It’s the many options from sea to sky that attract visitors to Nanaimo, where pedals push you over trails and the soles of your boots take you down to the base of rainforest waterfalls.

Nanaimo’s long oceanfront makes this an ideal place for families, swimmers, and sun worshippers.

Right in the city:

Downtown Harbor

Nanaimo’s Harbourfront Walkway is one of the things that makes this city so beautiful. Running all along the waterfront below Front Street, this walkway is suspended above the shore and ocean in some areas and in other parts, it skirts around parks and green spaces. Along the Harbourfront Walkway are tourist shops, restaurants with outdoor patios, docks, boats, and the seaplane base. Whale watching boats dock here. Seaplanes depart from here and take passengers to various destinations, including Vancouver, or on 40-minute Seaplane Tours over the Strait of Georgia, with views over the Sunshine Coast.

Beaches:

Neck Point Park

This scenic park is a popular place for walking, picnicking, swimming, and scuba diving. You can also sometimes see orcas, sea lions, and other marine life from the lookouts in the park. A beautiful walking trail, just under two kilometers, follows the shoreline of this little peninsula, past beaches and through arbutus trees, Garry oaks, and Douglas fir. Sunset Beach, Last Beach, Indian Beach, and Finn Beach are found in the coves between the headlands and provide opportunities for swimming on every side of the park. At the far end, between Indian Beach and Last Beach, is a lookout point on a high rock. In front of the lookout is a tidal zone, which at low tide is an exposed gravel sandbar that ends at a small rock island. This is the “neck” the park is named for. This is one of the popular dive sites in the park, and divers can walk in from the neck. Divers also leave from Finn Beach, near the parking lot.

Piper’s Lagoon

Just north of downtown Nanaimo, Pipers Lagoon Park juts out into the ocean, creating an interesting tidal flat on the inland side and offering views over the Salish Sea from the outside. Walking trails lead around the small peninsula with high points that look out over cliffs and lower areas where you can get down to the water’s edge. The park is popular with locals who come here to walk or relax. If you are staying in the city center, this can be a nice place to come for a nature walk.

Newcastle Island Marine Provincial Park

Nanaimo’s rustic outdoor gem offers 22km of hiking and biking trails, plus beaches and wildlife spotting. Traditional Coast Salish land, it was the site of shipyards and coal mines before becoming a popular summer excursion for locals in the 1930s when a tea pavilion was added. Accessed by a 10-minute ferry hop from the harbor (adult/child return $9/5), there’s a seasonal eatery and regular First Nations dancing displays.

Freshwater swimming:

Westwood Lake and Long Lake

Both are offering large beaches. Long Lake is also the home of the Nanaimo Canoe and Kayak Club, and a favorite motorboat and water skiing spot. Westwood Lake has a summer lifeguard service, offers wonderful trail hikes and a children’s playground.

Nanaimo River

For something a little more adventurous, Nanaimo River offers some of the most exhilarating swimming opportunities in the city. The best swimming spots can be found about ten minutes south of town off Nanaimo River Road and are always worth the trip.

BOATING AND FISHING

Year after year, boaters return in droves to Nanaimo’s protected, scenic waters. Our city is the access point to central Vancouver Island. Tie up and spend a few days exploring what we have to offer.

There’s room for every type of vessel here, with moorage available at the Nanaimo Port Authority’s Visiting Vessel Pier, Newcastle Island, The Newcastle Marina, Stones Marina, and the Nanaimo Yacht Club. All Nanaimo moorage facilities are just a dinghy ride (or short walk) away from the heart of downtown.

Put down a crab trap at Maffeo Sutton Park’s fishing pier for Dungeness crab fresh from the Pacific Ocean or head out on a Salmon fishing charter. Fresh water anglers can explore Nanaimo’s many lakes (several of which are stocked regularly with trout) and the Nanaimo River.

For more information on boating to Nanaimo, visit Nanaimo’s community profile on AhoyBC.

