This striking mural by Paul Ygartua is based on important figures from the region’s native heritage, past and present. Chemainus Theatre Festival
Driving north from Victoria or south from Nanaimo on Vancouver Island’s scenic highway, tens of thousands of visitors annually come to marvel at the world-renowned collection of building-sized outdoor murals that illustrate the colorful history of Chemainus. The sea-front community with its sheltered harbor dotted with islands is ready to welcome them but … 30 years ago it certainly wasn’t.
Here is a rare chance to follow the unlikely tale of a 156-year-old town brought to life on the walls of its public buildings, store fronts, restaurants, fire hall, train station and more. Dozens of local, national and international artists have contributed their talents and diverse artistic styles over three decades to create a remarkable outdoor record of a pioneer heritage.
In reality, Chemainus’s story stretches back much further – as both the name and some of the murals remind us – with native settlement of Vancouver Island drawn from the ancestors of those who crossed the Bering Strait from Mongolia through Alaska and down the west coast of North America thousands of years earlier. Chemainus, meaning Broken Chest, comes from the name of a native shaman and prophet who survived a massive wound to his chest, then going on to become a powerful chief.
This portion of a much longer mural depicts the original 1891 settlement of Chemainus, then known as Horseshoe Bay. Chemainus Festival of Murals Society
A house-size mural painted by Chemainus’s mural curator, Cim MacDonald, depicts Chemainus’s 1915 telephone exchange for 30 telephones, complete with portraits of the women who worked there. The bicycle and white picket fence are real but part of the mural. Cim MacDonald
In the early 1980s, the one-industry logging and lumber town of Chemainus was also near death, threatened with extinction when its out-dated mill closed. A quick slide into ghost town status was predicted as people moved elsewhere for employment. However, a group of visionaries not content to administer last rites to their community so quickly proposed to re-invent Chemainus as a tourism destination by telling its story in massive, compelling murals accessible to anyone with an interest in history, art and the unique cultural lifestyle of a small town on the Pacific Coast. On my recent visit to Chemainus, I met a surprising number of people who came on holiday to see “the little town that did!” and stayed to make it their home. Yes, they became one of nearly 5,000 present-day Chemainiacs, as the locals call themselves!
No. 3 Climax Engine is a huge foreshortened log hauling train that steams and belches smoke as it leaps out of its frame and almost off the wall of the artist’s former home and studio. Chemainus Festival of Murals Society
Mill Street in 1948. Chemainus Festival of Murals Society
Chemainus is worth a visit of several days, not only to wander the upper and lower parts of this well-preserved town in search of murals in obvious and not so obvious places, but because of the diversity of things to do. This is wisely not a one-attraction town but a vibrant center for music, theatre, art, festivals, gourmet dining and a range of physical activities. It even has its own currency with over $50,000 in circulation.
In 2011, the Unknown Miner Mural was commissioned by the owners of the Silver Mine on Chemainus, a chic mini-gallery showcasing unique hand-crafted jewelry designs of stone, wood and silver. The lifesize mural for an outside gallery wall was based on a photo found in the Chemainus Valley Museum’s black and white photo archive with no name identifying the miner. Happy ending … the Unknown Miner and his life story are now revealed, thanks to his granddaughter recognizing her grandfather from the family’s own collection of historic photos. Peter Gardner
With a longer stay, it is possible to take in a production of the Chemainus Theatre Festival, a year round professional theatre company launched in 1993. It offers five mainstage shows ranging from award-winning comedies and musicals to classic dramas and original debut plays as well as children’s shows each summer. The exquisite Italianate building with domed lobby and sweeping staircase not only houses the intimate 274-seat theatre but a large dining room and exceptional gift shop of artisan-made items. Many people book the buffet dining and play package for their performance night with meals timed to the show and a discreet reminder from your server when it is time to move to the theatre.
Chemainus Theatre. Chemainus Theatre Festival
And there’s no excuse not to stay, with a good variety of accommodation around the town. For those who enjoy the distinctive experience of down-home hospitality with well-informed resident hosts, try one of the area bed & breakfasts with many open year round. I sampled two b&b’s, Timeless Rose and A Small World and especially enjoyed both their signature breakfasts and the good conversation
As part of the elegant interior design and sumptuous breakfasts that characterize the signature delivery of Timeless Rose B&B, Paul and Lilli Young take pride in welcoming Chemainus visitors to stay in their 1930s home. Alison Gardner
A Small World B&B was built by Lynne and John Landygo in 1994 “to look like it fit into the town landscape” which it surely does. Year round, they welcome visitors from the world over, with 60% repeat clientele. Alison Gardner
Still authentically-immersed in the town’s heritage is the Horseshoe Bay Inn, opened in 1892 as a convenient port of call for loggers and sailors. Rates were $1 a day or $6 a week for room and board. Mega-rich American tycoons, John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, stayed at the inn within ten days of each other in November 1900 while checking out their British Columbia forestry investments. Today the inn is best known for its traditional pub and tasty restaurant menu, though the rustic rooms upstairs remain popular with visitors for their period furnishings and the friendly ghosts who pay a call from time to time.
In the sheltered, bird-and-marine-life-rich waters that distinguish this area, it is also tempting to get out on the water or even under it. Launching from one of the town’s beaches, I spent a magical morning in a kayak on mirror-like waters exploring the shoreline with Bud Bell, owner of Sealegs Kayaking Adventures, learning some kayaking skills and observing the marine, land and sky wildlife up very close. The company offers a variety of local marine-life day trips and several multi-day kayaking/camping packages farther afield.
Exploring the shoreline with Sealegs Kayaking Adventures owner, Bud Bell, made a restful educational detour from town-based activities. Alison Gardner
In the “you have got to be kidding” category, scuba diving enthusiasts have been making a beeline for Chemainus since 2006 to explore the only Boeing 737 airplane artificial reef in the world. Yes, there is an environmentally-scrubbed-clean, 100-foot by 100-foot plane deliberately sunk off the Chemainus shoreline. It sits on 15-foot high pedestals so as not to impact the sea floor and so divers may easily observe the 124 species of sea life that have moved into this created habitat. This is one of many scuba attractions in the area offered by Divemaster.
Perhaps most surprising for such a small town with a “meat and potatoes” culinary background is the array of original cuisine options and creative spaces to enjoy them. Odika Café is a prime example of what owners, Murray and Marina Kereliuk, modestly refer to as a “Global Comfort Food” menu. Their dearest desire is to have guests walk in the door and order something they have never had before. In just one year of operation, Owl’s Nest Bakery Bistro has also become a culinary magnet for locals and visitors, simple in decor but delightfully diverse for the palate as Chef Jacky mixes and matches foodie flavors and textures in an original and ever-changing menu.
Visitors may wander the town with a self-guiding descriptive map of all the murals or, in summer, take an informative mural walk with a guide in period costume. Alison Gardner
Chemainus continues to grow creatively as it looks for fresh ways to welcome visitors and new residents. Never shy in proudly declaring its past successes, the town has even taken out copyright over the sentence “The Little Town that Did.” In fact, Chemainus is the little town that is still doing it!
“The Hermit” Mural depicts an old man who lived rough in the nearby forest, creating a masterpiece of flower beds and pathways he shared with visitors. Alison Gardner
Tourism Chemainus, www.visitchemainus.ca.
Chemainus Valley Museum, www.chemainusvalleymuseum.ca.
Tourism Vancouver Island www.vancouverisland.travel.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge web magazine, www.travelwithachallenge.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.