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Ladysmith Chemainus Driving Tour

by David Stanley

This 79-kilometer tour takes you to two resilient towns south of Nanaimo which refused to give up when faced with adversity. Ladysmith was founded as Oyster Bay in 1897, but changed its name to Ladysmith in 1900 in honour of a British Boar War victory. Built on a hillside like San Francisco, Ladysmith began as a coal mining town. When the Extension Mines closed in 1931, forestry became the main industry. After the biggest logging company stopped using Ladysmith's port in 1986, tourism took over. Chemainus embraced tourism after its primary employer, the MacMillan Bloedel sawmill, closed in 1983. Since then, both towns have successfully marketed their unique histories, cultures, and environments to visitors.

Our first stop is in Ladysmith, 23 kilometers south of downtown Nanaimo via the Trans Canada Highway. At the second lights, turn left onto Transfer Beach Boulevard, then left again on Oyster Bay Drive immediately after the railway tracks. The Waterfront Gallery, 610 Oyster Bay Drive, 400 meters ahead on the left, displays the works of local artists from noon to 4 pm Tuesday to Sunday yearround (admission free). Next door is the Harbour Heritage Centre open Monday to Saturday 1 pm to 4 pm late May to mid-September. The gallery building is an old maintenance shed of the Nanaimo and Esquimalt Railway. A Baldwin locomotive from 1929 stands in the adjacent park.

Ladysmith Maritime Society DocksLeave your car at the art gallery and walk down the stairway to the Ladysmith Maritime Society Docks. The LMS Maritime Museum in a bright blue boatshed on the dock has old photos and artifacts. The nearby heritage boatshed contains two restored boats, the Saravan (1938) and the CA Kirkegaard (1949). These buildings open irregularly but you can look in through the windows. The LMS offers 90-minute harbour tours daily at 10:30 am and 2 pm in July and August ($15 for adults or $40 for a family of four or more). Endangered purple martins nest in several dozen boxes on poles around the docks.

Return to Transfer Beach Boulevard and turn left. Transfer Beach Park has a nine-level amphitheatre with a sweeping view of Stuart Channel. In summer concerts are held here at 6 pm on Sundays. This lovely park also has a large children's playground, a covered picnic shelter, a snack bar, and a beach where you could swim. In summer Sealegs Kayaking Adventures next to the playground offers guided kayak tours of two hours ($65 per person plus tax and tip) and four hours ($105).

Black Nugget Museum, LadysmithDrive back up Transfer Beach Boulevard, cross the Trans Canada Highway, and go straight on up Roberts Street one block to 1st Avenue where you should park. Ladysmith has one of the best preserved early 20th century city centres in Canada and it's well worth taking the time to walk a few blocks up and down 1st Avenue past the old brick buildings and historical displays. From 1st Avenue, turn right to the Black Nugget Museum, 12 Gatacre Street. The museum building is the former Jones Hotel brought here by rail in 1900. It's usually closed but you can always peak in the windows of the restored coal miners barroom. A block north on 1st Avenue, notice the 49th Parallel Cairn in front of the post office. In 1846 when North America west of the Rocky Mountains was divided between Britain and the United States, the 49th parallel (which passes near Ladysmith) became the southern border of most of western Canada although the whole of Vancouver Island was retained by Britain. Your next stop should be the Ladysmith Museum, 721 1st Avenue, open Tuesday to Sunday from noon to 4 pm, admission free.

Holland Creek Trail, LadysmithReturn to Roberts Street and drive up the steep hill 700 meters to 6th Avenue. Turn right, then immediately left on Malone Road. After 400 meters, turn left on Mackie Road which you follow 200 meters to a parking lot on the left at the end. The Holland Creek Trail traces a 5.8-km loop through the forest around the Holland Creek gorge. For a quick taste of the trail, go left a short distance to a viewpoint over Crystal Falls. The numerous hiking trails of this area are outlined on maps and brochures at the trailhead.

Drive back down Roberts Street to 1st Avenue and turn right. The avenue soon becomes Dogwood Drive. On the right just past the bridge, 1.7 km from Robert Street, is another entrance to the Holland Creek Trail. Continue another 600 meters south on Dogwood, then left on Davis Road 300 meters to the Trans Canada Highway. Most of the fast food outlets banned from downtown Ladysmith are in Coronation Mall on your left. At the lights go straight across the highway and continue on Chemainus Road, which runs 9.6 km southeast to Chemainus via Saltair.

Chemainus Visitor Info CentreAs you enter downtown Chemainus, turn left on Cypress Street at the gas station and park in the free municipal lot at the corner of Cypress and Willow streets beside Waterwheel Park. Some of the 40 murals and 13 sculptures which have made Chemainus famous as an outdoor art gallery surround this lot. The Chemainus Visitor Info Centre, 9796 Willow Street, sells a self-guiding brochure for $2.

Waterwheel Park across the street from the Visitor Centre has a bandshell and shady old trees. Adjacent is the Chemainus Valley Museum, open daily from 10 am to 3 pm or 9 am to 4 pm in summer (closed mid-December to mid-March), admission by donation. It's well worth perusing its large collection of historic photos and artifacts. There's an excellent view of the harbour and Western Wood Products sawmill from the lookout beside the museum.

Chemainus TheatreHave a walk around downtown Chemainus to see the murals and visit some of the interesting shops and cafes. It's hard to miss the Chemainus Theatre, 9737 Chemainus Road at Victoria Street, the large building with the green dome. This professional theatre stages half a dozen musicals and plays a year, with curtain times varying between 2 pm and 7:30 pm Wednesday to Sunday. If you'd care to attend a performance, check the schedule on their website and call 1-800-565-7738 to reserve your seats as they're often sold out.

Return to Waterwheel Park and walk down through the park. From the lower side, Maple Lane and Maple Street lead several blocks north through the Old Town quarter to Kinsmen Park with a lovely view up Stuart Channel. In summer, go for a swim off the park's beach. In 2006 a Boeing 737 aircraft was scuttled in Stuart Channel off Kinsmen Park to create an attraction for scuba divers.

Thetis Island FerryFrom the east end of Oak Street in Chemainus, BC Ferries runs a car ferry to Thetis Island 12 times a day. The roundtrip walk-on fare is around $11 per person for the 25-minute crossing. Leave your car in Chemainus and enjoy this scenic Gulf Islands cruise (bicycles $2). There's an island map of Thetis posted at the ferry landing. It's an easy 15-minute walk across the island to either the Telegraph Harbour Marina where there's a café or to the Thetis Island Marina with its pub. The Thetis ferry also calls at Kuper Island, home of the Penelakut First Nation, but access to the reserve is by invitation only.

Back in Chemainus, continue 800 meters south from the theatre to a traffic circle on Chemainus Road. To the right of the circle, the gorgeous Mount Brenton Golf Course, 2816 Henry Road, is a great place to test your swing. The regular green fee for 18 holes is $60, but after 2 pm this goes down to $25. Clubs and carts are for hire. The club's reasonably-priced restaurant overlooks the course.

From the golf course follow Henry Road 1.4 km southwest to the junction with the Trans Canada Highway, which will take you 35 km north to your starting point in Nanaimo.

Updated: 28 July 2015

Ladysmith and Chemainus Driving Tour Map

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