The town of Chemainus is known worldwide by their moniker “the little town that did”. It is a fine example of an Island town reinventing itself in the face of grave economic challenges. When the lumber mill suddenly shut down in 1983, the lifeblood of the town for 120 years was severed. Residents, local businesses, and government had banded together several years before to give the town a face-lift. They came together again with an even broader vision for revitalizing the downtown core—depict the history of the town on outside murals. The cooperation, imagination and dare to be different vision resulted in five murals in 1982. Today, it has grown to over forty spectacular open-air paintings spread throughout the town. The mill reopened in 1985, helping to stabilize the economy, and the final result is a healthy, vibrant community with a multifaceted economy.
Over 300,000 visitors now visit Chemainus each year to enjoy the murals, professional theatre festival and arts community. Chemainus sits beside the ocean between Duncan and Nanaimo. The town is easily passed without notice by those in a hurry to get surfing in Tofino or whale watching to the north. However, a small detour to visit Chemainus is well worth the short drive from the main Highway #1 to the town itself. Parking can be problematic in the village core, but a few blocks either side spaces are easy to find.
What to do when you visit Chemainus
See the Murals
The number one draw for Chemainus is a beautiful collection of open-air murals and sculptures spread throughout the town. Originally depicting the history of Chemainus, the murals now include a focus on the history of Vancouver Island. Before getting started, visit the Festival of Murals Society at the corner of Cyprus Street and Willow Street. Here you can purchase a $3 guide map containing mural descriptions and directions to each mural. Without a map, visiting the murals is still an easy prospect by following the trail of painted footprints that connect each of the murals.
Both children and adults will have endless fun inserting themselves into the various scenes, so be sure your camera battery is fully charged. Plan to spend a minimum of two to three hours touring the murals. Plenty of shops featuring local arts and crafts plus street entertainment will sidetrack you along the way. You could spend the better part of the day enjoying the sights and sounds of the village.
A good option for those with less mobility or those with small children is to take a thirty-minute horse drawn trolley tour with Vancouver Island Tours. The guided tour visits the most popular murals around town and is a deal at only $12.50 for adults and $5.00 for children.
Visit the Chemainus Theatre Festival
A true Vancouver Island gem, the Chemainus Theatre Festival offers year-round entertainment from a professional cast and crew and guest artists from all over North America. A linchpin Chemainus attraction, the theatre is an enjoyable and intimate experience, seating less than three hundred people – and there really isn’t a crummy seat in the house. Serving up a selection of dramas, musicals and comedies, I have seen several shows there and been duly impressed each time with the quality of production. Evening performances feature a dinner buffet before the show, and Saturday and Sunday matinees include a brunch before the show. The theatre gift shop is quite pleasant, forgoing the usual cheap kitsch for a quality assortment of arts from over 100 local artisans. Before you visit Chemainus, be sure to see what is playing and plan accordingly. You won’t be disappointed.
Crafts and Farm Fresh Produce at the Farmers Market
Each Wednesday from late May to the end of September, a farmers market featuring Vancouver Island and Gulf Island vendors sets up in the parking lot adjacent to the Waterwheel Park. The popular event carries the “Make it, Bake it, Grow it” theme, and you can obtain local farm produce, baked goods and crafts direct from the source. Enjoy baked treats in the cool shade of Waterwheel Park adjacent to the farmers market. Hours are 10am to 4pm each Wednesday.
Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth at Hansel and Gretel’s Candy Company
This is one candy shop you don’t want to miss, and it is sure to both satisfy your sweet tooth and bring out your inner child. Packed with all the candy you could imagine from old-fashioned stick candy, jawbreakers and sweet and sours, many of the hard to come by favourites are here. The only thing we couldn’t find was the old witch, but apparently she is around! Check out the assorted ‘mystery box’, and if you are feeling brave, the most sour candy ever.
World Class Diving is Here!
Peer out from the cockpit of the only Boeing 737 artificial reef in the world. This reef called Xihwu (pronounced key’quot) in Coast Salish was sunk in 2006 and attracts divers from all over the world. As the reef ages, the species count continues to rise, and by 2012 the species count had risen to over 113. Depth on site varies from 70-120 feet. You can dive this on your own or go with a guide from a company such as 49th Parallel Diving. While you are at it, think about diving nearby sites such as Porlier Pass and Gabriola Pass.
