by Scott Littlejohn
When summer gently becomes fall, it’s easy to be lulled into thinking it will last forever, until you wake up and have to reach for the thermostat, coaxing the furnace to take the chill off the morning while you sip your morning java. Suddenly, you realize it’s time to find a sanctuary for you and your RV for the winter months. Whether you're full time in your RV or just close up your home for the winter and use your RV as an escape pod to somewhere where it’s not so cold, the question is always, ‘where to spend the off season’.
While the ‘call of the warm’ still lures many snowbirds to the southern U.S., growing numbers of Canadian RV’ers are opting to spend October to April at Canada’s warmest winter destination: the south-east side of Vancouver Island. Vancouver Island is the size of Costa Rica and its capital, Victoria, has long been recognized as a place to enjoy a mild winter. But its smaller neighbour to the north, Nanaimo, is also worth considering, as it boasts the same gentle temperatures - often without the wind - and a number of RV parks catering to snowbirds. Winter rates are under $400/month.
One such place is Living Forest Oceanside Campground and RV, an award winning park with over 50 acres of waterfront, tall trees and 300 spacious sites. With the Nanaimo River on one side and the ocean on the other, it’s a great place to watch the parade of boats plying the waters off Nanaimo’s harbour. Wildlife, like the Nanaimo River’s amazing salmon run, and the countless eagles that mark the start of the winter season, is also plentiful in the area. A world away, but only minutes to down town.
“I thought it was just a mill town... ”
Over the past twenty five years, Nanaimo has grown and changed from a small industrial town, into an interesting metropolitan blend of 100,000-plus residents, and provides endless year-round recreation opportunities for people who want to explore Vancouver Island. A tourism and retirement focus has transformed Nanaimo away from its coal mining roots.
Taking in the incredible scenery along the meandering down town seawall is a daily ritual for many. Peek into the shops or get a coffee as you stroll past the yachts; or step out onto the fishing pier to see if anyone’s having a good day with their crab traps. Complimenting the natural harbour, protected as it is from shoreward waves by Newcastle Island Marine Park (the size of Vancouver’s Stanley Park), is a man-made lagoon, complete with waterfalls and a footbridge to enable passers-by to enjoy the salt air. Jazz superstar, Diana Krall, grew up in Nanaimo, and more than one of her songs was inspired by the many local ocean vistas.
Vancouver Island University, perched on the hillside overlooking down town Nanaimo, has a culinary arts program that turns out world class chefs; which is part of the reason for Nanaimo’s over abundance of interesting restaurants scattered throughout town, catering to every taste and budget. The Dinghy Dock Pub is Canada’s only floating pub and restaurant, and welcomes the hungry and the thirsty who take the short harbour ferry ride to Protection Island to enjoy an excellent meal and the view across the water back to Nanaimo.
Maybe this winter is the perfect time for you to really take the plunge. While you probably think of scuba diving as a summer thing, winter is actually the time to go because the water visibility is so much better. For a few hundred dollars and a few classes of instruction with one of several local dive schools, you can get certified and take your first ocean dive. Dry suit rentals are included so you stay warm and dry while you dive. Nanaimo is rated as one of the premium cold water dive destinations in the world.
A temperate winter on the central Island means that golfing is also a year round activity; there are virtually no crowds and lots of courses and amazing scenery. Yet Mt. Washington Alpine Resort offers ‘ocean view’ skiing and snowboarding only a 90-minute drive away. After a day of sea-to-ski entertainment you can call to brag to your friends that you went skiing in the morning and golfing in the afternoon while they shovelled snow back home.
Over 200 Nanaimo parks means that you never run out of walks and hikes. You can pick your hiking trails according to your mood or level of accomplishment; they can be as gentle or as challenging as you want. The same applies for cycling.
The low winter RV rates go from October through April - that leaves plenty of time to explore the rest of the Island. One thing you have to put on your bucket list, is storm watching on the West Coast of the Island- helloooo Tofino and Ucluelet!
When contemplating a storm watching adventure, you have to understand that even though it’s only a 3 ½ hour drive from Nanaimo to the West Coast, it’s a whole other climate. The reason Nanaimo enjoys mild winters is the proximity to the relatively warm and protected waters between Nanaimo and Vancouver. It means that some winters go by when Nanaimo gets no snow. But Tofino and Ucluelet face the open Pacific with the prevailing currents coming down from Alaska. This means that from November through February, the west side of the Island is right in the storm path and gets hammered with gale after gale. Not a good time to be in a boat or without shelter, but the PERFECT time to find a snug place where you can be warm but see the ocean fury.
An entire storm watching industry has developed in these two charming towns, 40 kilometres apart, replete with a range of prices and accommodations. The drive over the central Island mountain range offers amazing scenery, raging river canyons, and forests with 800 year old giant trees. There are at least two great RV parks where you can stay if you want to brave the winter passes and winding roads in your rig. Lots range from $28-$48 night. If you’re on a budget this is the way to go, just don’t put your awning out when you get there unless you want to relive scenes from the Wizard of Oz! Numerous waterfront BnB’s, clusters of cabins, hotels and resorts all offer different twists and viewpoints to watch the crashing surf. Sitting in a fireplace room, perhaps with a Jacuzzi and steaming beverage, is the perfect place to enjoy the drama outside. Some of the resorts even have outdoor microphones and provide room speakers to bring the sound of the outside inside! Prices range from $99 to $895/night.
Bruce Williams, A-Channel Vancouver Island TV personality, is a big fan of storm watching and describes it this way: “It’s a great experience to walk the beach in the mist and rain with the appropriate weather gear. But it’s a truly bracing feeling to take off shoes and socks, roll up your pant legs and walk in the surf. The water is cold and refreshing on your feet and legs, while the rest of you is warm. I did that this past winter and followed it with the perfect ending. Dinner at Long Beach Lodge and overnight in their cabin accommodation. It doesn't get any better.”
Winter in Nanaimo? No, it isn’t sunshine every day, but the activities menu goes on and on, and you won’t run out of things to do in the seven month winter season. Remember, there’s no bad weather, just inappropriate clothing!
Scott Littlejohn has lived on Vancouver Island for 42 years and writes a travel blog VancouverIslandTouring.com and teaches recording engineering at Vancouver Island University’s Jazz faculty. He recorded Diana Krall’s first demos but hasn’t met Elvis.