Saysutshun, or 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 scenic beaches, gorgeous ocean views and historically rich walking/biking trails, Newcastle Island makes for a relaxing yet still adventurous day trip from Vancouver Island. It’s also possible to camp overnight!
This post will share everything you need to know about visiting Newcastle Island in Nanaimo, including the best things to do and how to get there.
Saysutshun is one of our favourite places around Vancouver Island and we have visited a number of times over the years. I most recently spent a day on the island in June 2023.
This post was last updated in July 2023.
A brief history of Saysutshun
The island of Saysutshun is part of Snuneymuxw First Nation Traditional Territory.
For time immemorial, Saysutshun was a popular living place for the Snuneymuxw during the herring run in late winter and early spring. It was a source for natural medicine and spiritual healing as well.
The meaning of the island’s name is ‘training for running‘ – canoe paddlers, runners and warriors would bathe here before preparing for the task ahead.
Europeans arrived in the mid 19th century and started to mine coal here. Three of the first coal miners decided to name their new home after one of Britain’s largest coal towns.
The coal mines ran out in 1883. By then, demand for the island’s supply of sandstone was far higher anyway. An appealing white-grey colour, Saysutshun’s sandstone also held up very well against weathering.
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 on BC’s Lower Mainland.
Saysutshun in the 20th century
A small Japanese settlement was established on the west side of Saysutshun in 1910. A saltery and shipyard was operated here until 1941, when the Japanese community were sent to internment camps elsewhere in BC.
Sandstone was quarried on Saysutshun until 1932, the year after the island was purchased by the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company.
Newcastle Island, as it was now known, was then operated as a pleasure resort. A dance pavilion, soccer field, teahouse and wading pool were built during this time.
In 1961, Newcastle Island Marine Provincial Park was established. In recent years, the Saysutshun name has been added.
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 were not allowed to 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.
Things to do on Saysutshun/Newcastle Island
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. Accessible via boat only, Saysutshun is wonderfully quiet and peaceful.
Hiking on Newcastle Island
One of the best things to do on Saysutshun is to hike part of the island’s coastline.
The most popular route is the 2km section of the Shoreline Trail from the ferry dock to Kanaka Bay. Plan for the return trip to take around an hour. The trail is almost completely flat the entire way (suitable for strollers).
Kanaka Bay is a great place to have lunch, relax, beachcomb or even swim. There are beautiful views of nearby Protection Island as well as Gabriola Island and the mountains across the Salish Sea.
Looking for a longer adventure?
Continue along the Shoreline Trail to the Giovando Lookout at the northern tip of the island (additional 2km one way).
The path is a little more rugged along this section. It’s narrower, a bit rooty and has some small ups and downs. There are some pretty large trees to see along the way.
If you have the time and energy, it is possible to continue around the perimeter of Saysutshun.
BC Parks reports the distance to be around 7.5km – personally, I think it is more like 8.5km. Plan for a three hour hike, taking in all lookouts, mine shaft and sandstone quarry (more details below).
Connect with the cultural history of Saysutshun
Saysutshun is a special place for the Snuneymuxw people.
According to the official website, when someone passed away in the community, loved ones would go to the island to yu’thuy’thut. This refers to physical and spiritual healing, a time to fix up heart, mind and body and let go of tears.
There is a Snuneymuxw totem pole located near the ferry dock. This is the meeting point for interpretive walking tours, which run on selected days. Led by a Snuneymuxw guide (Nadine, the island’s caretaker), these nature walks share the traditions and cultural history of Saysutshun. Booking recommended.
Discover Newcastle Island’s mining past
Visitors can explore three significant mining sites on Newcastle Island.
The first is located very close to the ferry dock. The Pulp Stone Quarry showcases a number of large pulp stones, which were used to grind up wood in local paper mills. There is some interpretive signage.
The other two sites are found on the western side of the island. The Sandstone Quarry is located 2.5km from the ferry dock, on the Channel Trail. Newcastle Island’s famous sandstone was processed here, as indicated by the piles of sandstone blocks that surround the trail.
It is also worth visiting this area to see the Zephyr sandstone column, which were originally intended for the San Francisco Mint building. The 8.8km long, 40 ton column on display was part of a shipment lost to the ocean when the Zephyr ship was grounded on the shores of Mayne Island.
Just a little further up the trail is the Mine Shaft (850m from the Sandstone Quarry).
Consider exploring Newcastle Island for more than just one day and camp overnight. There are 18 walk-in campsites on Saysutshun plus five group sites, all located within an easy, flat stroll from the ferry dock.