A Round or Two for Golfing Enthusiasts
18 holes of public play wait for your clubs at the Mount Breton Golf Course. The course has wooded areas and is complete with ponds and creeks to provide ample challenge for anyone. They dub themselves the “friendliest golf course on Vancouver Island” and offer RV parking, restaurant and lounge, and a pro shop and practice area.
Where to Eat in Chemainus
When I visit Chemainus, I hit up my favourite lunch spot at the Willow Street Café. Located in a historic building at 9749 Willow Street, previous incarnations have included a Masonic Hall, bank, library, and customs and assayers office. The building is open and airy, allowing plenty of light to spill from the windows. The interior has a welcoming, old-fashioned feel and an outside patio with seating from which to observe the summer street bustle. Setting aside, the food is mighty tasty, well presented and reasonably priced. I guess this is why it is a go-to place for both visitors and locals. The owners Phil and Michelle Mavis are on the front line, which is a good thing, and they go the extra mile to ensure everything is just right.
My other recommendation for baked goods and a cup of coffee is the Utopia Bakery Café at 9780 Willow Street. This Dutch bakery consistently serves up top-notch fresh baked goods. Their fresh bread is particularly sought after as are the Euro style pastries. The bakery serves breakfast and lunch and has a covered outside patio for sunny days.
Other considerations include Odika Café, Bonnie Martin Eats for home style cooking, and Twisted Sisters Tearoom for an afternoon cup.
Where to Stay in Chemainus
If you don’t relish the thought of staying in old, musty and damp accommodations, there are two main options for where to stay — The Best Western Plus Chemainus Inn, or one of a dozen or so B&B’s scattered around the area. The Best Western is located a five minute walk from the downtown area and is an easy walk to the theatre. This recently built hotel is modern and clean, providing by far the best hotel experience in the area. It has all the amenities you would expect such as pool, hot tub, Wi-Fi, fitness centre, free breakfast and is pet friendly.
The B&B’s scattered throughout town provide a well-priced alternative to the Best Western, plus you get a satisfying breakfast to start your day. Drawbacks include most rooms being double occupancy only and no pets allowed at some. Check out specific B&B’s at the Chemainus & Area B&B Association.
Trip Ideas from Chemainus:
Chemainus is well situated centrally on the Island to take advantage of trips in every direction. Crofton and the Cowichan Valley lie to the south, and the BC Ferry to Vesuvius Bay on Salt Spring Island leaves from Crofton. There are a number of attractions in Crofton to while away the hours including the Old School House Museum, fishing, golfing and beachcombing. Twenty minutes south of Chemainus, the Cowichan Valley and town of Duncan are home to a rich assortment of artisans and are home to BC’s second largest wine making region. A number of these wineries are open for tours and tasting. While you are there, visit the funky seaside village of Cowichan Bay for fish and chips, local arts and crafts and marine charters.
Visit the Gulf Islands
Chemainus is a perfect jumping off point if you will be visiting Thetis and Kuper Islands as the BC ferries terminal is located in downtown Chemainus, easy walking from most accommodations. The Penelakut First Nation owns Kuper Island and the majority of Thetis Island is also privately owned, but lazy days can be had exploring the shoreline and intertidal areas of Thetis Island by foot or kayak. You should only plan for a day trip to Thetis Island by car, foot or bike, as accommodations are limited on the Island.
Heading north from Chemainus, you will arrive at picturesque Ladysmith. Make sure to stop at the local favourite Old Town Bakery on 1st Ave, known far and wide for their excellent cinnamon buns. Unfortunately, their coffee is not up to the same standards, but the price is worth paying for the baked goods. Take your snack to the beautiful hidden gem Transfer Beach Park, and enjoy the views of Ladysmith Harbour and Stuart Channel. Sealegs Kayaking, located in the park by the beach, will rent you a kayak if you prefer to paddle on your own, or they will take you further afield on a full-blown guided trip. A further twenty minutes north brings you to Nanaimo, home of the Nanaimo Bar. There are days of activities to be had here, but a few suggested activities are a trip to the pedestrian only Newcastle Island, a walk along the Nanaimo Harbour waterfront and a visit to the Nanaimo Museum.