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By Caralyn Campbell, Vancouver Sun October 2, 2010 Fifteen minutes after takeoff from Seair's Fraser River terminal, our float plane taxied up to the dock in Nanaimo Harbour. Nanaimo is a hardworking Cinderella of a city -- overlooked, undervalued and overshadowed by a royal city sister. oldcityquarterFor me, it was little more than a place to pass through on the way to somewhere else. Not any more. After a tour of the recently revitalized downtown core, with expert guide and third generation Nanaimoite Chelsea Barr, this little city won my heart. Downtown Nanaimo has a refreshingly simple bygone-era, small-town style, with an energetic cultural vibe that is palpable. The downtown core is historically significant because it contains the remnants of one of British Columbia's earliest town plans. Developed in 1862 by the Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company, the plan is based on a series of streets that radiate from a focal point in the Nanaimo Harbour. It resembles a European city centre, complete with public squares, broad main streets and narrow side streets that result in a variety of block sizes and shapes. Substantially intact early commercial buildings are now home to a bohemian collection of art galleries, funky fashion boutiques and inviting sidewalk cafes. George Leschuk took a leap of faith when he purchased the old Nanaimo Free Press building in the early days of the downtown renaissance back in 2003. He converted the two-storey space into Gallery 223, featuring original works by local and international artists, as well as art prints and a wide selection of historical photographs of Nanaimo. The second floor has been converted into seven mini studios showcasing the works of some 18 local artists and one photographer. The downtown Arts District is now home to six galleries, as well as the Nanaimo public art gallery and the Port Theatre, home of the Vancouver Island Symphony. The work of this thriving creative community resulted in Nanaimo receiving the Cultural Capital of Canada designation in 2008. Also downtown (and a good place to start a tour), the newly built Port of Nanaimo Centre houses the Nanaimo Museum, where you can trace the fascinating history of this coal mining town. In the Old City Quarter adjacent to the Arts District, we stopped for lunch at the historic Diner's Rendezvous where I had angel hair pasta with smoked portobello mushrooms, roasted eggplant and roma tomatoes topped with pecorino cheese -- mmm. After lunch we wandered through the eclectic shops, sampled several cupcakes (including a Nanaimo bar version) at the Wee Cupcakery and then waddled across the street to McLean's Specialty Foods. Owner Eric McLean opened his store 18 years ago and is obviously very fond of cheese. He stocks more than 100 cheeses from around the world, as well as a wide range of hard to find ethnic and international foods. I bought a block of Stilton and a triple cream Brillat Savarin brie -- both were the best I've ever tasted. Sadly then, it was time to race to the hotel, grab the luggage and head for the float plane dock. A day and a half is definitely not enough time to take in everything Nanaimo has to offer. I will visit again very soon. NOT DOWNTOWN BUT WORTH THE TRIP HIGH TEA AT THE GRAND HOTEL. Traditional current scones with fresh Devonshire cream, pastries and sandwiches with a choice of 16 premium loose leaf teas. The charming owners and elegant interior, combined with an enthusiastic tour of the garden where olives, figs and even (sheltered) Bougainvillea grow, the Grand was an unexpected treat. www.thegrandhotelnanaimo.com DINNER AT THE DINGHY DOCK PUB. A 10-minute ferry ride from the downtown waterfront takes you to Protection Island, home to Canada's only floating pub. The Dinghy Dock is a friendly, lively pub and family restaurant that is open year-round. The food was described as pub grub but it was so much more. In addition to a fabulously tasty cioppino with super fresh seafood in a perfectly seasoned broth, I sampled the barbecued ribs served with cornbread muffins. Yummy. www.dinghydockpub.com Barton and Leier Gallery and Garden Almost on cue, after a long rainy spell the sun broke through the clouds just as we arrived at the garden gate. A converted barn on the old hobby farm houses a gallery/giftshop that showcases the original artwork of Barton and Leier, as well as a wacky collection of giftware, jewelry, garden accessories and ornaments, games and trinkets unlike anything I've seen. I was on a mission to find a birthday gift for a precocious eight-year-old and a wedding gift for some dear friends and I found them both here. At just under an acre, the 15-year-old garden surrounding the gallery is a maze of winding pathways bordered by unusual plants, peppered with surprising collections of art and objects around every corner. Barton and Leier have recently opened a gallery in the Arts District www.bartonandleiergallery.com LUNCH AT THE CROW AND GATE PUB The Crow and Gate Public House set on ten acres of scenic gardens in Cedar, (15 minutes from downtown Nanaimo) is B.C.'s first neighbourhood pub. Now a well-known landmark and a favourite destination for locals and tourists alike, you won't find more authentic British pub ambience outside the U.K. The menu features all of the traditional British favourites and a few not-so British favourites. My lunch was a plate of fresh pan-fried local oysters, served with tartar sauce and a crispy salad, enjoyed at a sunny table in the garden. www.crowandgate.com IF YOU GO Getting There: - Seair flies from the South Terminal at YVR www.seairseaplanes.com - Harbour Air flies from the South Terminal at YVR and from Coal Harbour. www.harbourair.com - BC Ferries sails from both Horseshoe Bay and Tsawwassen Terminal www.bcferries.com Where To Stay Downtown: From high-end to mid-range to budget, these three come highly recommended. All are within walking distance to everything downtown. - The Coast Bastion www.coasthotels.com - The Dorchester www.dorchesternanaimo.com - Painted Turtle www.paintedturtle.ca