I always like to tell people that as a Realtor, I’m not so much a sales person as I am a Match Maker. I introduce people to homes, until they fall in love with one – and then I’m a Wedding Planner!
Well, recently I myself said “I do” to purchasing a cute little hobby farm just outside of Chemainus, on Vancouver Island. And I’m here to tell you, that honeymoon is still going strong! I just LOVE it here!
Let’s Start with the Murals
Chemainus is one of the most interesting small towns on Vancouver Island. The community literally wears its history on its sleeve – you can’t walk half a block in the charming downtown without pausing to marvel at one of the building-sized, hand painted historic murals for which the town is internationally famous.
Striking images, some small and tucked away and some two stories high, evoke the indigenous heritage of the area, as well as vignettes of local Pioneers from the Age of Steam and Rail. Still others celebrate the local Asian community and culture, life in the Early Years, and the Logging activities that allowed the town to grow and prosper since its founding in 1858. And what’s great is that the people painted on those buildings, those faces of history, have literally become permanent residents!
The thing I love most about the Chemainus Murals, though, is not the fine artwork or the substantial historic significance, but rather the reason for those murals being there in the first place. You see, a while back, the people of Chemainus got hit with some real economic hardship. And they could have packed it in, abandoned ship, and moved on – but they didn’t. They got smart, they got creative, and they saved their little town.
In the early 1980’s, the Forestry industry in BC was hit by a big recession, and the sawmill in Chemainus (the largest employer in town) was forced to close its doors after 120 years of operation. Almost 700 people became unemployed, in a community of less than 4,000 people. In many other places, at many other times, this type of disaster has completely broken the spirit of the community and created almost an instant ghost town. But not in Chemainus!
In 1983, local businessman Dr. Karl Schutz pioneered the concept of “painting history on the walls” of Chemainus and creating an “outdoor art gallery”. An organization known as the Festival of Murals Society was established to oversee and preserve the murals project. You’ve heard the expression, “If you build it, they will come”? Well, that’s exactly what happened in Chemainus. From potential economic collapse to international tourist destination welcoming hundreds of thousands of visitors every year – all because, in the words of Dr. Schutz, “never let those who say it can’t be done, stand in the way of those who are doing it”.
Isn’t that an inspirational story? Chemainus was known ever after as “the Little Town That Did”, and I just think that’s amazing. They also inspired other communities in Canada and around the world – such as Botwood, Newfoundland, where my father, Mike Shainline, was actually the President of the Botwood Mural Arts Society!
But Oh, the FOOD!
Before you start wandering around Chemainus appreciating all the murals, though, make sure you fortify yourself with a coffee and one of the many delectable delights served up at the Ma Maison Café, serving a mix of local farm-to-table style fresh baked goods and deli style breakfast and lunch menus. It’s absolutely my favourite because it belongs to local Chef Lauren Cartmel, a Vancouver Island girl who worked at top restaurants in Vancouver, London, and Beverly Hills before recently returning to the Island and the beautiful Cowichan Valley. Ma Maison has a great atmosphere and a wonderful back patio garden!
A great place to stop for lunch is the Willow Street Café, in the yellow two-story building right on – well, on Willow Street. It has an outdoor patio that’s a great spot in the summertime to sit and sip a beer while you’re people-watching.
For a great dinner with a mouth-watering selection of BC wines, I highly recommend the Odika Café on Mill Street. International cuisine including African lamb shanks and roasted wild mushroom ravioli – and you HAVE to finish with their sinful flourless chocolate cake. Not to be missed!
And of course, the Secret Garden in downtown Chemainus hosts some fun candy and ice cream shops, and is a great place to take a momentary respite from the rigours of shopping and mural appreciating.
And Oh! The SHOPS!
Chemainus is the place to go when you want to putter around and poke into neat shops of all kinds – antiques, home décor, hand-made crafts and knickknacks, – there’s literally something for everyone. But one of the coolest shops in town, hands down, is the Christmas Shop – I could spend HOURS in there! Just make sure you finish your ice cream first!
One of the really neat businesses in Chemainus is the “Back To Britain Pubs” showroom. The service these folks will provide is to build an authentic British pub right in your own home! Their showroom is AWESOME (you usually need to call ahead) and full of old-country odds and sods. Definitely worth checking out!
And of Course, the Theatre!
No trip (or relocation) to Chemainus would be complete without taking in the dramatic arts at the Chemainus Theatre Festival. Performances run year-round; be sure to get dinner reservations as well, the buffet is sumptuous but the desserts are to die for. I love the theatre because its history and genesis was closely tied to – you guessed it – the murals that flowered in Chemainus in the 1980’s and became such a sensation. Ken and Ruth Smith, in cooperation with Dan Sawatzky and architect Shane Davis, built the now-iconic domed theatre building in 1993. In that same year the building won the award as the “best building on Vancouver Island” and has been welcoming visitors both local and international every season since. Performances run Wednesdays through Sundays virtually every week of the year.
…There’s So Much More!
It looks like I’ll have to continue this love letter in another instalment – there’s so much more to tell! There’s Waterwheel Park, Stocking Creek Falls, the sunken 737 airplane that scuba divers love exploring – the stately and adorable character houses throughout the neighbourhoods – there’s no end to the awesomeness of this little town!
Until the next time then!