Newcastle Island is a little haven from Nanaimo’s city bustle. Located just across the water from the downtown area, it is remarkable that somewhere so tranquil exists so close to all of the ferry and city traffic.
With gravel beaches, beautiful views and some great walking/biking trails, Newcastle Island (also known as Saysutshun) makes for a relaxing yet adventurous day trip from Vancouver Island.
Read on for our Newcastle Island day trip experience followed by a trip planning guide.
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The history of Saysutshun
The island of Saysutshun is part of Snuneymuxw First Nation Traditional Territory. The island was a popular living place during the herring run in late winter and early spring. It was also a source for natural medicine and spiritual healing.
The meaning of Saysutchun is ‘training for running’ – canoe paddlers, runners and warriors would bathe here before preparing for the task ahead.
Once owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway, Newcastle Island was previously operated as a pleasure resort in the 1940’s and 50’s. Before this, it had been plundered for sandstone, mined for coal, used as a shipyard and a base for a fish-salting operation.
The ‘Newcastle Island’ name originates from the British coal miners who worked on the island in the late 19th century. Three of them decided to name their new home after one of Britain’s largest coal towns. The local First Nations had also mined coal here too, long before the British arrived
Nowadays, the island is part of Snuneymuxw First Nation Traditional Territory and is also Provincial Park. Saysutshun offers visitor facilities including a cafe, camping and 22km of walking trails and camping.
Details of the mining and pleasure resort days of Newcastle Island are also described on the various walking trail interpretive signage.
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. It is possible to see some of the mine shafts in the forests of Saysutshun even now.
The stone was used to build a number of notable buildings around North America. A few examples include the US Mint in San Francisco and the British Columbia Penitentiary in New Westminster.
The ghost of Newcastle Island?
One of the most memorable parts 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 cemeteries at the time.
This was not his final resting place, however. 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 wildlife of Newcastle Island
Visitors share Newcastle Island’s facilities with a resident group of racoons, some of which are golden (albino) in colour. We were lucky enough to spot one of these while walking around the island, but it was far too quick for us to take a photo of! Side note, did you know that a group of racoons is called a gaze?
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 of the routes lead to lookouts and others to historic sites.
Newcastle Island: What you need to know
Saysutshun, or Newcastle Island, is an ideal day trip and overnight camping destination from central Vancouver Island. With 22km of hiking and cycling trails, numerous beaches and great views, the island is lovely place to explore and enjoy being in nature. Being boat access only, Saysutshun is wonderfully quiet and peaceful.
Here’s everything you need to know about exploring Newcastle Island near Nanaimo.
Things to do on Saysutshun (Newcastle Island)
- Hike the easy Coastal Trail around the perimeter of the Island (7.5km – about 2 hours)
- Swim at Kanaka Bay or Brownie Bay
- Check the views at the Giovando Lookout
- Take a interpretive walking tour with a Snuneymuxw guide and learn about the traditions and cultural history of Saysutshun (extra charge)
- Bike the Mallard Lake Trail, Kanaka Bay Trail and the Shoreline Trail
- Go beachcombing
- Have a meal at the Saysutshun Bistro, located in a restored 1930’s teahouse
- Learn more about mining at the pulpstone quarry (interpretive signage)
- See the sandstone mine shafts in the forest on the west side
- Eat a picnic with a view
- Try to spot the white raccoons (birdwatching is also fun)
- Stay overnight at one of the 18 campsites
There are also special events from time to time, such as traditional salmon barbecues. Tickets are usually available from the Snuneymuxw band office in Nanaimo.
How to get to Newcastle Island – ferry service
Most visitors to Newcastle Island/Saysutshun arrive via the dedicated foot passenger ferry service.
- The ferry to Newcastle Island runs multiple times daily from May to October
- During peak season (June to mid September), there is a ferry almost every half hour
- Ferries also runs on a limited schedule from late February to May – usually 9 ferry crossings to the island in the morning and early afternoon, and 9 trips back until mid afternoon
- The full and up to date Newcastle Island schedule can be found here
- The return fee for 2019 is $8/adult and $5/child (aged 12 and under) and can be paid by credit card, debit or cash
- There is an extra fee for bikes and other large equipment
- Dogs are welcome to visit the Island but must be on a leash
- The journey time is 10 minutes
- The ferry dock on the Nanaimo side is found at Maffeo Sutton Park, just to the north of downtown
- Maffeo Sutton Park has paid parking but the first three hours are free during 8am – 5pm. After 5pm, it offers free parking. 24 hour parking tickets are available
How to get to Newcastle Island – private boat
It is possible to visit Newcastle Island at your leisure, if you happen to have some kind of boat. And that includes a kayak or canoe!
We parked up just off Highway 1 and launched our canoe at one of the many marinas south of Departure Bay ferry terminal.
Landing on Newcastle Island around 20 minutes after setting out, it was an easy paddle. The only hindrance was a bit of chop shortly before arriving on the Island. We found it straightforward to land just west of the ferry dock on Newcastle Island.
Larger boats can moor at Newcastle Island for up to two weeks, with the spots available all year round and allocated on a first come, first serve system. Boat owners can either moor at the dock or to a buoy. There are nightly fees, payable to a Park Facility Officer in the main season (April to mid October) and a self registration box the rest of the year.
Camping on Newcastle Island
There are 18 walk in campsites on Saysutshun. All are located in the front behind an open grassy area, within a short walk from the ferry dock and also the beach. Camping facilities include:
- Flush toilets and outhouses
- Potable water
- Lockers to protect food from the raccoons
- Coin operated hot showers
- Campfire rings (check local regulations first)
- Picnic tables
- Barbecue shelter
The camping fee is $18 per site, per night. The maximum camping party size is eight, with up to four adults allowed. Reservations are highly recommended in summer and can most easily made on the BC Parks Discover Camping website.
Newcastle Island also has five group sites available to rent by larger camping parties.
Not keen on camping and looking for somewhere to stay near Newcastle Island?
Buccaneer Inn – Very close to the water, located opposite the island
Coast Bastion Hotel – Situated downtown, short drive from Newcastle Island ferry dock
Campbell Cottage B&B – Great value
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One half of the Canadian/British couple behind Off Track Travel, Gemma is happiest when hiking on the trail or planning the next big travel adventure. JR and Gemma are currently based in the beautiful Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada