Do you enjoy cycling in beautiful places with no cars at all? If so, consider an expedition to go biking on Newcastle Island, a small island just off Nanaimo (which is itself on Vancouver Island). On this island-off-an-island, there are no cars and no roads at all. The island is a provincial marine park. Apart from peaceful cycling, it also offers a casual restaurant, beautiful beaches, and a pristine wildlife experience. What’s not to like?
Here is a map that shows where Newcastle Island is, relative to Nanaimo. I have no idea WHY BC Liquor Stores pops up on my phone like this … it’s one of life’s mysteries …
To go biking on Newcastle Island – unless you are one of the 90,504 humans who already live in Nanaimo, you will first have to get to Nanaimo!
How to get to Nanaimo with Your Bike
To get to Nanaimo with your bike, catch a ferry from Horseshoe Bay, West Vancouver to Departure Bay, Nanaimo. The way we did it was to take our bikes to Horseshoe Bay on our excellent heavy duty Thule Easy Fold Bike Rack, which I reviewed here. We parked our car in the long-stay parkade and walked onto the ferry. If you are going to Nanaimo on a weekend this option is advisable, as the lineup to get a car on the ferry when you return will be horrible. Also, it is MUCH cheaper to walk onto the ferry than to drive on with a car!
While waiting for the ferry, you can enjoy the beautiful views of Howe Sound. Or grab a bite at one of the restaurants (for us, that is preferable to standing in a long lineup to buy fried food on the ferry). Sadly, we noticed that there was zero bike parking outside any of the restaurants in Horseshoe Bay. However, I was able to move a potted tree out of the way so we could tie our bikes to a fence outside Olive & Anchor, which had really great food.
Follow the instructions to get your bike on the ferry with all the other cyclists, and lock it up as directed. Some people don’t lock their bikes on the ferry, but I don’t feel happy unless they are securely locked up. I also pack all of our valuables in one pannier and carry that with me. Luckily I have a convertible Two Wheel Gear backpack/pannier, which is perfect for this purpose. (You can read a review of this excellent pannier here.)
Here is a slideshow with some photos of our ferry trip to Nanaimo and back:
When getting off the ferry, try to follow the other cyclists. There is little to no signage. We basically headed left, until we got onto Highway 1, also called Stewart Avenue. This was not as bad as it sounds. There was only one lane headed towards downtown Nanaimo. The other lanes were devoted to parked cars waiting to get onto the ferry back to Vancouver. Motorists drove slowly and patiently behind us until we were able to get onto the sidewalk. We soon discovered that almost everyone in Nanaimo is laid back, friendly and polite! I love that small-town vibe.
After about 2 km we came to Cypress Street, where we were very happy to be able to turn left and get off the highway. (Note: There are no signposts here to let cyclists know that this is their chance to escape the highway. We found this by sheer luck – and a little desperation.) A very short distance bought us to the Harbourside Walkway, where we turned right and headed towards downtown Nanaimo, another couple of kilometers further on. Apparently there are plans to extend the Harbourside Walkway all the way to the ferry, but sadly, it hasn’t happened yet. If you are really nervous about cycling on a highway, or perhaps are cycling with children, you could choose to walk your bikes along the sidewalk for two kilometers. It would still be a lot faster than driving!
Once on the Harbourside Walkway, the scenery is world class. The actual infrastructure is mixed – sometimes there are demarcated lanes for cyclists and pedestrians – and sometimes there are not. At some spots it is so crowded that you have to walk your bike. There are many older or disabled people, so cycle with great care along the Harbourside Walkway, especially where there are no designated lanes. This short video gives you an idea of how lovely the scenery is:
Staying in Nanaimo
I loved staying in Nanaimo. The city is beautiful, the people are friendly, the views are awesome. We stayed in the Coast Bastion, where friendly staff welcomed us warmly as we walked in with our loaded bikes! We had a choice of keeping the bikes in our rooms or in the store room. This slideshow gives you an idea of how lovely Nanaimo is.
