Newcastle Island is a little haven from Nanaimo’s city bustle. Located just along the water from the downtown area, it was wonderful to find somewhere so tranquil existing so close to all of the ferry and city traffic. With gravel beaches, beautiful views and some great walking/biking trails, Newcastle Island makes for a lovely day trip from Vancouver Island.
An island escape
Formerly owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway until 1955, Newcastle Island was previously operated as a pleasure resort. Before this, it had been plundered for sandstone, used as a shipyard and a base for a fish-salting operation. Its earliest use (that we know of) was a late summer camp for the Salish, a First Nation group.
Nowadays the island is a Provincial Park and offers visitor facilities including a cafe, camping and 22km of walking trails and camping. Visitors share these provisions with a resident group of racoon (a ‘gaze’ as I have just learned), some of which are golden (albino) in colour. We were lucky enough to spot one of these, but it was far too quick to take a photo of!
Aside from racoons, we also saw plenty of Canada geese and other birds. There were no orca whales passing that day unfortunately but there were lots of kayakers out and about as well as larger boats. The hiking trails are well signed and criss cross all around the island, some leading to lookouts and others to historic sites.
Ghosts and stone
The most memorable part of the island’s history refers to Kanaka Pete. He was a man of Hawaiian descent who murdered four members of his family with an axe after his wife attempted to leave him. Kanaka Pete was found guilty of murder and hung in Nanaimo in 1869. His body was buried on Newcastle Island as people of non-English or First Nation descent could not be laid to rest in the city’s cemetaries. This was not his final resting place however, as his body was later dug up again by a coal mining company. Some claim his spirit haunts Newcastle Island, with chopping noises heard around Kanaka Bay on the Eastern coast.
The mining and pleasure resort days of Newcastle Island are intriguing too, described on the various information boards found on the walking trails. The sandstone on Newcastle Island was held in high regard in the late 19th century, being an appealing white-grey colour and holding up well against weathering. The stone was used to build a number of notable buildings around North America including the US Mint in San Francisco and the British Columbia Penitentiary in New Westminster.
The foot passenger ferry to Newcastle Island runs daily from May to October, but you can visit anytime if you have some kind of boat. And that includes a kayak or canoe! We parked up just off Highway 1 and launched at one of the many marinas south of Departure Bay ferry terminal. Landing just west of the ferry dock around 20 minutes after setting out, it was an easy paddle but did become a little choppy after reaching the southern end of the marina area. The ferry costs around $9 per person, so paddling means more ice creams all around…