Many people outside of Western Canada — and particularly outside the country — confuse Vancouver and Vancouver Island. They think Vancouver is on Vancouver Island, or is Vancouver Island, or that Vancouver Island is in Vancouver. Confused? For the record, Vancouver is on mainland British Columbia. Vancouver Island is a large land mass — 32,000 square kilometres large, in fact — across the Strait of Georgia. The only thing they have in common is that Captain George Vancouver was not content to slap his name on just one place. In fact, the city of Vancouver, Washington, as well as Mount Vancouver, up around the Yukon/Alaska border, are also odes to himself. Ironic that the great British seafarer died in relative obscurity back in 1798.
Vancouver’s island is the largest off the west coast of all of North America; so big you could fit a Holland or a Taiwan in it. It’s so big, in fact, that it doesn’t really feel like an island, in the romantic, tropical sense. It doesn’t have palm trees or white-sand beaches or crystal-blue water. It does, however, have one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems and loggers have generously left us some tracts of old-growth fir and cedar forests in which to explore those ecosystems. Strathcona Provincial Park’s Della Falls, at 310 feet, are the highest in Canada and one of the tenth highest in the world (take that, tropical isles!). Britain and Spain bickered over, then shared, Vancouver Island for a while back in the late 1700s, until Spain got bored and left. The only reminders of their presence is in the names they left behind: Quadra, Galiano, Malaspina, Juan de Fuca. The British had their grip a little tighter, and Victoria (formerly Fort Victoria, named for the Queen of the day), the province’s capital city, successfully exploits that history for oodles of tourism dollars in such quaint amusements as afternoon tea at the Empress Hotel, double-decker buses, and horse-drawn carriage rides on the Tally-Ho (at least there’s no fox-hunting…).
We’re bunking down in Nanaimo, long considered Victoria’s ugly sister. It was established as a trading post in the early 19th century and later mushroomed into an industrial centre when the Hudson’s Bay Company learned of the gold mine of coal mines here. As the story goes, in 1850 the chief of the local Coast Salish people, called Snuneymuxw (Snuh-NAY-moo) loaded up his canoe with coal and paddled it on down to Victoria, about 100 km south of here. Turns out it was such high-quality coal that in 1853 The Bastion (an octagonal-shaped fort — the only original wooden one in North America, in fact) was built to protect the harbour and its resources. Not sure who from, but obviously coal was a big deal back then. So big that digging clipped merrily along, apparently unchecked, until, in 1887, one of the largest mines exploded, killing 150 miners. A year later, another explosion killed 100 more men. Town officials quickly decided that perhaps lumber was a safer resource to exploit.
In any event, some clever marketing type re-christened it the Harbour City, the government poured a boat load of cash into dressing it up, and Nanaimo’s Cinderella story is complete. Nanaimo Harbour has a pretty little boardwalk and is the site of a whack of marine activities, including bathtub racing. Yep, you read that right. Ever since 1967, Nanaimo has been the self-proclaimed (no one cares enough to dispute it) “Bathtub Racing Capital of the World”. And it’s exactly what it sounds like: crazy people fashioning all kinds of water craft from bathtubs and, up until the mid-‘90s, racing these contraptions from Nanaimo to Kitsilano Beach in Vancouver where they’d clamber ashore to party hearty at Vancouver’s Sea Festival. Since the demise of that particular hoe down, the racing stays closer to home, with racers starting in Nanaimo Harbour and ending in Departure Bay. (For more on the rub-a-dub, check out bathtubbing.com.)
Almost as famous (some would say more so) is the Nanaimo bar. The tooth-achingly sweet chocolatey, coconutty, custardy confection originated here after a local housewife back in the 1950s submitted her recipe to a cookbook contest and the public ate it up. Other cities — including New York — have tried to take credit for the bar, but we know the truth. Over the five months we’re here, I plan to put on a few pounds and get a few cavities exploring the Nanaimo Bar Trail (http://www.tourismnanaimo.com/content/nanaimo-bar). I do it for my country.