To Have and Have Not


When you move from one city to another, you wonder—and perhaps worry—what the transition will be like. You’re concerned about the services: Will I find a good doctor? dentist? hairdresser? You’re curious about the eateries: Is there a good Italian restaurant? Where can I get a good pizza? And naturally, you think about the people: Are they nice? Will I make friends?

Moving from a huge city to a much smaller city requires significant downsizing of expectations. When I moved from Los Angeles (estimated population: 4 million) to Nanaimo (estimated population: 90,500), I knew there would be fewer choices in every area, and in some cases, there might be no choice at all. But after 20 years of being inundated with options, I was prepared to make the transition and even welcomed the notion that “less is more.”

As it turns out, it’s been a pleasure to be rid of certain aspects of big city living (like four-hour traffic snarl-ups) and an equal pleasure to discover the benefits of a smaller city (like getting anywhere in about 20 minutes). Partly urban, partly suburban, and partly rural, Nanaimo offers cultural activities, a range of living options, and plentiful opportunities to be one with nature. And—so far—I’ve found just about everything I need.

Yes, We’ve Got It Here

So what does the Harbour City have going for it?

Port Theatre

Culturally speaking, let’s start with the Port Theatre. Located in downtown Nanaimo, this 800-seat performing arts centre offers plays, concerts, dance events, and comedy shows year-round. Community theatre is also alive and well here, with the Nanaimo Theatre Group offering four productions each season.

For a different kind of culture fix, there’s the Nanaimo Art Gallery, as well as several other galleries around town. Additionally, the Nanaimo Arts Council promotes a variety of events featuring local artists. And if being indoors is too stifling, there’s outdoor art to appreciate.

HMCS Saskatchewan, now an artificial reef off Nanaimo

Commemorative plaque

Though not a must-have for some folks, one aspect of the city I’ve enjoyed discovering is its strong sense of history. Founded in 1852, Nanaimo was originally a coal-mining outpost for the Hudson Bay Company, and evidence of this past can be found during a downtown stroll. But the past is really made vivid at the Nanaimo Museum, which manages to fit a lot of informative exhibits (including a coal mine) into its small space.

Nanaimo Court House, recognized as a Canadian historic place

Moving on to more mundane matters, we all need to buy “stuff” from time to time, and Nanaimo has eight shopping centres, ranging from a handful of stores to a full-size mall. Among the names are the usual American giants and (thankfully) some Canadian competition.

And how does one get to all these places? Nanaimo has two taxi companies, and bus service is provided by BC Transit, covering 17 routes. Confession time: As a car owner, I’ve never taken the bus here. (I feel I suffered enough doing that in Los Angeles for two years.) But I’ve seen people waiting at bus stops, and later they’re gone, so I assume the system works well enough.

Nanaimo by the Numbers

For the sake of brevity, here are some other Nanaimo “haves”:

1 hospital, university, golf course, correctional centre (medium security)
2 sports arenas, bowling alleys
3 public libraries (three cheers for the written word!)

4 Dairy Queens (where one can enjoy a Blizzard that requires no shovelling)
5 recreation centres (including an aquatic centre with an Olympic-size pool)
6 McDonald’s (I know—shocking)
7 Starbucks (for those who enjoy their coffee burnt)
8 Tim Horton’s (where real Canadians go for their java)
9 lakes (natural and human-made)

Westwood Lake – not a natural wonder, but naturally beautiful

10 high schools
20 elementary schools
Uncountable…deer, rabbits, potholes

Some Like It Wet

Finally, let’s talk about weather, a favourite topic of Canadians. If you like precipitation, this is a good place to be. Nanaimo has rain. Lots of rain. Sprinkles, showers, and downpours. Occasionally, snow. And rain. Did I mention rain?

Nope, You Won’t Find It Here

Newsflash: Nanaimo is not New York. Or Toronto. It’s not “the city that never sleeps.” Quite the contrary. And as for downtown skylines…well, Nanaimo’s skyline would fit nicely in Toronto’s back pocket.

Nanaimo skyline – you can count the high-rises on one hand…minus your thumb

Make that a small corner of its back pocket. Not that a skyline matters to Nanaimoans one whit. Who needs a skyline when you’ve got a friggin’ mountain?

The biggest surprise for me when I moved here was…no Nanaimo Police Department. Now before you start thinking this is a lawless land where might makes right, let me explain. Nanaimo does have law enforcement, but as in many small cities and towns across Canada, it is provided by the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police for you non-Canuck readers). I’ve yet to see a Mountie actually mounted—they get around in white sedans, not on steeds—but I have seen them in Tim Horton’s getting a coffee and donut, so my impression is they’re pretty much like regular cops (but with way cooler dress uniforms).

For me, the saddest thing Nanaimo is missing is…a bagel shop. Hailing from Montreal, I’m a big fan of yeasty baked dough with a hole. While bagels can be found in most grocery stores and coffee shops here, they are generally bready, barely-a-hole imposters. How I would love to walk into a true bagel shop with that unmistakable aroma wafting through the air, getting my mouth salivating for a chewy treat. Sigh. Perhaps I’ll have to open one.

Less Really Is More

Moving to Nanaimo, I haven’t had to give up as much as I thought I would. And what I have given up has been more than replaced by the peace and pleasure I’ve found in my beautiful surroundings. When one’s life isn’t quite so cluttered, physically and mentally, by possessions and distractions, there’s room to welcome new experiences.

And that is, after all, why I came here.


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