Looking for an easy getaway? Why not Nanaimo?

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      As a kid growing up in Victoria, I would sometimes hear disparaging comments about Nanaimo. Back then, it was the industrial hub of Vancouver Island, known mainly for its pulp mill, biker gang, and those creamy chocolate treats that carry its name.

      The "full Nanaimo" was a derogatory term for a man dressed in white shoes, a white belt, and white or polyester pants. It was the antithesis of being hip and likely arose in response to the sartorial habits of Nanaimo's flamboyant former mayor, Frank Ney, who defined the city for two generations of British Columbians.

      In fact, Nanaimo has undergone a major metamorphosis since Ney left office in 1990. This weekend, I visited the Harbour City for the Victoria Day long weekend to get a little rest and relaxation, enjoy the historic old town, and check out the Harbourfront Walkway and the 336-hectare Newcastle Island Marine Provincial Park.

      One of the charms of Nanaimo is that it's easy to reach from Vancouver, even if you don't have a car. You can hop on a bus to the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal and it's a short taxi ride from Nanaimo's Departure Bay terminal to the downtown core. Or you can cycle the distance if you bring a bike onto the ferry. Of course, you can also fly harbour-to-harbour.

      Upon arrival, I headed to one of the city's funkiest restaurants, the Vault (499 Wallace Street), for a delicious French-onion grilled-cheese sandwich topped off with black coffee.

      With its collection of paintings, retro furniture from different eras, and extensive collection of books, the Vault is unlike any establishment I've visited in the Lower Mainland. I could have stayed for hours in this place, which seemed more like an old house than a commercial place of business.

      Downtown Nanaimo's landmark cooking, living, and furniture store, the Flying Fish (180 Commercial Street), is another worthwhile stop. Occupying 6,400 square feet in a 110-year-old heritage building, the Flying Fish has some amusing items on sale, such as faux-fur, faux dogs and cats that actually look like they're sleeping and breathing.

      Lovers of literature would enjoy browsing through used bookstores on Commercial Street. There's also a large public library branch in the area.

      On this day, there was plenty of live music taking place in Diana Krall Square, which is named after the city's most famous resident. It was part of the May long weekend Nanaimo Heritage Days celebration.

      For dinner, I tried the muttar paneer and butter chicken at Tandoori Junction (489 Wallace Street). You never know what you're going to get at Indian restaurants and I've been disappointed by some of them in Victoria. This meal, however, was superb, with just the right amount of seasoning to set off my taste buds. The waiter was an articulate Bihari from Mumbai who kept me abreast of the latest political developments in his home country.

      The skies lit up over Nanaimo last night.

      The evening ended with a fireworks display in the harbour. The show was sponsored by Tilray, which is the large Nanaimo-based licensed medical-marijuana producer.

      Today, there's a parade along Front and Commercial streets. Then it will be back to Vancouver to rejoin the rat race.