PADDLING

Nanaimo and the surrounding areas are a paddling paradise. Launch a kayak or canoe and explore the harbour or the historical shores of Newcastle Island Marine Provincial Park. You can bring your camping gear with you and stay overnight on Saysutshun, using it as a base camp for your kayaking adventures. There are also a number of launch sites north or south of Nanaimo to paddle to a Gulf Island or meander along a quiet coastline.

Rent stand-up paddleboards and kayaks in the Nanaimo Harbour, at Westwood Lake and start exploring!

Nanaimo is also a gateway to the BC Marine Trails. The BC Marine Trails Network provides a map of kayak launch sites and ocean side camping areas in Nanaimo and the rest of Vancouver Island, as well as downloadable tables of paddling area information, paddling resources, and a directory of local paddling.

Looking for boating information? AHOYBC is full of resources and links for pleasure craft boaters looking to make BC’s coastal waters their destination (including Nanaimo!) Check them out on their website or connect with them via social media on their Facebook page or Twitter.

Floating pub:

Take the ferry (foot traffic only) or paddle over to 8 Pirates Lane, the address of Canada’s only registered floating pub moored off Protection Island. If you start to sway, it’s not your sea legs acting up: the Dinghy Dock Floating Pub bobs and dips, which must be a challenge for the servers. I recommend an early evening visit, when you can nurse a beer and watch the mountains fade from dusky purple to black as the sun sets over Nanaimo Harbor.

SNORKELING AND DIVING

Snorkeling

Discover the bounty of sea life that calls Nanaimo’s surrounding waters home. Take a chartered tour with with Sundown Diving and discover the bounty of the Salish Sea. Capable swimmers can don a wetsuit, flippers, and snorkel, hop in the water and investigate rock walls and forests of kelp.

Snorkle with the seals around Nanaimo

Diving

Sea life abounds in the cold, clear ocean that surrounds Nanaimo, making it the ideal destination for scuba diving. Jacques Cousteau considered these waters “the best temperate diving in the world, second to only the Red Sea.”

Nanaimo is also home to 3 fascinating wreck dives. In 1997 The HMCS Saskatchewan, a 366-foot navy destroyer, was sunk off the shores of Nanaimo to create an artificial diving reef. The Saskatchewan was joined on the ocean floor by the HMCS Cape Breton, a retired Canadian Supply Ship, now recognized as the World’s Largest Artificial Upright Reef. In February of 2005, the Nanaimo Dive Association sank a third vessel, the RivTow Lion, a retired deep sea rescue tug. The Rivtow rests at a manageable depth of about 50 feet in Departure Bay, making it a great dive for beginners seeking some experience before plunging down deeper to the Cape Breton or Saskatchewan.

There are several professional dive shops in Nanaimo who will assist with all your dive needs, including certification, hire and charters.

Take a Whale Watching Tour

One of the nicest ways to enjoy a sunny day on the ocean is to take a whale watching tour from Nanaimo. The incredible scenery, with the mountains of Vancouver Island on one side and the even higher mountains of mainland British Columbia across the strait, makes for a spectacular backdrop to the surfacing whales. It also means, unlike whale watching tours on the west side of Vancouver Island, the waters here in the Strait of Georgia, in this approximately 60-kilometer-wide stretch between Nanaimo and Vancouver, are usually relatively calm.

You can see a variety of whales, but the tour focuses on orcas. A professional guide, schooled in marine biology, leads the group and offers insight into the whales. Sightings are very frequent, and the tour operator guarantees a sighting, or you can try again, with no expiration date. The operators work as part of a group, and information is shared between boats to help locate pods. Even if you don’t see whales, this can still be a great way to spend a day, and you will likely see sea lions and harbor seals, which are also part of the tour.

Boats are either semi-covered, 23-passenger boats or 12-person zodiac boats. All boats have a washroom on board. On the zodiac tours, guests are given suits to wear, which serve as insulation and flotation. Tour times depend on how long it takes to travel to where the whales are but are generally three to four hours, with about one hour spent with the whales. Boats are required to maintain a 100-meter distance from the whales and stay out of their path. The tour closes with a discussion on whale conservation. Especially during high season, it’s advisable to reserve your tickets in advance. Choose between the Nanaimo Whale Watching Tour in a Semi-Covered Boat, or for the more adventurous minded, the zodiac Open Boat Nanaimo Whale Watching Tour.

