Hitting the trail in Nanaimo

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Would you like to hit the trail in Nanaimo, British Columbia? No, I don’t mean a hiking trail that climbs through a Vancouver Island rainforest or a path that skirts the scenic coast. I’m talking about a city trail in the historic center of downtown Nanaimo where the purpose of our walk is to sample a decadent cookie bar—in as many different ways as we can. Come on, leave the calorie counting at home. We’re going exploring on the Nanaimo Bar Trail.

Nanaimo Bars
Nanaimo Bars from the original recipe. Who wants one?

What’s a Nanaimo Bar you ask? Don’t worry, Alan and had never heard of them either. Nanaimo Bars are rich bars with a cookie crust, creamy middle and chocolate topping that the city of Nanimo has claimed for its own. Alan and I explored the trail with Chelsea Barr, Marketing Director for Tourism Nanaimo. And it was a good thing that the tasting destinations on the Nanaimo Bar Trail were spread throughout the somewhat hilly, historic area of downtown Nanaimo. We needed every step to walk off all of the calories. And, yes, Alan and I requested to share. After all, we didn’t want to undo all of our progress in the One Healthy Change a Month challenge.

International food items at McLean's Specialty Foods in Nanaimo, B.C.
You’ll find plenty of international food items at McLean’s Specialty Foods

Our Nanaimo Bar Trail experience began at McLean’s Specialty Foods. Walking through the screen door, we discovered that the antique wooden floors combined with an eclectic inventory of international food items, including a huge selection of cheeses, gave McLean’s an old-world ambiance. It felt like the logical place to sample the original Nanaimo Bar recipe that uses Bird’s custard (a powdered custard popular in the U.K.) for the creamy middle. 

Across the street at Bocca, we picked up the peanut butter Nanaimo Bar version but begged off on tasting it, choosing to take the tasty treat back for a late-night snack at our Inn the Estuary suite.

Deep fried Nanaimo Bar from Pirate Chips
Deep fried Nanaimo Bar. Yum!

At Pirate Chips—imagine pirate decor gone overboard—we couldn’t decide which was more unique, the funky decor or the Deep Fried Nanaimo Bar. Our sample was hot and gooey with a cool ice cream middle and not at all greasy. Alan and I had a bit of a spoon battle over this one.

Cous Cous salad at Extraordinary Organics in Nanaimo
Will this salad make up for all the Nanaimo Bars?

We needed the healthy lunch choices at Extraordinary Organics to temper the sugar high. But even here, we were tempted by the Nanaimo Bar’s influence—this time as an after dinner coffee drink.

Gluten free Nanaimo Bars from Mon Petite Choux
Gluten free Nanaimo Bars

Rounding out the tour, Mon Petite Choux offered a gluten free version with a light, fluffy filling. They were the prefect accompaniment to afternoon lattes.

This was just a sampling of the decadent choices on the Nanaimo Bar Trail. Other versions—over 20 in all— include cheesecake, martinis, even inedible versions like the handmade Nanaimo Bar soap from Herb Wise. Obviously you don’t want to follow in our footsteps by experiencing the trail all in one day. I recommend spreading out the sugary delight in between other active pursuits like exploring YellowPoint Road or the adventures at WildPlay Elements Park.

And just in case you’d like to make these at home, Tourism Nanaimo shared the “official” recipe with us as determined in a 1986 bake-off.

The Ultimate Nanaimo Bar Recipe

by Joyce Hardcastle

Bottom layer

½ cup unsalted butter (European style cultured)
¼ cup sugar
5 tbsp. cocoa
1 egg beaten
1 ¾ cups graham wafer crumbs
½ cup finely chopped almonds
1 cup coconut

Melt first three ingredients in top of a double boiler.
Add egg and stir to cook and thicken.
Remove from heat. Stir in crumbs, coconut and nuts.
Press firmly into an ungreased 8″x8″ pan.

Middle layer

½ cup unsalted butter
2 tbsp. and 2 tsp. cream
2 tbsp. vanilla custard powder
2 cups icing sugar

Cream butter, cream, custard powder and icing sugar together well.

Beat until light. Spread over bottom layer.

Top layer

4 squares semi-sweet chocolate (1 oz. each)
2 tbsp. unsalted butter

Melt chocolate and butter over low heat.
Cool. When cool, but still liquid, pour over second layer and chill in refrigerator.

Read the rest of our Road Trip to Vancouver Island articles to create your own itinerary to this lovely part of the world.

Have you walked the Nanaimo Bar Trail? Which was your favorite version? Join the conversation at the My Itchy Travel Feet page on Facebook or send us an email.

Disclosure: Tourism Nanaimo provided this travel experience but the opinions are our own.

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