Campers relax on the beach at Brannen Lake campground.

Campers relax on the beach at Brannen Lake campground.

Best of the City: Nanaimo campgrounds host global visitors

Within minutes of any campground in Nanaimo there are dozens of things to do and places to visit.

Within minutes of any campground in Nanaimo there are dozens of things to do and places to visit, such as beaches, mountain biking, kayaking, hiking, shopping, swimming, restaurants, antique shops, art galleries and artisans’ studios and more.

There’s so much here Nanaimo has become a destination for vacationers who fly in from Europe or locals who drive across town for a weekend getaway.

“Your competition isn’t the other campgrounds,” said Scott Littlejohn, owner of Living Forest Campground and former board member of Tourism Vancouver Island and Tourism Nanaimo. “Your competition is other places in the world people can go visit.”

Littlejohn said people willing to pay the ferry fare to bring an RV to the Island, plan to stay two or three weeks and explore a region around where they’re staying.

“If it’s me, I want to see everywhere around, so our mission is to become aware of all the places on the Island and, particularly in our business, the places that we can happily recommend that they go, not just to see, but places to stay…. We’re all campers. We all get out there and go places too.”

Westwood Lake Campground, located next to Westwood Lake Park has, at its doorstep, swimming, hiking on Westwood Ridge and Mount Benson, mountain biking, fishing and sandy beaches. The campground offers tenting and RV camping and cabins.

“We have outside movie nights,” said Ronda Johnson, who owns the campground with her husband Ian. “We have this big screen we put up and then people come and bring their lawn chairs and sit out and watch these outdoor movie nights that we got going.”

Johnson said campers and even families from around the neighbourhood come out to watch. The Johnsons also take campers on moonlight night hikes around Westwood Lake and host music nights featuring up-and-coming local musicians.

The campsite’s reputation has a long reach and Johnson says a big portion of their guests are from Europe.

“In the last few days I’ve had them from Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and France,” Johnson said. “How they find us? Social media? I don’t know. They just find us. We’re in a book in Germany somewhere and we come highly recommended in there and we don’t advertise in this book, but we’re in this book.”

Word-of-mouth recommendations through social media and travel media from people who’ve visited Nanaimo are doing more to draw visitors here than say one or two large tourist attractions, like a Mount Rushmore or Disney amusement park.

“There’s a lot of talk that we have to have an iconic attraction to become a success,” Littlejohn said. “If we would throw some manpower and money into making better awareness of all the 200 green spaces and parks that we have within our city limits, as well as all of the stuff within an hour’s drive – that’s what people come for.”

By some accounts they’re coming in ever larger droves. Lorraine Caillet, who owns Brannen Lake Campground with her husband Alan, describes the start of the 2016 camping season as “crazy busy.”

“We’ve almost doubled the number of reservations this year from last year,” Caillet. “I can’t explain it, how we’re so busy.”

Caillet said locals are looking for inexpensive getaways close to home.

“Locals” includes virtually anyone from the Island. About 40 per cent come from Nanaimo. The balance tend to come from up- and down-Island and Europe.

“They come to the Island. They want to go to Tofino, Ucluelet – that’s a destination for them – and the Harbour City. A lot of them hang around here, you know. It’s a pretty city. It’s not a big city, but it’s got a lot going on,” she said.

The campsite was booked solid for this year’s May long weekend.

“We’re full for May-long, July-long and August-long already and people call and say, ‘Oh, we’d like to camp for a month,’ Sorry. We’re full,” Caillet said. “It’s unprecedented. It’s kind of cool.”