At Nanaimo’s doorstep sit several islands that are accessible by ferry. Each one offers a unique experience and getting there is half the fun. You never know if you’ll catch a glimpse of orcas, dolphins or seals en route.
At Maffeo Sutton Park catch the 10-minute passenger ferry (late spring to early fall) to Saysutshun, the traditional Indigenous territory of the Snuneymuxw Peoples. The entire island is a park marked with trails instead of roads.
Hike or bike the forested Coastal Trail (8 km) around the perimeter to scenic lookouts. From the trails near the ferry dock you can explore historic sites from several eras. Take a walking tour to Indigenous village sites, totems, sandstone quarries and coal mine sites with a Snuneymuxw Knowledge Keeper.
Then break for a salmon burger and ice cream at the snack bar in the restored 1930s dance pavilion. After lunch, relax on one of the sandy beaches, swimming in shallow waters, exploring tidepools and taking in the views of Nanaimo.
This island-hopping excursion is best done by vehicle. Start by driving onto the ferry near Port Place Mall and a 20-minute trip takes you to Gabriola Island, one of the southern Gulf Islands. The first stop is at Malaspina Galleries walking beneath a dramatic sandstone ‘frozen wave’ rock formation at the water’s edge.
In summer, peruse the artisan items at the farmer’s markets at Agi Hall (Saturdays) or Silva Bay (Sundays). Next, head to Mad Rona’s Coffee Bar for a sandwich or wrap and a taste of the local community spirit. Then share a roadside over-the-fence ‘hello’ with the alpacas at Paradise Island Alpaca Farm.
No visit to the island is complete without making a few stops on the artist studio trail. If it’s a sunny afternoon, spend some time relaxing at Gabriola Sands Provincial Park’s “Twin Beaches” before closing out the day with sunset views and dinner at Surf Lodge & Pub.
Start with a coffee and muffin at Javawocky on the downtown harbourfront. Walk to the fisherman wharf docks and board the passenger ferry bound for Protection Island. It’s a small island with 350 full-time residents you’ll meet as you explore nearby Smugglers Beach and streets with pirate-themed names.
The Dinghy Dock Pub, floating on the dock where the ferry lands, is the island’s only business and an entertaining place for lunch. Find a seat outside so you can watch the passing boat traffic and occasional seals popping up. Kids love the fishing hole cut into the dock.
Before catching the return ferry, make the short walk to Gallows Point on the southern tip to check out the Beacon House & Museum and the black sand beach, evidence of the coal mining active here from the late 1800s until 1938.
Nanaimo’s Smaller Islands
Nanaimo is also home to a few more tiny islands worth investigating. A short paddle by kayak or SUP from Departure Bay Beach takes you to the sea caves of the bay’s Jesse Island. Sunrise paddles here are often calm and gorgeous and best followed by a treat at Drip Coffee across the street.
No boat or board? Head to Pipers Lagoon Park at low tide to scramble across the rocks to explore Shack Island and see its painted cedar-shingle cabins built in the 1930s. Next, shop for island-themed home decor and jewellery at Island-ish. For lunch, order fish ‘n chips at Troller’s at the fisherman’s wharf downtown.
Then head to south Nanaimo’s Cable Bay Trail for a hike to a viewpoint overlooking Mudge Island and the surging Dodds Narrows pass in between where sea lions occasionally play. End your day with dinner at Beefeater’s restaurant with views of Saysutshun Island.