A Place to Call Home

By John Harris

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Photos: Tourism Nanaimo and Ted Kuzemski

As the world knows, the past decade has seen the Vancouver housing market become blazing hot with breathtaking home prices and a shrinking list of affordable condos and apartments. During those 10 years, my wife Kate and I were renters in Vancouver whose plan to become homeowners didn’t seem to be materializing.

What to do? And where to find our affordable home? Well, sometimes life chooses for you. Kate has always been a professional artist and I had spent 10 years producing news features for a national TV network. Internal changes at the TV network moved me out of the Vancouver lineup - I lost my job. After the initial shock, we took stock.


We were both 65, in good health and had experience working from home. The cloud of my “job change” had a silver lining – I no longer had to commute to work. We began to search housing markets outside of Vancouver.

Although I was researching an article on Nanaimo, it wasn’t actually on our radar as a place to live. We started our home search in Victoria. It’s a city we knew well and where we have numerous friends but we quickly learned Victoria house prices were similar to Vancouver. Kelowna was also beyond our reach, financially, and both of us prefer winters on the coast.

We looked into other Vancouver Island markets. Youbou, anyone? Beautiful and quiet, but too small. Coming back for a look at Port Alberni, which was definitely in our price range, we were on deck as the ferry pulled into Nanaimo’s Departure Bay. Seemingly for the first time, we both noticed the Harbour City has a very scenic waterfront.

Encouraged by the number of friends over 55 we found already living there, I decided to recruit their thoughts on living in Nanaimo.

Donna and Jerome moved from Kamloops in October 2013. Jerome was somewhat familiar with Nanaimo and they were looking for a place that fit their fixed income and didn’t have a Kamloops winter. “As it turned out,” says Jerome, “our house in Kamloops was 60 years old. The Nanaimo house was brand new in a great neighbourhood and for the same price.”

Housing affordability was the recurring theme in the feedback from friends living in Nanaimo. Bob and Linda recently moved over from New Westminster. “The Nanaimo prices are shocking if you are moving from Vancouver… they are so affordable!” says Bob. As the creators of *Double Exposure* for CBC, Bob and Linda continue producing radio and TV programs from their home studio and also perform live in many BC locations. “Nanaimo has one of the nicest theatres in BC, the Port Theatre, where you can see most big name touring performers or bands,” says Bob. “And the city has its own symphony orchestra.”

“Besides,” Bob adds, “if we need to travel somewhere to do a performance, there are many harbour-to-harbour flights by seaplane; Nanaimo airport has flights to Vancouver, Calgary, Abbotsford and so on.”
Other folks mentioned accessibility to Vancouver when you need to go. Donna says, “We would have moved sooner if we’d known the ferries were so enjoyable and that transit at the Vancouver end was so good.” Many homes near the Old Quarter, as ours is, are within walking distance to the Departure Bay terminal and a senior’s walk-on fare is eight dollars.

My old chum, Arie, moved to Nanaimo in January 2011. He says, “I find everything is close living in Nanaimo. You’re 90 minutes from Tofino and the wild west coast, same with Victoria.”

What if you have a health problem that keeps you here? Jerome says both he and Donna have needed Nanaimo General Hospital since arriving and found it a good experience. A recent examination discovered Jerome needed cataract surgery. He was able to get the procedure done within a year. “In Kamloops, I would have waiting two or three years.”

During any household move things can happen that require medical attention. As it turned out, I ended up in Nanaimo emergency one wet and windy night. We found the staff friendly and efficient, and the hospital is very impressive. Doctors and clinics – they are mundane, but important practicalities for us “55+ers.”

What makes life in Nanaimo really enjoyable? Well, one benefit Kate and I discovered immediately was the “lack of racket.” It’s so quiet, I can measure the hours by hearing the ship whistles from Duke Point, 20 kilometres away.

Arie also mentioned the peaceful atmosphere. He loved his beautiful home in Tsawwassen, but declares he wishes he’d moved 10 years sooner, when it first occurred to him. He appreciates the quiet and slower lifestyle (except when he takes his old Corvette out for a run) and loves the good sailing.

Bob and Linda appreciate the quiet in another way. “When you have a home studio in a big city, you quickly find out how often you are interrupted by jet planes, trains and big trucks. Not the case in most of Nanaimo. Away from the highway and main roads, it is really quiet.”