Mount Benson Regional Park

Mount Benson is an icon of Nanaimo. Everywhere you go in town, you can see it’s rolling green ridges.

The mountain is a beautiful sight from Nanaimo but the view back down from the top is even better. It is an 8.0 kilometer lightly trafficked loop trail that offers scenic views. The trail is rated as difficult and primarily used for hiking and walking. Dogs are also able to use this trail but must be kept on leash.

Just 20-30 minutes away:

Gabriola Island

A 20-minute ferry hop from Nanaimo, this bucolic little island is a popular rustic day trip for visitors. Expect woodland trails, rugged coastlines and quiet little beaches. Gabriola is one of BC’s top destinations to visit and live.

Unwind, do some beachcombing, play on the water, visit the local galleries and shops, hike, bike, enjoy the Gabriola culture and create memories with friends and family.

Englishman River Falls Provincial Park

Situated along the pristine Englishman River north of Nanaimo, Englishman River Falls Provincial Park features two stunning waterfalls cascading along the descending riverbed into a deep canyon.

This picturesque destination, set amid a lush old-growth and second-growth forest of Douglas fir, cedar, hemlock and maple, is an ideal location from which to explore and appreciate the incredible diversity of south central Vancouver Island, including nearby Cathedral Grove, the Pacific Rim, and the sandy shores of Parksville and Qualicum.

The park has a large day-use area and campground and contains several hiking trails that meander through the forest and along the river. Visitors can expect spectacular views along the way, particularly from two bridges that cross the river where it plunges down the narrow rock canyon toward quieter waters below. The lower falls end in a deep crystal-clear pool – an ideal swimming hole in the summer when river levels are low and a great place to view spawning salmon in the fall.

Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park

Majestic old growth trees, beautiful ocean sunsets and an inviting, wide sandy beach with campsites nestled amongst mature Douglas fir trees makes Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park in Parksville one of the premier vacation destinations on Vancouver Island.

At low tide the ocean recedes almost a kilometre, providing an ideal place for visitors of all ages to play in the sand and explore the shoreline. When the tide rolls in over the sun-baked sand, the warmed water is unbeatable for swimming and salt water fun.

Rathtrevor Beach is ideal for a relaxed family outing. Simply sit back and soak up the seaside atmosphere or take a walk through the wooded upland area of the park. All campsites are within a 5-minute walk to the 2 km stretch of sandy beach. The park also features a large day-use area, perfect for an afternoon picnic. For your convenience, the park has a concession managed by the Park Operator.

Bird watching is also a popular activity at the park, particularly in the spring when large numbers of seabirds congregate for the annual herring spawn. During February, March and April, Rathtrevor Beach is also one of the best spots on the Island to view the migrating Brant geese.

Parksville Community Park

Established in 1963, the waterfront Community Park is the jewel of Parksville. The park land is steeped in history; Parksville’s namesake, Nelson Parks, had a small shack near the land that currently makes up the Community Park. It is said that at a social event in his home, he remarked that it looked as though everyone around was present, so the settlement should be called “Parksville”.

To this day, the 39 acre Community Park lives up to its name and remains a gathering place and site for events and festivals. There is plenty of space on the beach for everyone and the park offers recreational facilities to satisfy the whole family.

Chemainus

30 minutes’ drive from Nanaimo, the tenacious community of Chemainus re-imagined their forest industry’s past into a fresh tourism-driven future. Chemainus, through the creativity, energy, and determination of its residents, found a new life by putting a new face on its murals.

In Chemainus you can find a dealer of antiques and collectibles at every corner. Renowned artists from all around the globe are invited to paint murals on the sides of buildings. Art galleries, gift shops are numerous, offering some of the best pottery from the island.