Round About the Neighbourhood

You know it’s a great neighbourhood when you can hop on your bike, head down the hill to the waterfront and a very small ferry, with your destination Newcastle Island, Saysatshun, an island provincial park that is part of Snuneymuxw First Nation Traditional Territory.

Newcastle’s rich history goes back centuries, but my own Newcastle history goes back to age 11 when we joined several other families for an island picnic in one of the shelters on the wide expanse of lawn. It’s been a family tradition ever since, hauling picnics or camping gear on the little ferry or private boats, trailing swimming gear and hats, frisbees, cameras. There is a huge rock in one of the bays that I always think of as Caoimhe’s Rock: we have a series of photos of her on it, from when she was small yet lithe and limber enough to clamber up on to it. Even to me, it looks smaller every year now.

The island’s history, of course, is much more interesting than my story, with coal mine shafts crisscrossing underneath the water the ferry chugs over, and mine shaft openings still to be found on the island itself. There is a quarry with one of the huge sandstone columns that came from there but ended up on the bottom of the ocean when the Zephyr sank on its journey to the San Francisco Mint. Also on the west side of the island are the ruins of a pre-World War II Japanese herring saltery. There is old growth forest, an Indian midden, and the spot where a Hawaiian islander sentenced to hanging for murder was buried in an unmarked grave.

The Canadian Pacific Steamship Company bought the island in 1931 and used it for company picnics and dances, with a tearoom, dancehall, wading pool and picnic grounds, tying up steamships – first Charmer, then Princess Victoria –  to use as a floating hotel. The steamships are long gone and the wading pool is empty, but the dancehall pavilion remains (and serves ice cream!) and of course picnics are part of a Newcastle Island day.

Our history meeting island history on other visits.

But before the saltery and the quarry and the posh picnics, there is a history of living and healing in this space.

Preceding European discovery there were two villages on the island: Saysetsen and Clotsun (‘protector’). Snuneymuxw people now tell of how Saysutshun was a retreat for grieving, a place set apart to “yu’thuy’thut, to fix up their heart, mind and body and let go of their tears.”* Truly a well-being centre, plants for traditional medicines grow in abundance and were carefully maintained there, and athletes ran the island trails for training.

There is still something about it, a place apart. Before I heard it was a place of healing, I knew I breathe differently there. Time seems suspended on the island and although there are vantage points where you can see Nanaimo, it feels like you are very far away.


Newcastle Island from Maffeo Sutton Park, with Protection Island on the right, and the Coastal mountains of the mainland in the background. Ten minutes, and many centuries, away.


Still a wonderful place for walks (or running!), but some of the trails allow bicycles: Mallard Lake, Kanaka Bay and Shoreline Trails.



There is nothing like the scents and sounds of a forest to bring healing and calm to your head. Dappled light and shade, bird calls, insects humming. A dry leaf fell from a tree, crashing into a cacophony of branches on its way down; in the stillness even its landing was loud.


Lots of reasons to pause on the trails; always something interesting to look at, including the air shaft from the Newcastle Mine.

We finished off the ‘walk’ with a very quick – yet invigorating – dip at our favourite beach. My first ocean swim of the season: breath-catching and blood-tingling!

Then it was back on to the ferry and up the hill home, both of us breathing a little easier.


Historical details and * quote from the Newcastle Island website,  also BC Parks Brochure. Island map here. To read more about Snuneymuxw culture and history, visit their website.

My two other walks about the neighbourhood were Old City Quarter and downtown and Bowen Park and Buttertubs Marsh.

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