Located on Vancouver Island’s eastern shore, Chemainus is nestled between the mountains and the sea. Its name comes from the First Nations shaman, prophet, and leader “Tsa-meeun-is” (Broken Chest) of the Stz’uminus First Nations. Legend says the man survived a massive wound in his chest to become a powerful chief. This beautiful seaside community of approximately 3,000 is more than just a pretty little town with quaint houses and beautiful gardens; it’s a year-round destination for boaters drawn by the town’s outdoor art gallery, the largest in British Columbia.
Chemainus is one of the oldest European settlements on the island. The first settlers arrived in the 1850s establishing farmlands, and in 1862, built a small water-powered sawmill along the eastern shoreline of town. This site was the delivery point of the only steam rail logging operation in British Columbia—Copper Canyon Railway. For one hundred years, Chemainus remained a one-industry town, boasting one of the world’s largest sawmills.
When the mill closed and economic hard times hit in the early 1980s, the civic and business leaders gambled that painting larger than life murals on buildings would attract enough tourists to sustain the economy. With the imagination and energy of the entire community, the little town found a new life by putting on a new face. Five murals were painted in 1982, and civic leaders were encouraged when bus tours began stopping to allow riders to view the paintings. Over the years, the town has transformed itself into Canada’s largest permanent outdoor art gallery, capturing and expressing its history, people, and future through murals. This remarkable and continuing achievement has earned Chemainus the reputation as “The Little Town That Did” and made it a world-famous attraction.
These days, tens of thousands of visitors make their way to Chemainus annually to follow the yellow footprints on the sidewalks or take a guided horse-drawn carriage tour through the streets to view the 53 murals that adorn buildings and ten sculptures depicting the town’s early history. Boat friendly Chemainus is more than world-class murals and arts, it also has mountain vistas, a saltwater playground, and much more.
Shop ’til you Drop
Chemainus is divided into two main areas: Old Town near the marina that’s full of quaint old buildings; and Downtown, the center of the business district. The Downtown streets are intriguing with potted flowers, sections of lawn, and alleyways leading to public spaces and delightful cafes. The city’s many shops reflect Chemainus’ rich history, and a wide variety of unique items can be found as you walk about.
Willow Street is notable for a long stretch of visitor-oriented shops and eateries. Many of the shops along Willow Street are painted with bright cheerful colors and designed to exercise the imagination. Chemainus boasts several wonderful antiques shops where you can spend hours searching for treasures. Gift shop and art galleries also abound, offering some of the island’s best pottery and native and local artworks.
A well-loved summer tradition is the Giant Street Market held on the first Saturday in July. This one-day event draws in people from all over Vancouver Island and beyond. More than a hundred vendors gather and line Willow Street, offering a wide variety of products, goods, and services.
Long before European explorers landed on the shores of Vancouver Island, the Stz’uminus First Nations were enjoying the natural bounty of the harbor and land. The Stz’uminus are part of the Coast Salish People. Little written history exists, most of the history being passed down by word of mouth. A common language existed, which was associated with the Vancouver Island Coast Salish who spoke the Hul’quminum dialect. The abundant forest, mainly cedar, provided materials for shelters and canoes. Maple and alders were used for smoking fish. Tribal herbal remedies were used for disease and infection.
Today, not only can this history be seen in the town’s murals, the Stz’uminus First Nations have established thriving businesses. Native art flourishes here and there are many accomplished artists and canoe carvers.
Music in the Park
Waterwheel Park is where visitors can discover forested ground with trails wandering between a playground for children, benches for relaxing, a bandshell with seating, and a working replica of the waterwheel that powered the sawmill in 1862. There are various performances at the bandshell throughout the year, including Music in the Park, featuring headliners along with local talent on Tuesday evenings during the summer, two-day Blues Festival and a Bluegrass Festival in July, and in August, there is the Accordion Festival and Chemainus Jazz Festival.
Waterwheel Park is also the site of the Chemainus Wednesday Market. The farmers market runs from the last week of May until the end of September every year, featuring local and regional produce, flowers, baked goods, and crafts.
Dinner and Theatre
Located on the southwest corner of town in an impressive Italianate-style building is the 270-seat Chemainus Theatre, offering an excellent view from every seat. Within are the Playbill Dining Room, an ever-changing art gallery, and professional actors who perform plays and musicals.
The Chemainus Theatre is one of the town’s crown jewels and a world-class performing arts center. The theatre presents live professional entertainment year-round, bringing some of the best stage actors, plays, musicals, comedies, and contemporary favorites to town. It is award winning and supported by an internationally renowned theatre company whose performances attract 80,000 people annually.
The theatre experience begins before opening curtain in the Playbill Dining Room. Great food, warm hospitality, and live music ensure your visit is a special occasion and a delectable start to every performance. The executive chef presents prepares a show-themed buffet, as creative as the production, featuring an impressive hot meal with a fresh seasonal salad bar. The dinner theatre is a popular activity for yacht club rendezvous in Chemainus.
Peak into The Past
Located next to Waterwheel Park are the Visitor Centre and the Chemainus Museum. Stop by the Visitor Centre and ask to see the book Water Over the Wheel, where you can find the photographs that gave the mural artists their ideas. Or, pick up a map to locate beaches and forest with miles of trails; suited for hiking, exploring or simply sauntering with the family. All trails are dog friendly.
The Chemainus Valley Museum is operated by the Chemainus Valley Historical Society, a non-profit organization and provides a peak into Chemainus’s past. Here visitors discover the original paintings of many of town’s murals. Off to the side of the Museum is a wonderful observation point, which overlooks the site of the first and present sawmill. Looking out, you can see the large ships, log booms, and busy harbor framed by the beautiful Gulf Islands.
Chemainus, British Columbia
Chemainus may be small and remote, but you could dine your way through town enjoying excellent Canadian and international cuisine. For a southeast Asian culinary experience try @Thai Pinto Cuisine. The restaurant is in a classic old Chemainus building, with a small, covered patio for the warmer months, and offers delicious authentic Thai dishes with amazing flavors! Reservations are a good idea. For another Asian taste, there’s Pho Triple 7 that specializes in Vietnamese cuisine.
Odika Café’s global cuisine offers an eclectic menu featuring dishes from Africa to Asia to Sicily to New York. Odika fuses global and domestic cuisine to create a unique experience.
A lunch favorite is Willow Street Café with outdoor dining on its front deck and freshly prepared wraps, quesadillas, sandwiches, bagels, pizza and quiche. There is a full espresso bar, fruit smoothies, Italian sodas, juices and more.
For dessert, head across the street to Baby Bear Ice Cream Shoppe with a large selection of flavors in soft and hard ice cream and frozen yogurt. Although be forewarned, the Daddy Bear ice cream is very large.