This is the fourth of seven articles about Canadian communities that may appeal to 50-plus people - readers' picks of seven great places for retirement.
In British Columbia, the ideal place for retirement is a matter of affordability. That either means downsizing in the city or relocating outside of the pricey lower mainland. As a result, retirees are opting for the more tranquil life of Vancouver Island, with Nanaimo as one of their top picks.
With a population of about 84,000, Nanaimo has all the amenities of a city without the traffic congestion and high property prices of Vancouver, which is a 90-minute ferry trip away. It's also slightly less expensive than Victoria, a 90-minute drive away.
Nanaimo is a picturesque seaside city that can offer an active retiree outdoor pursuits and arts and culture, including classes at Vancouver Island University.
Then there are the house prices. The average sale price for a 1,870 sq. ft. three-bedroom single family detached home in Nanaimo is $349,727, according to Landcor Data. By comparison, the average price for a house on Vancouver's east side is $932,000. And in Nanaimo, it takes only an average of 45 days to sell, which is important for anyone who needs to sell quickly.
When Judy and Randy Millar discovered Nanaimo on one of Mr. Millar's business trips, the Kitchener-based couple decided to retire there. Mr. Millar, a safety manager for a large industrial cleaning corporation, was in his 60s and facing early retirement due to company restructuring.
They had contemplated dividing their time between Arizona in the winter and Ontario in the summer, but settling in Nanaimo with its mild climate meant they could stay in Canada year-round.
They purchased a home in a Nanaimo retirement complex in 2007, downsized, drove across the country in their motorhome and settled in. However, while Mr. Millar discovered a passion for kayaking, his wife, who had been a communications manager for an insurance company, discovered the true meaning of homesickness.
"It's a big change, because I had spent 58 years in Ontario," says Ms. Millar, who is now 65. "He was happy as could be, and I was miserable. I can't deny it. I was homesick like crazy. It takes some courage to uproot at that age and stage, even to go to a beautiful place."
At her gated retirement complex of about 500 residents, she found other homesick retirees from out-of-province, many who'd left family behind. "You can't hug a mountain," one of them said to her.
Because their three-bedroom bungalow in Kitchener was worth less than its equivalent in Nanaimo, they had to settle for less space in a home. As well, ferry travel off and on the island with a 35-foot motorhome costs hundreds of dollars. Like a lot of retirees, they had planned to work part-time, but discovered that the job market in B.C. isn't as robust as it is in Ontario.
"There just weren't the kinds of jobs where you could earn that kind of income. We needed to change our way of thinking."
But their story has a happy twist. The lack of part-time work forced Ms. Millar to take her writing career up a notch. She began taking courses at the university, holding humour workshops and entering writing competitions. Now, she's a successful writer who's won several prizes and has written a book.
As for Mr. Millar, he became so involved in kayaking that he started a successful paddle-making business that sells around the world.
The irony isn't lost on Ms. Millar. By moving to Nanaimo, they'd forced themselves out of their comfort zones enough to discover invigorating second careers. "None of this would have happened if we hadn't moved here."
Gordon Denford knows that today's retirees are more complicated in their needs than those of previous generations. They want the usual sense of strong community and access to hospitals, shopping and airports, but they also want digital technology, entertainment and an active lifestyle.
He's built six luxury retirement complexes on Vancouver Island, including one in Nanaimo, which will soon undergo a major renovation. His rental complexes suit the needs of retirees who don't want the hassle of homeownership.
At 87, Mr. Denford, who runs Berwick Retirement Communities with son Christopher, has seen the market transform. He studies the over-60s market and responds accordingly, which is why a new Berwick residence in Victoria now includes a fully functional theatre for live plays. He'll be upgrading the Nanaimo residence with a theatre as well.
"Nanaimo is an absolutely ideal site. We built it at a time when there was very little of that [type of product] in Nanaimo, but Nanaimo was a big market area. It's overbuilt right now. The vacancy rate is high."
(In spring, the residential rental vacancy rate reached 8.3 per cent, according to a CMHC housing report. The B.C. average is 3.5.)
Lori Hargreaves, who is 55, is seriously considering a move to Nanaimo when she retires from her job at Douglas College and sells her Vancouver home.
"I'm single, so I need to be in a town or city," Ms. Hargreaves says. "The Interior is out – I grew up in Manitoba, and that was enough snow for me."
She has decided Nanaimo fits the bill – it's affordable, and has a restaurant scene, a vibrant downtown and a university.
"I need to be somewhere where there is good food. I am very much into organic this and that, and if there's some obscure ingredient that I need, I'll probably drive to Victoria."
In response to demand, the City of Nanaimo has revitalized its downtown core, beefing up its historic buildings and encouraging new businesses. It's upgrading infrastructure around Nanaimo Regional Hospital, and council recently approved a foot-passenger ferry direct from downtown Vancouver to downtown Nanaimo that will take 68 minutes each way and is expected to be running by March of 2015.
It's good news for someone like Ms. Hargreaves, who expects to maintain contact with doctors and dentists in Vancouver until she gets established on the island.
"I think with my equity from Vancouver, I can get something quite nice. And I would own it outright," she says.