In Nanaimo, beautiful areas to take a stroll and get in touch with nature abound. Neck Point Park, Westwood Lake, and Linley Valley are just a few of the many places where extensive trails wind through forests or along the shoreline, offering opportunities for peaceful reflection and healthy activity.
One of the city’s most popular treks, however, requires no athletic footwear, no love of the outdoors, and no physical stamina. All that’s needed is an appetite, a sweet tooth, and a few bucks in your wallet.
Welcome to the Nanaimo Bar Trail!
What’s a Nanaimo bar?
For those of you unfamiliar with this decadent confection, allow me to fill you in. A Nanaimo bar is a three-layer no-bake dessert bar. The base layer is a mix of butter, coconut, cocoa, wafer crumbs, almonds, sugar, and an egg. The middle layer combines butter, cream, custard powder, and a huge measure of icing sugar. Finally, the thin top layer is semi-sweet chocolate melted with—wait for it—butter. The result is a rich and creamy square (and a cardiologist’s nightmare).
So popular is the Nanaimo bar in this city that the Nanaimo Museum has a display case with historical artifacts about its origins, including a copy of the cookbook where the recipe first appeared in 1953. Interestingly, the recipe has been the subject of some serious debate over the years (almonds vs. walnuts is just one contentious issue), and in 1985 the mayor announced a contest to determine the “official” recipe. But it seems the contest results haven’t quelled the debate, and every café and bakery in Nanaimo offers a differing version.
A Sweet Idea
To celebrate the city’s namesake treat, Destination Nanaimo came up with an ingenious marketing idea in 2010: a list of establishments around town where visitors, and locals, could find Nanaimo bars, Nanaimo bar variations, and inspired spins on the dessert, edible and not. The result was the Nanaimo Bar Trail, the most scrumptious and calorie-laden trek anyone could embark on. A handy brochure full of tantalizing photos is available at Tourism Nanaimo and includes a map and a brief description of all the stops. Because businesses come and go, participating locations are added and dropped on a regular basis, and the most current list can be found on the Tourism Nanaimo site.
Hitting the Nanaimo Bar Trail
While I’ve been casually strolling the Nanaimo Bar Trail during the two years I’ve been here, making an occasional stop here and there to check out the offerings, I recently decided to tackle the trail in earnest. Because the trail currently has over 40 stops, hitting every one at this time wasn’t feasible. So I perused the choices, made my picks, and set out to make new discoveries.
Let me just say, the journey so far is one I’d be happy to repeat any time (and will). To begin, I figured I should have a classic/traditional Nanaimo bar, so I headed to Hearthstone Bakery, whose version is so famous it was featured on the Food Network. Hearthstone also offers a peanut butter crunch version, with rice crisps in the top layer (their bars are pictured at the top of this post), as well as a monthly specialty flavour (in March, Irish cream!). Their bars are thicker than most, and to my taste, a little less sweet, which is not a bad thing. Delicious!
Creative variations of the traditional bar are offered at many establishments. At Bocca Café, where the choices included chocolate chili, raspberry, and maple bacon, I went with the salted caramel Nanaimo bar—yum!
Two of my favourite trail stops I wisely did on different days. The first was Noodlebox, a southeast Asian eatery, where I ordered the Nanaimo bar spring rolls. I love savoury spring rolls, so I was eager to give this sweet version a try. One bite was all I needed to appreciate this clever reinvention, which wraps a traditional Nanaimo bar in phyllo pastry and deep fries it. The result is a crispy, warm, melted chocolate delight. The two spring rolls came with a creamy custard dipping sauce and made for a wickedly good snack, though truthfully, I think I could have eaten four. I’ll be back.
My other favourite stop was Pirate Chips. I skipped an entrée and went straight for the deep-fried Nanaimo bar. Wow!!! Whoever said that fried food is bad doesn’t know what they’re talking about. A warm, batter-coated, deep-fried bar oozing melted chocolate, two scoops of vanilla ice, a mini-mountain of whipped cream, and chocolate sauce drizzled over the whole dish—sinfully scrumptious only begins to describe it. Health food? Okay, not quite. But if this dish kills me, at least I’ll die happy. Matey, if you have a sweet tooth, you’ve gotta try this.
In the name of research, I also tried a Nanaimo bar cupcake and Nanaimo bar fudge; I wasn’t too impressed with either of them. Not surprisingly, not every stop on the trail is a 10.
By my reckoning, I’ve visited about a quarter of the locations on the trail so far. Still to look forward to: a Nanaimo bar waffle, cheesecake, milkshake, latte, cocktail, martini, and more. Excuse me while I slip into something a little looser.
Do Not Try to Eat This
No description of the Nanaimo Bar Trail would be complete without mentioning the nonedible offerings, which include a Nanaimo bar recipe tea towel, Nanaimo bar soap, Nanaimo bar massage oil, a Nanaimo bar cup cozy, and Nanaimo bar postcards. Perhaps the most unusual nonedible item is a service: a Nanaimo bar pedicure. C’mon, who doesn’t have a secret desire to have their feet smell like chocolate?
Offered by Kiyo Salon, the pedicure includes a milk bath, a chocolate sugar scrub, a chocolate masque, and a vanilla custard massage. I have yet to experience this luxurious tootsie treatment, but I have to concede: how could a person’s feet be anything but happy after such sweet pampering? Perhaps a future excursion.
For anyone thinking of setting off on the Nanaimo Bar Trail, I’ll offer a few words of advice: approach it as a marathon, not a sprint. As with any endurance activity, pacing is critical. To avoid severe sugar shock, I recommend just one or two food items per day. And be sure to schedule down days for recovery. You’ll need them.
As for me, after a week of serious overindulgence, I have temporarily suspended my trekking (though I’m eager to give that cheesecake a try). Reluctantly, I’ve concluded that taking a breather and eating healthier fare for a while is probably a good idea. My arteries need a break and, alas, there is no Nanaimo bar salad on the trail.
At least, not yet…