The camping fee is $18 per site, per night, which is a bargain considering the peaceful-yet-still-urban location.
The campground is located close to the main Visitor Centre, with some of the group sites situated in a field immediately adjacent to the building.
The individual campsites are nicely paced along a path, most offering a high degree of privacy. Peek through views can be seen from some of the sites.
Saysutshun is home to a variety of animals, the most unusual being a group of raccoons, some of which are golden (albino) in colour.
We were lucky to spot some on our very first visit to Newcastle Island back in 2014 (I love raccoons!) The story of the white racoons is shared on the official Saysutshun website.
Aside from raccoons, there are plenty of Canada geese and other birds roaming the island. Seals are a fairly common sight.
There is also the chance to see whales as they swim in the Salish Sea, including the majestic orca. So be sure to keep your eyes peeled while exploring!
Other things to do on Saysutshun
- Explore the island by bike (bring your own or rent). Bikes are allowed Mallard Lake Trail, Kanaka Bay Trail and parts of the Shoreline Trail
- Swim in the ocean. Yep, it does get warm enough to warm off the shores off Saysutshun! The most ideal spot is just to the east of the ferry dock. Kanaka Bay is also a good place to go. Please note that there are no lifeguards anywhere on the island
- Go paddling. Jeff’s Rentals is close to the ferry dock and rents paddleboards, kayaks and paddleboats as well as bikes. Operating hours are flexible but generally 9am to 6pm in the summer months
- Fishing. It is possible to fish from the ferry wharf and also from shore. The appropriate fishing license is required
- Go beachcombing. Kanaka Bay and Brownie Bay are great spots to explore the coastline (children should be supervised)
- Have a meal at the Saysutshun concession. Located in the restored 1930’s teahouse, the concession serves up fast food favourites plus chowder and ramen from mid June to the end of summer
- Eat a picnic with a view. Of course, you can bring your own food to Saysutshun too. There are plenty of picnic tables around the ferry dock area
- Relax! Newcastle Island is the ideal place to take a break. Besides the beaches, I’d recommend walking to Bate Point (southwest side) and taking in the views of Nanaimo
How to get to Newcastle Island
As mentioned, Newcastle Island is only accessible by boat.
Most visitors to Newcastle Island/Saysutshun arrive via the dedicated foot passenger ferry service, which runs multiple times daily from May to October.
- During peak season (June to mid September), there is a ferry almost every half hour
- The current schedule can be found on the official website
- The ferry journey time is 10 minutes
- The ferry dock on the Nanaimo side is found at Maffeo Sutton Park, just to the north of downtown
- Parking is available in Maffeo Sutton Park- $9/24 hour day or by the hour. Evenings, weekends and statutory holidays are free
- The return fee for 2023 is $15/adult and $7/child (aged 12 and under) and can be paid by credit card, debit or cash
- Pets are $5, equipment $2 and bikes $5. Electric and motorised bikes are not permitted
- Groups of 12 or more should make a reservation at least 4 days in advance
If you happen to own some kind of boat, you can visit Newcastle Island at your leisure.
Larger boats can moor at Newcastle Island for up to two weeks, with 50 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 (June to early September) and a self registration box the rest of the year.
It is also possible to reach Newcastle Island by 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 boat dock.
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. There are some green carts by the ferry dock for campers to use.
The campground is frontcountry standard, with nicely spaced spots, each with a picnic table and fire pit as well as a food locker.
My favourite campsites are numbers 13 and 9 since they offer great privacy and water views.
All campers have access to potable drinking water, coin operated hot showers, outhouse and flush toilets. The campsites are surrounded by trees, which provides a good amount of shade throughout the day.
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 and can be made via the BC Parks’ website (look for Newcastle Island, not Saysutshun). The reservation fee is $6/night.
The system works on a four month booking window. Summer weekend availability disappears first, with some summer weeknights sometimes still available last minute in July. August tends to be the busier month, at least until the last week.
Newcastle Island also has five group sites available to rent by larger camping parties, each with picnic shelters.
Accommodation near Newcastle Island
Not keen on camping and looking for somewhere to stay close to Newcastle Island? Affiliate links below – if you make a booking via one of these links, we may receive a small percentage of the stay.
The Buccaneer Inn is located opposite the island, with beautiful coastal views offered from some rooms. The motel style accommodation is modern and comfortable.
The Coast Bastion Hotel is situated in downtown Nanaimo, just a short walk from Maffeo Sutton Park and the ferry dock. Some rooms have views of the harbour.
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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