Explore Port Alberni for holiday gift giving ideas
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Surrounded by the Beaufort Mountain Range, Sproat Lake and MacMillan Provincial Park, Port Alberni is quickly transitioning from a milltown to a destination for those seeking adventure. But more than that, it’s becoming a shopping mecca for residents and visitors searching for curated art and goods to gift this holiday season.
For over 12 years, Helgie Naesgaard and his wife, Mary Ann, have created a Christmas wonderland at Naesgaard’s Farm & Market in Port Alberni. The display of elaborately decorated trees with twinkling lights and ribbons takes them months to set up.
Beginning in June, the husband-and-wife duo work tirelessly through the summer and fall so they can open their Christmas wonderland to the public around Halloween each year.
“People come here to get into the Christmas spirit,” said Mary Ann.
At Naesgaard’s, aisles of trees are adorned with a wide range of decorations to suit everyone’s interest – from more traditional ornaments, such as nutcrackers, candy canes and snow globes, to naked Santas and snowmen carrying surfboards.
“A lot of grandparents bring their grandkids here to pick out an ornament every year,” said Mary Ann. “For some families, it’s a tradition.”
Local Indigenous art in Port Alberni
Gordon Dick is a Nuu-chah-nulth master carver and owner of the Ahtsik Native Art Gallery. For nearly 15 years, he has been selling his traditional carvings out of his gallery that sits just off of Highway 4 in the Alberni Valley. Works by other artists, including Kelly Robinson, Dylan Thomas and Erich Glendale are also displayed for sale.
“So many talented artists reside in the valley,” said Dick. “I've been wanting to inform myself, but also inform family, friends and visitors from afar about how rich and diverse our cultures are.”
Dick said the art that’s for sale are “heirloom pieces.” Be it a Christmas, birthday or graduation gift, he said they are meant to stand the test of time.
“My intention is that someone will be appreciating them long after I'm gone,” he said.
Shop local, support Alberni valley artisans
Further in town, the Blue Fish Gallery sits inside a blue character home on 2nd avenue. Its original owner, Cheryl Iwanowsky, was a beloved community member and potter who opened the space in 2013 to showcase unusual works of art and handicrafts.
After Iwanowsky passed away last year, her friend and former colleague, Lisa Harrison, bought the gallery with the intention of carrying on Iwanowsky’s legacy.
Harrison describes the gallery’s energy as “calm and soothing” – just like Iwanowsky was, she said.
The gallery doubles as a gift shop that sells a variety of goods and art made by hand with an emphasis on showcasing artists from the Alberni Valley. Be it pottery, paintings, roasted coffee beans or bath products, Harrison said the Blue Fish Gallery is a “one-stop gift shop.”
In between shopping, the Riverbend Café & General Store offers a quiet refuge for those seeking a caffeine kick or freshly baked treats from Port Alberni’s Wildflower Bakeshop.
The café opened in December 2021 after owners, Wish Puusepp and Chris Pouget, purchased and renovated the original Riverbend Store. For the last 30 years, Pouget said the Riverbend Store was known to mushroom pickers as a buying station. To pay homage to that legacy, mushroom themed puzzles, paintings, stickers and dish towels are on display for sale throughout the café.
“Ninety-eight per cent of what’s in here is made on Vancouver Island,” said Pouget.
Whimsical birdhouses and retro candy are among some of the other items for sale, making it the perfect stop to find gifts for all ages.
The customized planters available inside the greenhouse are assembled by owner, Shayla Lucier. She weaves textures of green that stand in perfect harmony, creating the perfect gift to add holiday cheer to indoor or outdoor spaces.
Lucier also has a wide range of individual plants for sale so customers can assemble a planter of their own. It not only acts as a great gift, but presents a unique activity for families to do together in the lead up to Christmas.
Give the gift of experience
Local art, Indigenous crafts and handmade goods make for great gifts and keepsakes, but there's also something to be said for making time to be together and share special moments.
Right through winter the Alberni Valley Bulldogs Hockey team offers a season of games within Port Alberni, which could make their own unique cultural gifts for that hockey fan in your life.
Another way is to slow down and make time to spend together in the planning of the season: picking out decorations, selecting gifts, being together. In that context, a trip to Port Alberni fits right in.
Despite spending months setting up the Christmas wonderland display at Naesgaard’s Farm & Market, Mary Ann says the labour they put it is always worth it.
“When it’s all done and I can hear the laughing and giggles from children, it makes me feel like I’ll probably do this forever,” she said.
When you go
Port Alberni is centrally located in the centre of Vancouver Island. Many pass right through it en route to Tofino, here is your invite to stop and shop! This former milltown is full of local soul, perfect for a pre-holiday season trip.
1h15 from Nanaimo to Port Alberni
3h approx from Victoria (stop midway at Cathedral Grove for a leg stretcher in protected old growth forest)
From Vancouver: take a 1h40 ferry from Vancouver (Horseshoe Bay) to Nanaimo (Departure Bay), then drive 1h15 to Port Alberni
While in town, be sure to explore the food & craft beer scene.
For more on Port Alberni, including where to stay, things to do and where to eat, visit Alberni Valley Tourism.