If you take a look at a map of Canada and the United States, you’ll see a long steady line separating the western provinces from the northern states. This line is commonly referred to as the 49th parallel because it sits at 49 degrees north latitude from the equator. When this oh-so-steady border line takes a dip into the Strait of Georgia off the British Columbia coast, however, it does a herky-jerky squiggle around the southern end of Vancouver Island. (We Canadians are grateful for that.) But if you were to follow the 49th parallel across to Vancouver Island, you would see that the line, like a piercing arrow, runs straight through a small town with a genteel name.
Why am I telling you all this? Because for Ladysmith, British Columbia, it’s all about location, location, location.
The Little Lady Has a Story to Tell
Okay, I fibbed a little. Ladysmith is much more than just a location. Founded by coal baron James Dunsmuir in 1898 and originally named Oyster Harbour, this scenic town of 8,500 people celebrates its history on almost every street corner in its commercial district. Be careful as you round a corner or you might run into an ore car. Don’t be checking your mail when you exit the post office or you might make the acquaintance of the large stone cairn located out front.
An Artifacts Heritage Walk—which highlights the town’s history of coal mining, forestry, rail, and marine industry—includes over a dozen locations and items, including a ship’s anchor resting in the centre of the traffic roundabout. A detailed brochure available at the Visitor Centre provides an easy-to-follow map and details about each artifact. It makes for an interesting trek through time.
It’s Great to Be First
Ladysmith has only one major commercial street—First Avenue. But as small-town main streets go, First Avenue delivers big time. Proof? The Canadian Institute of Planners (CIP) named it Canada’s Great Street in 2017.
First Avenue exhibits all of the qualities one would expect from a great street: visually interesting building facades, generous sidewalks, attractive landscaping and artistic details, places to rest, and places to gather.
— Jury Statement, CIP
First Avenue offers a wide variety of shopping experiences and eateries in just a few blocks: clothing stores, bookstore, health food store, meat shop, flower shop, pet food and supply store, kitchen store, children’s store, drug store, bakery, bistro, sushi restaurant, fish and chips restaurant, and more, with creative names such as For Pet’s Sake, Purple Pigeon, Barnacle Barney, Food for Thought, and In the Bean Time.
During a recent trip to Ladysmith, I was more eager to eat than shop, so I made a pilgrimage to one of the town’s busiest and most well-known establishments.
I Want One of Everything
Don’t let the modest exterior of the Old Town Bakery fool you—what awaits inside will make your jaw drop and your eyes pop.
Let me paint a picture for you, if I can: baskets of fresh-baked bread and rolls, a display case full of pies and tarts, cakes and cupcakes, cookies, squares, brownies, muffins, and scones. Are you licking your lips yet? Just wait, I haven’t gotten to the most popular item. That would be the breakfast buns—the biggest, freshest, most decadent and delicious buns you’ll find anywhere. And what a variety: cream cheese and almonds, chocolate pecan, orange poppyseed, raisin spice, pumpkin pie cinnamon…I could go on. Each month the bakery offers a featured flavour, which is all the excuse I need to make the 30-minute drive from Nanaimo a monthly habit.
According to a local, visitors from all over the world make a beeline to the bakery when visiting Ladysmith. How’s that for a reputation? Not surprisingly, the bakery is just about cleaned out by the end of the day, every day. People know a good thing when they taste it. (Hmm…is it next month yet?)
Oh, Pretty Lady
In 2000, Country Living magazine named Ladysmith one of the 10 prettiest places to live in Canada. Without a doubt, one of the key sites contributing to that recognition was Transfer Beach Park.
Situated across Highway 1 from the main part of town, this 28-acre park provides a place for restful contemplation and scenic strolls, as well as playgrounds, picnic facilities, and a variety of recreational activities, including kayaking, volleyball, basketball, and horseshoe pitching. During the summer months, the outdoor amphitheatre is the setting for the weekly Concerts in the Park. And while Transfer Beach will never be mistaken for the golden sand stretches of Waikiki, its pebbly, log-strewn shore meets Islanders’ needs just fine when they want to relax and escape summer heat. Who needs sand anyway when you’re in one of the prettiest places in Canada?
In upper Ladysmith (that is, the part of town above those cardiac hills), the elevated vantage point provides panoramic vistas that stretch well across that 49th parallel and into Washington State. Not a bad view to wake up to. Pretty lady, indeed.
Take a Walk on the Wild Side
At the southwestern edge of town, civilization meets nature at the head of the Holland Creek Trail, a 5.8-kilometre path that winds around both sides of Holland Creek. Hikers seeking a lengthier, more challenging outing can veer off and connect with the Heart Lake Trail for an additional 6.4 kilometres. Like just about everywhere on the Island, the great outdoors is just moments away. But so is wildlife, and caution is always advised.
I haven’t hiked this trail yet (it’s on my list), and I haven’t had an encounter with a bear or cougar to date (thank goodness), but during a recent trip to the trail head I did have an unwanted animal encounter of a different kind. Let’s just say I discovered that an irresponsible dog owner had failed to scoop the poop. Eww. I think I would rather have run into a bear. Not a great way to end my visit to this otherwise lovely little town.
Perhaps next time, I’ll just hang out at the bakery.