A slower lifestyle, lower blood pressure and more quiet could be expected in a smaller city on Vancouver Island. But I noticed something that was also mentioned by everyone I talked to about Nanaimo. “Wherever you go, there are happy, smiling people saying ‘hello’.”

The first time Kate and I pulled up outside our new home in the moving van, it wasn’t long before three different neighbours dropped by to lend a hand and say “welcome to the neighbourhood.” I don’t recall that happening during any of our moves in Vancouver. Jerome and Donna found the same welcome when they arrived. “One neighbour is long-time MLA Leonard Krog,” says Jerome. “He took me and my stepson on a tour of the Legislature in Victoria. Even bought us lunch in the dining room.” Now that is friendly.

The relaxed and quieter lifestyle with friendly neighbours is terrific, but how will your real estate investment develop in Nanaimo? I asked Dan Morris, of ReMax Nanaimo, for a frank appraisal.

“I still believe Nanaimo is a hidden gem when it comes to value for price,” says Dan. “Comparing prices to the Lower Mainland and Victoria, Nanaimo is extremely affordable. There are numerous developments that have been designed for the 55+ demographic - what we call patio homes - which are mostly semi-detached ranchers in stratified developments. The grounds are taken care of, which is great for ‘locking and leaving’ for those who like to travel. I see continued growth and appreciation of home values in the future due to services the city provides.”

Key among the services Dan mentions are the parks and walkways throughout Nanaimo. Everyone I talked to raved about the quality and number of excellent parks and trails for active walkers. Unanimous favourites are Piper’s Lagoon and Neck Point; both municipal parks that are well used and well maintained.

If you’re in a “townie” mood, both ends of the city have a lot to offer. The North end features shopping malls with movie theatres and big box stores along the highway. Prices for food, wine, lumber and all the other stuff we need compare well to the Lower Mainland, with one exception. Since TransLink’s levy isn’t included in the price at a Nanaimo gas pump, gas is at least 10 cents a litre less expensive.

At the South end, the Old City Quarter continues to reinvent itself. We were particularly impressed with ongoing improvements on Fitzwilliam Street - pedestrian ramps have been built into the sidewalks and street parking and walking are both improved.

The Old Quarter has a bit of everything - from custom shoe stores to consignment clothing, excellent delis, very good cafés and restaurants, home décor design shops and galleries – everything you’d hope for in an area that’s a pleasure to walk. Some weekends include free horse-drawn trolley rides. Find out more on the Old City Quarter Facebook page.

Just downhill from the Old City Quarter is the Port Theatre mentioned earlier. The crammed Christmas schedule gives way to International Guitar Night and Ballets Jazz du Montreal    and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. A favourite of Jerome and Donna is the Chemainus Theatre Festival, just a short drive from Nanaimo.  

A landmark of the Old City is the original Hudson Bay Bastion overlooking the harbour and Old City Quarter. It really is old; the white tower was built in 1849. Nanaimo’s history goes back to the 19th century when coal was discovered and mining became the main industry. By 1922, peak production in was 1,400,000 tons.

Dan Morris, who moved to and from Nanaimo five times before his latest arrival as a realtor, says he loves to share the history of his city. “As I drive around with clients, one of my favourite things to do is to share Nanaimo's history with them. For a city as young as Nanaimo, it has a very rich history from its early days as a mining town.”
Easily the most popular option for entertainment in Nanaimo is being outside. Mount Benson looms over the city with superb views. On clear days, you’ll see Gabriola Island, nearby Duncan, Texada Island, the Sunshine Coast, Mt. Baker and Vancouver. There are numerous walking and biking trails along Mt. Benson’s slopes.

Arie likes to sail and says Nanaimo is surrounded by excellent sailing ways. Friends in Vancouver who used to operate a charter service say the islands and harbour at Nanaimo are excellent visiting points. Protection Island is a short ferry trip any time of year with sailings on the hour from 7am to 10pm. Don’t miss a visit to the Dinghy Dock pub anchored at Good Point.

As mentioned earlier, both Kate and I were struck by the beauty of Nanaimo’s harbour. We’ve since discovered there’s more to Departure Bay than the ferry terminal. There are long walks and sandy beaches, and family picnics on the sand are a popular summer tradition.

