Nanaimo is a small city of 80,000 on the east side of Vancouver Island – twenty miles across the Pacific Ocean from Vancouver, British Columbia, in Canada. Nanaimo is also called The Harbour City. It’s one of the most beautiful settings in the world and it’s my backyard.
From my sunroom windows, where I love to write, I look over Nob Hill Park and Nanaimo’s inner harbour. In the distance are snow-capped coastal mountains, the Gulf Islands, and the happening city of Vancouver in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland.
This morning I took a walk around my neighbourhood. It’s in Nanaimo’s old city section and the downtown waterfront. I do this every day that I can, but today was such a gorgeous explosion of spring that I took out my iPhone and began snapping shots. The idea popped-in that I’d share this with you.
Across the street from my front door I cut through Nob Hill Park. It was developed in the 1800’s when Nanaimo was a booming coal and lumber town. Thankfully, they preserved this little gem which is the rocky, high-point of downtown. It’s dotted in huge Douglas Firs, Garry Oaks, Big-leaf Maples, and Flowering Dogwoods. Twenty years ago this was a dangerous place where hookers turned tricks, junkies shot-up, and one vicious murder that I remember. Today there’s moms pushing toddlers on swings, dogs running free, and teenagers smoking pot in fresh ocean air.
Heading down Old Victoria Road, I passed the old firehall. It’s now a trendy grille that serves the best sushi ever. Outside, on the boulevard, a stop-in-your-tracks trio of Dogwoods blooms full. They’re British Columbia’s official tree and you can see why.
Rounding Victoria Crescent, I passed daffodils, tulips, rhododendrons, and flowering cherries. The old Cambie hotel on the left was open early and slinging beer, but the Queens on the right waited a crowd come the night.
The usual street suspects appeared.
I see them every day and nick-named some. Mister Mann is out for a stroll. Lifer was talking to Osama Bin Ladin. As a cop who put him away, I supported Lifer’s early release – he’s on life parole for 2nd degree murder. I don’t know Osama’s story, but he looks for all the world like the guy who the Seals smoked in Abbottabad. Gary strummed his guitar and talked to himself and some new kid squatted with cap out for money. None of them bothered anybody.
I started the China Steps, passing The Thirsty Camel which has a Middle-Eastern bench outside made of dried straw and horseshit. Serious. There was a face I hadn’t seen in a while, so I stopped and asked her what’s up. Vivian had all her worldly possessions in a folded cart; two leashed cats attached. She called herself an educated poor person with a Bachelor of Science but suffered depression. I gave her 10 bucks for breakfast.
Commercial Street made me smile. On the west are buildings from the turn of last century, perfectly preserved. On the east – the new Conference Center where they did an architectural masterpiece blending new with old. The street was bustling with people. Sidewalk café’s served eggs bennies with hash-browns and Serious Coffee at the museum had long lineups.
Diana Krall Plaza is tributed to… Diana Krall, the world famous jazz musician who still calls Nanaimo home. Intriguing wood and metal sculptures resembling piano key strikers mixed into planters with flowers and palm trees. Tourists and locals sat drinking coffee, reading books, and scanning newspapers.
A roar of a Harley with strait-pipes turned my head. I followed him up to The Palace Hotel, wondering if he had Hell’s Angels colours. We’ve got a chapter in Nanaimo, but most of the bikers are old and decrepit like The Palace itself. He parked his bike and got off. Nope, no death-head backpatch, but he swore in disgust, then picked garbage from the sidewalk and stuffed it in a black, metal trash can.
I passed the Flying Fish, where you can spend half your day and half your fortune, the Modern Café which reflects the 50’s, the Elephant Room, and at the end of the street, Nanaimo’s showpiece – the Great National Land Building – constructed of local sandstone and brick.
Ahead was St. Pauls Anglican church and the cenotaph which honors the dead from two world wars, Korea, and thankfully no one from Afghanistan. A block up – the old courthouse where the police and sheriffs hosted an open house. I looked at the second floor and thought back to testifying in that majestic, old room with maple panelling, stained glass, and royal-red carpets. A hundred years ago prisoners were sentenced to death in that court. I looked east and saw Gallows Point on Protection Island. No need to wonder the name.
I scooted down concrete stairs and onto the seawall. Float planes noisily came and went. Ferries busted wakes in glass-calm water with trips to nearby islands and Vancouver. Boats of all sizes and prices were there. Tugboats and seineboats. Sailboats and rowboats. Gillnetters, crab fishers, prawners, and trollers. Dragonboats practised races. Pleasure boats headed out. A research vessel and a multi-million dollar executive yacht tied themselves a float.
The seawall gathers people. Coffeshops, nicknacks, clothing stores, and restaurants. Old couples walked hand-in-hand, dad’s pushed strollers, and dogs walked bent on a purpose. Troller’s fish & chips, a floating eatery, shouted the smell of deep-fried halibut, cod, and fresh salmon.
Nanaimo’s waterfront experience is far more than material. It’s the sights and sounds of the wildlife.
In Maffeo-Sutton Park a family of river otters gorged on Dungenous crab, looked-on by harbour seals and a big ol’ Stellar sea lion who was pissed-off about something. Squawks of freeloading gulls were backed by conspiring calls of common crows. Canada geese honked from a low-tide beach, cautiously watched by a Great Blue Heron. Topping off was twitters of hundreds of songbirds and a fluttering fly-by of a Belted Kingfisher.
I circled Cameron Island, the signature waterfront residential development where condos range from 300 to a million. Across Front Street was Port Place, the new shopping plaza with all you can need. Following the sidewalk at McGregor park, I saw new sculptures near the town clock – stained glass and stainless steel in the shape of some waves. Fitting.
The Bastion was ahead. It’s Nanaimo’s historical prize, even ahead of Nanaimo Bars and the annual bathtub race. Built in 1853 as a Hudson’s Bay Trading Company post it was recently disassembled, refitted, and now better than new. Some jackass wrote into the local paper fearful they’d never be able to get it back together. Maybe he should’ve checked that they’d numbered the pieces.
You’d never know it from up here, but there’s a labyrinth of tunnels and shafts down below, hacked by pick and shovel in 100 years of mining the fossil fuel of the day. So much of Nanaimo’s history started with coal and it’s still with us today – Chinatown, collieries, coffins, and certified trade unions.
I crossed the Bastion bridge over Terminal Avenue and hiked up Fitzwilliam Street to the Heritage Mews in the Old City Quarter. More coffee shops, dress stores, shoes, lingerie, and a clairvoyant named Yvonne giving readings.
Across the street was the Oxidental Hotel, a beer swilling joint with an excellent selection of wine for such a small store. I headed east, down the weeded tracks of the derelict Esquimalt and Nanaimo railroad, and up to J.H. Malpass’s corner store that displays produce on sidewalk stands just like back when it was built.
Now a minute from home, I reached the crest of Prideaux Street and looked past the magnificent mansion that one of the early mine managers built and overtop of downtown – across the blue sea with freighters, ferries, and cruise ships – taking in 12,000 foot peaks of the Coastal Mountain Range.
Key in hand, and a half hour later, I unlocked my front door. I looked at Nob Hill. Kids swung on swings, dogs sniffed at stuff, and I went in with a cup of coffee from the Mews to write this in my sunroom. Here’s more photos of my beautiful backyard in Nanaimo, Vancouver Island, on the west coast of British Columbia, Canada.
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Note: iPhone images may appear sideways on mobile and tablet applications