Getting the Ferry to Newcastle Island
The ferry departs from the Harbourside Walkway. As you can see from the map, the departure point is in the Maffeo Sutton Park. If you have ignored all my suggestions and are arriving by car, you can park at Maffeo Sutton Park, 150 Comox Rd. The first three hours are free, but you are unlikely to be back within three hours.
The ferry system is really quite cute. A friendly woman stands on a floating dock selling color coded tickets. The tiny ferry only takes three bikes at a time, so it is wise to get your tickets as early as possible. Depending on who bought tickets before you, you will likely have to come back in an hour or so to get the next ferry that can accommodate you. The cost for a return ticket is $5, which was by far the best deal of our entire trip. You can read the ferry schedule here.
When the ferry arrived I thought it would never actually fit 12 adults and our 2 bikes, but somehow, it did. I was impressed by the fact that the woman who had sold us our tickets was also very adept at tying up the ferry!
The ferry staff were very professional and very friendly. The trip over is short and lovely. Here is a photo of Maggie and me, squished in underneath our bikes on the ferry.
This map shows the ferry route, plus some of the route we cycled (not all of the route, because I was so busy having fun that I forgot to switch on my GPS tracker). Notice how the satellite shows that there is almost nothing but trees on Newcastle Island.
Cycling on Newcastle Island
Once on the island, you are a stone’s throw from the Saysutshun Bistro, where you can buy a meal or a snack. The cheese smokey I had was excellent! You can also get a beer (in a tin) or a glass of wine, and finish it off with some excellent ice cream. We had a flavor named Moose Tracks, which was delicious. Next time, I am going to try the Maple Walnut! You can read the menu here. You can eat your snack inside the building, on the lovely colonial style verandah, or out in the open in the gardens.
This video starts off just past the restaurant, at the beginning of the Shoreline Trail that goes around the island. It is just a short video to give you an idea of what it is like to cycle on Newcastle Island:
Just past the restaurant is a campsite so beautifully situated that it made me seriously reconsider the vow I took many years ago to never again sleep on the ground if there was a real bed within crawling distance. The campsite looks out onto a beautiful beach, and you can book a campsite here.
After your snack, you can get on your bike and follow the trails wherever you like. Just keep an eye out because some of the trails are marked as not for bikes. The trails are quite narrow, but hikers are very polite and friendly about getting out of the way. It is helpful to have a bicycle bell! Also, there are some small spots where you might not be able to cycle as the ground is so rough. And there are some sudden sharp turns and steep hills, so some getting off and pushing may be required! Here is a slide show to give you some idea of what can be seen on Newcastle Island.
Along the way, we stopped to admire truly fabulous, wild and natural beaches. Unfortunately we forgot to bring swim suits. Every time we stopped, we could just leave our bikes and wander off. It seemed impossible that you could ever get robbed on this friendly little island.
Interesting Facts about Newcastle Island
For most of human history, the island was a fishing spot for Coast Salish people. There were two villages, Saysetsen and Clotsun. Once European settlers arrived, local Chief Che-wech-i-kan told them there was coal on the island. Mining eventually started, and the island was named Newcastle Island after the famous British mining town, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Northumberland, England. You can read about cycling in Northumberland here.
Later, sandstone was mined on the island as well. The old US Mint Building in San Francisco was built of Newcastle Sandstone, and has survived two major earthquakes. It is now a national landmark.
Bottom Line on Bike Riding on Newcastle Island
This was an absolutely lovely day. There was a moment when I said to Maggie, “Stop!”
She asked, “What?”
I said, “Listen.”
We listened. And there was absolutely nothing to listen to. Under a canopy of trees, we were enveloped in complete silence. We had a moment of experiencing a world without cars, and it was heavenly.
In short, if you can get to Newcastle Island with a bike, get on out there and enjoy. It’s a truly unique experience, filled with nature and heavenly silences. And if you’ve already been and have some tips to share, please use the comments below!
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