide variety of world cuisine (West Coast, Greek, Japanese, Thai, Mexican, Italian and more). The mix of retail has something for everyone -- from skateboards to specialty foods, art, and many more surprises!

The Waterfront District comprises Nanaimo's harbour and commercial boat basin -- a favourite west coast destination for boaters and landlubbers alike. Strolling along the four-kilometre Harbourside Walkway and 183-metre Visiting Vessel Pier, you amble through Maffeo Sutton Park (built in the mid-1980s, and the most popular recreational facility in the city), around Swy-a-lana Lagoon and past the fishing and walking Pier. Close-up views of Gabriola, Protection and Newcastle Islands with access to their connecting ferries are among the Walkway's many features.

I enjoyed a delicious meal at the Minnoz Restaurant & Lounge which features four flickering fireplaces and a 16-seat horseshoe bar in a contemporary west coast design complemented by soft pastel colors and expansive bay windows, offering a spectacular view of Nanaimo's harbour.

Only 36 nautical miles west of Vancouver, Nanaimo is easily reached by air or ferry. Once a Salish village and a Hudson's Bay Company outpost (hence the Bastion), it offers great bars -- both solid and liquid. But its heart and soul remains decidedly the waterfront, where the past, present and future are all closely linked.

Contact Mike Keenan at www.whattravelwriterssay.com

If you go

Coast Bastion Hotel: 11 Bastion St., Phone: 250 753-6601, www.coasthotels.com/hotels/canada/bc/nanaimo/coast_bastion/overview

Crow & Gate Pub: Replicates an authentic English Pub as found in the English countryside, 2313 Yellow Point Rd., Cedar, BC V9X 1W5, Phone: (250) 722-3731, www.crowandgate.com/

Dinghy Dock Pub: With its distinct pale blue roof, it floats leisurely in Nanaimo's harbour. The only access is by boat. You need to catch the protection connection ferry, which leaves 10 minutes after the hour, #8 Pirates Lane, V9R 6R1, Pub: (250) 753-2373, Ferry: (250) 753-8244, www.dinghydockpub.com

Longwood Brew Pub: Sample West Coast cuisine with an eclectic and creative flair, 5775 Turner Rd., V9T 6L8, (250) 729-8225, www.longwoodbrewpub.com/

Old City Station Pub: Established in 1892 and known as a landmark for local, national and international music, 150 Skinner St., V9R 7A6, (250) 716.0030, www.oldcitystationpub.com/

The Queens: 34 Victoria Cr., V9R 5B8, Phone: 250-754-6751, www.thequeens.ca/

Nanaimo Museum: 100 Museum Way, Phone 250 753-1821, www.nanaimomuseum.ca

West Coast Air: www.westcoastair.com/


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