When you think of adventure destinations in British Columbia, Whistler, Golden, Nelson or Revelstoke might be the first to come to mind. But for years, the unassuming city of Nanaimo has been developing a reputation amongst outdoor enthusiasts as one of the island’s best outdoor playgrounds.
With easy access to the city by way of ferry, seaplane, airplane and Helijet, and with Highway 1 connecting the northern and southern halves of the Island, Nanaimo makes an ideal gateway to outdoor adventure. It’s also easy enough to conquer in a weekend, which was how we chose to pursue our visit.
Here’s how we spent 48 hours jam-packed exploring and savouring as many adventures as we could in Nanaimo, BC:
Day 1: Friday
Rock Climbing at The Romper Room
We arrived in Nanaimo shortly after noon and wasted no time before heading directly to the Romper Room, Nanaimo’s indoor climbing gym. They recently installed auto-belay devices, meaning you don’t have to bring a buddy or take a belay course to climb there, so it’s great for visitors like us. There’s a bouldering cave and new Moon board: a 40-degree training wall with LED lights that create hundreds of different challenges to help climbers improve their skills.
Nanaimo also has a great outdoor climbing scene as well, with trad and sport climbs for all levels. But even if you’re an outdoor purist, a warm-up at the Romper Room is a great place to meet locals and learn more about the local outdoor climbing scene. You can also pick up a copy of Nanaimo Crags at the gym, a great guide book with maps, tips, and more about the region.
After a few hours at the gym, we followed the Island Highway downtown to check into our hotel and meet up with some friends at a nearby brewpub for some hydration and snacks. What we love most about staying downtown is that everything is so close-at-hand. Cozy coffee shops, locally-sourced lunches, cute boutiques, and great access to the water.
Kayaking To The Dingy Dock
We have a few friends who live on Protection Island near Nanaimo and had plans to meet up for dinner at the Dingy Dock Pub–the Island’s renowned floating attraction. While there’s a quaint ferry that shuttles between Nanaimo and Protection Island, it was such a beautiful night that we opted to rent kayaks from the harbour and paddle across. For 30 minutes we casually paddled our way across the glassy waters to the island and left our boats on the dock to head inside. After dinner, we paddled back to Nanaimo, watching the sun set behind Mount Benson right before our eyes.
Day 2: Saturday
After a restful night’s sleep at our hotel, we headed to the French-style bakery down the street called Mon Petit Choux for a hearty breakfast. Upon walking through their door, we were greeted by the scent of flakey, freshly-baked croissants and authentic French-style baguettes. We opted for their signature breakfast sandwich on a buttery croissant, and paired it with a full-bodied Americano brewed from fresh, Island roasted beans. We couldn’t leave without bringing something sweet from the display, so we opted to grab a Nanaimo Bar to satisfy our sweet tooth later.
Diving From Nanaimo’s Waterfront
With full bellies, we returned to the harbourfront to visit Sundown Diving where we were suited up with all the necessary gear for our four-hour guided undersea tour of natural reefs. Unlike tropical destinations, the crisp water of the Pacific Ocean lends itself to a completely different variety of marine life to explore, and man-made reefs give sea life a place to call home.
The four hours we spent on the tour flew by, and before we knew it we were ascending back to the surface to towel off and get ready for our next adventure.
Hike Mount Benson
After drying off and visiting Food Koma for a Chicken Shawarma Wrap, we filled up our water bottles and hopped in the car to head to our next destination: Mount Benson. This hike, comparable to The Grouse Grind in North Vancouver, is certainly one of the more difficult trails the city has to offer, but we were sure to pack plenty of snacks and water for the four-hour journey.
Starting at Witchcraft Lake, the hike to the summit climbs roughly 700 meters over four kilometres. Because of the steep incline, hiking or trail-running shoes are a real asset, and hiking poles can be a big help too. It took a serious effort and several breaks to reach the summit, but the breathtaking views were worth it.
For those who aren’t ready to tackle Mount Benson, Sugarloaf Mountain near Departure Bay also offers scenic viewpoints.
Despite eating a generous snack at the top, our tummies were grumbling once we reached the bottom, signalling it was time to find some dinner. Our tired limbs were craving carbs, so we headed to Modern Cafe for their signature Mac ‘N’ Cheese, said to be the best on all of Vancouver Island (and it delivered!). We then headed down to Cold Front Gelato to grab a pint to share as we walked along the waterfront, just in time to see the hues of pink and purple swirling in the sky above the beautifully calm waters and rugged, forested coastline. The perfect way to wind down the day.
Day 3: Sunday
Breakfast & Yoga
After two full days of action under our belts, we spent a little extra time soaking in the comfort of our cozy bed before starting our final day in Nanaimo. We discovered OmTown Yoga down the street offers a relaxing Rise & Shine class on Sunday mornings, which is just what we needed to stretch out our aching limbs so that we were poised and ready to seize our final day.
Conveniently, there was an outstanding cafe right next door to the studio called Gabriel’s Cafe, which boasted ingredients in their breakfast options like pulled pork, chorizo sausage, and smoked salmon. We were also really pleased to see so many options for vegans and those with food sensitivities. I opted for their Number 12, breakfast sandwich of sorts consisting of pulled pork and fried egg between two coconut milk pancakes with bourbon maple syrup and spicy sour cream. And yes, it was as unreal as it sounds.
Taking A Leap Of Faith At WildPlay Element Park
We decided to end our trip with big thrills requiring a little less physical skill, so a trip to WildPlay Element Park was just what we were looking for. Their adventure park consists of 19 zip lines, a giant obstacle course, a bungy jump, and giant 150 ft swing through the canyon. I’m not one for jumping from heights, so my partner did the 150-foot bungee jump while I opted for the milder, 40-foot What’s To Fear (WTF) Jump. We teamed up to conquer the aerial obstacle course and a few of the zip lines. WildPlay supplied all the gear we needed for the day, we just had to show up with keen spirits!
After three full days of action and adventure, we made our way back to the Departure Bay ferry terminal with full hearts and fond memories of our weekend in one of Vancouver Island’s best recreational playgrounds.
Nanaimo Travel Tips From Locals
- Ferries are extremely busy from Spring through Fall. To ensure you make your intended sailing, it’s a good idea to make a reservation to avoid sailing waits.
- The Airporter shuttle service from the Nanaimo airport books quickly, so it’s also good to book it in advance when you receive your flight information.
- For many of these adventures, you’ll likely need a car to get around. There are several places to rent a car downtown, just hop on a bus from the ferry terminal to downtown or walk.
For more ideas of things to do, travel itineraries, and general information, visit ToursimNanaimo.com.