Even in the depths of September, art and music lovers and tourists converge on the little town of Chemainus to stroll around the “Little Town that Could.” Located just one hour north of Victoria and a short distance from Nanaimo, Chemainus is perfectly situated mid-Island.
Chemainus is a small seaside town of only 4,500 residents but it has the hearts of hundreds of thousands more. Whether because of the Chemainus Theatre or the 41 murals, the town bustles all year round. Chemainus gained notoriety in the 1980s when, in an attempt to revitalize the town after the lumber mill closed, the large murals began appearing on the walls of businesses. The murals visually portray the history of Chemainus lending interest and art to barren walls. They proved so popular that the idea of murals has spread around the world. The germ of the idea and much of the implementation came from Karl Schutz, a immigrant who settled in Chemainus in the very early 1950s. Although some say a larger group of seven businessmen helped make the murals a reality.
Through grants, donations, and volunteer efforts the murals began to shape the town and its future.
Today one can take a walking tour with an interpretive guide/actor who will charm you with stories of old Chemainus. “Isabel Askew” was the founding lady of old Chemainus. She guides you along the streets and tells the tales of the founding of the town, her life and her thoughts. Isabel brings the history to life with the aid of her stories and of course the murals which are the starting points to the narrative.
While the town itself has many heritage buildings, the one prominent building with a high dome and distinct Italian flair is the jewel in Chemainus’ crown. The Chemainus Theatre, built in 1993 by Ken and Ruth Smith and LaVerne Erickson through the Oswald Smith Foundation, is one of Vancouver Island’s favourite surprises. Boasting over 100 live performances over the past 18 years, the theatre is a testament to a vision. The foundation built and provided support for the theatre for the first five years. It succeeded far beyond the initial expectations.
“There were times when there was only eight people in the audience,” said long time theatre volunteer Betty Short. But perseverance and a belief in good theatre prevailed and the theatre spawned a hotel. The Best Western Chemainus Inn is a partner with the theatre in that they provide theatre packages allowing patrons to enjoy dinner, the theatre and a one or two night stay. The theatre’s dining room is the perfect pre-show dinner venue with an inventive menu and great ambiance. Stroll down the winding staircase just in time to take your seat in the theatre. Raised seating means everyone has an excellent seat.
From Nov. 11 to Dec. 31 enjoy a Countryside Christmas.
Countryside Christmas is a warm, laughter filled holiday comedy. Meet everyone’s favourite family, “The Cornwalls” in their country cottage on Christmas Eve as they share their family, holiday cheer and songs with you including classic Christmas songs, as well as songs from James Taylor, John Denver, Karen Carpenter and many, many more. For more information on theatre and the productions go to: www.chemainus theatrefestival.ca.
A stroll through town to see the murals, a lovely dinner and evening of theatre evening, finished off with a night in a comfortable hotel makes for a wonderful getaway without having to hop a ferry or drive too far.
Chemainus, working on its motto, “The Little Town that Could,” has come up with another way to promote the town. Chemainus Dollars were unveiled in 2010 and are similar to Salt Spring Dollars. The bills are little bits of art to be used or stowed away.
Robin Courtright, assistant manager for the Credit Union in Chemainus said they were created as, “another way to promote the town.”
“The dollars are very beautiful,” she said, “and they incorporate the murals.”
The dollars are backed by Canadian currency and can be used anywhere in Chemainus. Most, though, are taken away by tourists as souvenirs.
Chemainus has it all — interesting shops and recreational opportunities abound, making this little town a pleasant place to discover whether for a day or a weekend. The Cowichan Valley is a great place to find secret pieces of Vancouver Island — one hour out of Victoria and you are transported back in time. Take the scenic route, daydream just a little, let your imagination soar and discover what Island living is all about.