Thousands of tourists from all over the world visit this charming little town that overlooks the Strait of Georgia on Vancouver Island. It wasn’t always that way. When Chemainus was established in the mid-1800s, forestry was the principal industry, and while it continues to play a big part, it’s less important since the economic downturn of the 1970s. At that time, the townspeople got together and decided to diversify their economy by appealing to the tourism sector. One idea was to have renowned artists capture the community’s heritage by painting murals on the walls of buildings and carving sculptures to reflect the history of the First Nations people and the lives of the settlers who had lived and worked here. Since 1982, 55 murals and nine sculptures have been created, providing the largest permanent outdoor art gallery in Canada. Tourism is alive and well!
Trans-Canada Highway 1 runs from Victoria on the southern tip of Vancouver Island up the east coast to Nanaimo, a distance of 99 kilometres, or 62 miles. Chemainus is located just east of this highway, about 30 minutes south of Nanaimo or 60 minutes north of Victoria. Most RVers exploring Vancouver Island drive right past it on their way to more popular destinations, such as Tofino, Nanaimo, Comox, or Victoria. My wife Sandy and I, home-based in Victoria and full-time RVers for 12 years, were definitely among that group. However, in early October 2020, we were returning to Victoria from a month in Tofino when we decided to stop for a few days and check it out. We’re glad we did… Chemainus truly is a destination worth exploring.
If you’re visiting from the States, you’ll likely take either the Washington State Ferry or the Blackball Ferry, which will deposit you in or near Victoria. If you’re already on the British Columbia mainland, you can choose between BC Ferries from either Horseshoe Bay or Tsawwassen, both near the port of Vancouver, which will deposit you in Nanaimo. Yachters in the Strait of Georgia can simply dock at the Chemainus Marina and walk a few blocks to the downtown area.
Several full-service RV parks are within 10 minutes of Chemainus. We chose Country Maples RV Resort, just 5 minutes south, off Hwy 1. After settling our 5th wheel into a large, full-service pull-through site, we drove into town. Most of the streets are quite narrow, so it’s best to leave your large RV in the campground.
Whenever we arrive at a new destination, our first stop is the Visitor Centre to gather information about activities and attractions in the area. I mentioned to the volunteer lady that we were there for a few days and asked her, “What are the top three things we need to see or do?” Without hesitation, she replied: “the murals, the theatre,” and, pointing out the window at Scoops by the Sea Ice Cream Shop… “their homemade ice cream.” A half-hour later, armed with an armful of brochures, we eagerly made our way to Scoops to try what she claimed is the “best ice cream ever,” only to be disappointed that the shop had just closed for the season.
Another disappointment: Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the renowned Chemainus Theatre Festival had cancelled its year-round live professional theatre productions, limiting services to a Wednesday night dinner in their Playbill Dining Room. We attempted to make a reservation, but they were fully booked during our stay.
To learn more about the various murals, we picked up a brochure that numbers the artwork on a map and provides a brief description of each. If you don’t have a brochure, simply follow the yellow footsteps painted on the sidewalks throughout town. When I asked the very informative lady, “Which of the 55 murals is the most popular?” she suggested #12, Native Heritage, which illustrates four First Nations historical figures from the region. The brochure also references five murals that reproduce the work of world-renowned Canadian artist Emily Carr, who had a reverence and fascination for the First Nations people and the breathtaking landscape of the BC coast.
Recently, a novel mural was unveiled on a specially constructed box located in front of the Chemainus Public Market, depicting a grey whale and two orcas. A blue piano, available for public play, is incorporated in the underwater scene. Our dog Bella was waiting for someone to play so she could howl along, but no one came, so we browsed shops in the market. Nine sculptures are also referenced in the brochure, including a peace pole, sea captain, waterwheel, and a statue of H.R. MacMillan, a lumber baron whose company employed hundreds of immigrants during the forestry heydays.
Located next to the Visitor Centre in beautiful Waterwheel Park is the Chemainus Valley Museum, which provides a step back in time through historical photos, stories, and artifacts from the early days through the present. Their gift shop stocks unique items, including adorable crocheted animals made by a lady volunteer. Alongside the museum is an observation area with a view of the existing sawmill, log booms, cargo ships at anchor, and a busy harbour framed by the beautiful Gulf Islands. During the summer on Tuesdays, the park hosts musicians performing on an outdoor stage, and on Wednesdays, a farmers market features creations by local artists, fresh-farm produce, and treats. A labyrinth meditation walk, Children’s Ship playground, restrooms, and picnic tables make it ideal for a family outing. The functioning water wheel, a replica of one that powered an earlier sawmill, with its mural background, is a must photo op.
During your downtown walk-about, you’ll find a number of trendy boutiques, antique shops, art galleries, and restaurants, including Baby Bear’s Ice Cream Shop in a wonderful park-like courtyard with plenty of garden seating. By the way, with apologies to Scoops, Baby Bear’s salted caramel is yummy! If your culinary preferences lean more toward handcrafted beer, mosey over to the Sawmill Taphouse or Riot Brewing for samples of their various brews… both are within walking distance of downtown, so you won’t need a designated driver!
OTHER NEARBY ACTIVITIES
After your mural excursion, if you still have the energy for a hike and you happen to be staying at Country Maples RV Resort, consider the 1-kilometre trail from the park to the Chemainus River. Bella enjoyed our daily strolls through mossy trees accompanied by occasional bunnies, squirrels, and songbirds. Nearby Chemainus Lake offers a scenic 2.5-kilometre nature trail covered with woodchips, which is popular with joggers and dog walkers, around the perimeter of the lake.
If you prefer tennis, pickleball, or beach volleyball, nearby Fuller Lake has courts set up for each. Golfers will enjoy Mount Brenton Golf Course (open year-round) just south of town with its shaded fairways, creeks, and ponds… a challenge for every level of golfer. Water enthusiasts will enjoy swimming, kayaking, and paddle boarding in the freshwater lakes and ocean at sandy Kin Beach just north of downtown, which also has a boat launch, children’s playground, and picnic tables. Divers can take advantage of the world’s only Boeing 737 artificial reef just off the coast. Historians can wander down Chemainus Road to the site of seven original Mill Houses, which date from the late 1800s. If you’re interested in landscaping, property pride is evident in some Victorian-style houses located on the north side of town that display magnificent flower gardens and topiary… more photo ops.
Three days were insufficient to absorb all that this charming community has to offer. Hopefully, this brief description will encourage others, especially art lovers, to not pass it by when you’re exploring other destinations on Vancouver Island – the friendly folks of Chemainus will welcome you with open arms and heartfelt gratitude.
Ferries to and from Vancouver Island
RV Parks near Chemainus
Bald Eagle Riverside Campground
Other Places to See
Chemainus District Chamber of Commerce