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Chemainus, British Columbia: "The Little Town That Did"

Small town charm and semi-secluded anchorages await in the British Columbia’s Gulf Islands.
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Chemainus, BC

Chemainus, BC

In your quest for the small town charm and semi-secluded anchorages in the British Columbia’s Gulf Islands, be sure to make one of your stops a visit to the town of Chemainus. It is located on Vancouver Island about 20 miles south of Nanaimo. Once you do get past the top of Saltspring Island and head west about six miles, you can see “the little town that did”. In the face of an economic down turn in the early 1980s, they created a tourist attraction that saved the day for the folks who live there and created a unique destination for west coast cruisers.

There was a lumber mill in Chemainus that was the engine of the local economy. It closed in 1982. The mayor, with the help of the town’s people, got a government grant to revitalize towns in economic trouble. They engaged artists to create historic depictions of the town and surrounding area and put murals on dozens of downtown buildings.

Today, the little town on the rebound is world famous for their murals. It started with five murals done by professional artists depicting First Nations people and the early history of the Cowichan Valley. It has grown to more than thirty beautiful pictures covering the walls of buildings in the town. They are lovely. Just take a look at the photos.

Native american art in Chemainus, BC

Native american art in Chemainus, BC

The Chemainus Theater Festival and live theater is on almost all year long. This is their 20th anniversary season. There are evening and matinee performances as well as “Theatre with Buffet” shows. “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” is starting June 15 and runs through September 1. They are professional shows and quite well done.

If theater is not of interest to you and you are hungry, you can eat in any one of thirty restaurants. Once you are sated, you can shop for antiques in four shops and read books in three stores. If you have been putting off that horse drawn carriage ride, now is the time to hop aboard.

Waterwheel park in Chemainus, BC

Waterwheel park in Chemainus, BC

But wait, there is more. Close to Chemainus is the only airliner artificial reef, a Boeing 737 perched on a stand 15 feet above the seabed and 100 feet below the water surface. There are dive services in town that will take you there.

There have been lovely murals and other attractions in Chemainus for some time. Boaters used to moor at Telegraph Harbour Marina on Thetis Island and take the ferry to town. The duration of your visit will often be limited by ferry schedules and it will be difficult to take in all the town has to offer, like dinner and a show.

A few years ago the decision was made to have the commercial fishing boats, moor at Crofton, five miles south of Chemainus. This made more than 600 feet of transient moorage available at the municipal marina. The marina has all you would expect including a grocery store at the head of the dock. The setting has an industrial flavor. It is between the ferry dock and the mill. Yes, the mill started up again in the late 1980s as a more modern and very quiet facility. The ferry wash is not too bad and the ferry stops at 10 p.m. Harman Bootsma, the marina manager, suggests making reservations a day or two in advance in June, July, August,and September. If they are full, you can always stay on nearby Thetis Island and take the B. C. ferry to Chemainus for the day.

For a Yankee cruiser, the Gulf Islands have it all. It is a foreign destination with all its exotic foods and strange language. The island setting restricts crowds to those who have their own vessels or dare to ride the B.C. ferries. There are crab and halibut on the bottom and quaint villages onshore. Make no mistake though, Chemainus has all this and much more. See it soon.