Think of Nanaimo as the brightest light bulb along a long coast. Getting here from the south is through warm water, resplendent islands and intriguing bays and inlets. Or you can dash across from Vancouver and the Sunshine Coast. North of Nanaimo the Salish Sea opens, the scale of the horizon increases and the feel of wildness grows.
Just 30 nautical miles from Vancouver (110 from Seattle), Nanaimo is located at the cusp between the Gulf Islands and the open waters of the Salish Sea. The voyage north from Victoria gives the mariner the options of exploring the many deep bays of Vancouver Island and the resplendent passage ways between Gulf Islands. Saanich Inlet is highlighted by Brentwood Bay charm, incomparable Butchart Gardens and the sunrises from Mill Bay Marina. Continue up the coast in protected waters behind Salt Spring Island to destination marinas in Maple Bay and Genoa Bay. You will find plenty of cozy, more private anchorages, too.
Continue your trip with stops in Cowichan Bay and Chemainus. Both have everything you need within walking distance. Chemainus is famous for its outdoor gallery of murals. Your last coastal community before Nanaimo is Ladysmith, with bus services to the nearby community from its three marinas.
For most of the way you have been in the compact waters of Stuart Channel, sheltered by the string of Gulf Islands. On the way north you might want to over-night at anchor off Salt Spring, Penelakut or Thetis Islands, or tie up at one of the two marinas at Telegraph Harbour on Thetis Island. Exploring these islands as part of a circle tour up the coast of Vancouver Island to Nanaimo, then through the islands and back to Victoria, Vancouver or Seattle, is a popular route.
Leaving Stuart Channel, your route is protected by Valdes Island. A string of smaller islands point toward Dodd Narrows, where caution is needed. Pirate’s Cove Marine Park has stern tie-ups embedded in the rocks, basic services and a delightful trail along the peninsula. Once through Dodd Channel you are into the neighbourhood of Nanaimo, with Gabriola Island to starboard. Fishing along this section of Vancouver Island can be good, but once you reach Nanaimo and beyond, it gets better and better.
With any luck you have seen lots of seals and dolphins and with good fortune humpback whales or resident orcas. The waters around Gabriola are known for their seal populations and snorkeling or diving with them is popular. Gabriola and Nanaimo have many natural and artificial reefs that attract divers from around the world.
Gabriola’s 45-km of rocky and sandy shoreline offer several places to anchor, especially at the south end. The public wharf in Degnen Bay has power, garbage deposit and a phone. Page’s Resort & Marina in Silva Bay accommodates boats up to 65 feet and offers a full suite of services and amenities. A trip around Gabriola Island reveals Entrance Island Lighthouse, idyllic sand beaches, the famous ocean-crafted art called the Malaspina Galleries, fascinating diving reefs and intimate channels and coves perfect for kayaking. Explore the beautiful seashore and view petroglyphs at Drumbeg Provincial Park. “Dock n’ roll” from Pages Resort & Marina, on a rented bicycle or scooter. Don’t forget your clubs because, yes, Gabriola has a golf course. Don’t have a boat? No worries. Take the ferry to Gabriola from Nanaimo harbour. On land you will want to explore old-growth forest trails, island viewpoints and the cultures of the island on the Studio Tour and at Petroglyph Park.
Glad You Made It
Dare we say Nanaimo is one of the world’s best recreational boating destinations? Its spacious, enclosed harbour has scores of mooring buoys and there is usually a berth available at the Boat Basin or Waterfront Suites and Marina. There is a pier reserved for large pleasure vessels adjacent to the Boat Basin. The natural surroundings of the harbour are genteel, picturesque, hint of wild domesticated by human imprint. It’s like nature and human intervention have combined to make a work of art. The waterfront is lively and contained. The “Harbour City” feels like a boating community.
See Further Ashore to find the prolific services and amenities available in the Harbour City. Our welcome comes right down to the water. From your boat you are steps away from parks, restaurants, shops and transportation. You can tie up for the day a Newcastle Island and Protection Island. Newcasltle Island Provincial Marine Park has public floats, campsites and showers. Its steep limestone shoreline, beaches and numerous trails through a rare coastal ecotype make it an excellent family adventure. Historic sites around the island give testimony to the millennia of habitation by the Snuneymuxw First Nation.
The juxtaposition of serene Newcastle Island with the congenial Dinghy Dock Pub, floating mere metres away off Protection Island, epitomizes the ambiance that is Nanaimo Harbour. “Quietly Lively” might be the best way to put it.
Don’t have a boat, or do have a boat but want a guide; then you should contact one of the many fishing charter, eco-tour or paddleboard providers. Sailing lessons and bare boat charters are available in Nanaimo.
Nanaimo is an ideal base for exploring and fishing among the Gulf Islands and along Vancouver Island to Nanoose Bay. The Harbour is within a 30 nautical mile radius of Salt Spring Island, Vancouver, Sunshine Coast and Lasqueti Island. Nanaimo is a must stop on your way to the Discovery Islands and beyond and on your way back. It is a special place.
Come for the civilization, go a little bit wild.