Other islands near Nanaimo Harbour include Newcastle, Protection, Gabriola and Snake. Gabriola, the largest, is beautiful to explore. It has a farmers market and artist studios, and a small shopping mall with a food floor and restaurants. It’s a big island, so come by car or bring your bike. The Gabriola ferry leaves Nanaimo once an hour every day except Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.  

You can hike both Protection Island and Newcastle Island with plenty of camping sites on Newcastle. A special island experience occurs in summer, during low tide, between these two islands. The area becomes a sandy plain with starfish, sand dollars, sea grasses, herons and eagles. On a hot day, the returning tide is warmed by the dried sand. Beachcomber heaven!

Golfers already know Vancouver Island – there are 40 good quality courses. Two of the Nanaimo public courses, Nanaimo Golf Club and Winchelsea, get excellent reviews from visiting players.

If you truly miss winter, you can get your snow fix skiing Mount Cain, off Highway 19 west of Campbell River, and Mount Washington, west of Courtenay. Nanaimo also has an active core of snowmobilers.

Nanaimo also has some hidden corners to explore. Ammonite Falls, a beautiful waterfall right in the city of Nanaimo has a trove of Paleozoic fossils forming the stream bed. Not as old, but still fascinating, is Petroglyph Provincial Park with rock carvings over 1,000 years old, left by the ancestors of the Snuneymuxw (Snanaimo) First Nation. It’s an easy walk from the parking lot on the Old Island Highway.

For those preferring live entertainment, Nanaimo has a number of local theatre groups, as well as choirs that welcome newcomers. Donna likes the Nanaimo choir scene so much, she joined two of them!     

Back outside, Nanaimo is also a destination for good birdwatching. Morrell Sanctuary, Buttertubs Marsh Sanctuary, Nanaimo River Estuary, Neck Point and Piper’s Lagoon are a few locations.
As the coastal winter weather drives even hardy birders indoors, there’s Vancouver Island University.  Nanaimo is one of four campuses offering a variety of free services, including tutors to assist in your writing. VIU website has a link to book a free appointment with qualified tutors. The thousands of students attending VIU are another factor keeping Nanaimo’s economy prosperous.

Like many of our friends, we’ve quickly become fans of The Harbour City. Nanaimo is an inviting mix of modern shops and cafés, galleries and theatres laid over an endless selection of beautiful, easily accessed outdoor spaces. And the city is growing; BC Statistics estimates the Regional District of Nanaimo population was 146,574 in 2011. Their estimate for 2016 is 167,062, an annual growth rate near two per cent. Best of all, based on our own experience, Nanaimo really is affordable.

Sincere thanks to Jerome and Donna Auriat, Bob Robertson and Linda Cullen, Arie De Lange and Dan Morris for sharing their thoughts, insights and enthusiasm about Nanaimo.




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Showing 1 to 4 of 4 comments.

Thank you for this very interesting overview of Nanaimo, for those over 50 in particular. We are here visiting now, considering staying but not sure. Your post made me think it might be a good time to do that! :-) And I agree about the quiet, what a treat. Geraldine Helen Hartman, author of: Laughing AT the Grim Reaper! Gems of Wisdom for Aging Well

Posted by Geraldine | September 17, 2016 Report Violation

John, More paeans like this and you'll be personally responsible for Nanaimo's property values outstripping Vancouver's! So enjoy the place while you can. Howard

Posted by Howard Greaves | January 9, 2016 Report Violation

John; Sounds like you're adapting well to living in Nanaimo. I've always said that Vancouver is no place to retire for myself anyway. I would prefer to move to the Island also, however one must consider the wishes of ones partner. We will leave metro Vancouver on retiring at years end to reside in Summerland. As Elaine says it will be a new adventure in our lives, something to shake up your comfort zone is always exiting. Wishing you and Kate continued pleasure and health in your move to Nanaimo. Enjoy the autumn years because the winter years are creeping up on us. Your hallway Biology pal, Roland

Posted by Roland Holtz | January 9, 2016 Report Violation

Comparative costs? Housing, food, fundamentals?

Posted by Janet Hudgins | January 9, 2016 Report Violation

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