Sip and Savor the Okanagan
Considered British Columbia’s fruit basket, this fertile valley also produces 90 percent of Canada’s wine
My girlfriends and I need an RV getaway. Our “must-haves” include beautiful scenery and great food and wine — and not a lot of driving. Josie, my friend who lives in Vancouver, suggests the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia’s renowned wine country. Less than 250 miles from Vancouver, it’s an easy and beautiful drive, and a perfect place to sip good wine and savor farm-to-table foods.
“The Okanagan,” as locals call it, is a fertile valley surrounded by pine-studded hills along 83-mile-long Okanagan Lake. With vast orchards of cherries, apples, peaches and nectarines, the valley is Canada’s fruit basket. The area’s 2,000 hours of annual sun and cool-lake influence have also encouraged farmers to plant wine grapes, birthing 160-plus wineries. It would take weeks, if not months, to explore the entire 100-mile valley and sample all its wine and food offerings, so we focus on middle and southern regions from Kelowna, the largest city, to Oliver, one of the smallest. We also agree to rotate designated drivers so we’re safe.
Cheese, Honey and Farm-Fresh Eggs
We arrive in the afternoon in Kelowna and Josie, who knows the Okanagan, insists we head for Carmelis, an artisan goat-cheese creamery on the edge of town. After all, she reasons, cheese goes with wine.
Carmelis is operated by a couple from Israel who use Old-World techniques to make fresh chevre and brie and aged gouda, cheddar and a blue they call “goatgonzola.” Goat cheese can be strong-flavored, but these are mild and delicious and we load up our motorhome’s refrigerator.
We wend through the hills to Arlo’s Honey Farm, specializing in honey and organic vegetables. Co-owner Helen Kennedy dons protective gear (we’re safe on a screened porch) and shows us how bees fill honeycomb with golden nectar. She gives us fascinating information — each bee visits and pollinates 200 to 300 flowers per day and these intelligent creatures recognize people’s faces! In the gift shop, we sample and buy honey and silky lotion made with honey.
Since we’re on hiatus from cooking, we head to RauDZ Regional Table in Kelowna, a popular neighborhood place that uses valley-sourced products. We sit at a communal table next to the open kitchen and watch chefs prepare dishes like sable fish with baby potatoes, chewy house-made gnocchi and big New York steaks topped with chunks of local blue cheese.
We’re stuffed silly by the time we roll back to the motorhome. We head a few miles from city center through hills of orchards, vineyards and horse farms. While there are a number of RV parks, we’ve opted for Canyon Farms, eight sites nestled on a peaceful farm where guests enjoy the owner’s free-range chicken, eggs and garden-fresh vegetables.
Owner Lesley strolls across the yard, scooting a dozen fat hens out of the way to show us our flat, gravel-topped pull-through site. It features full hookups, a grassy strip, picnic table and our own row of table grapes.
We settle in, munching on fresh goat cheese and listening to soothing chicken sounds.
We’re up early and, after enjoying farm-fresh eggs, we go exploring. With so many wineries, how to choose? We created an itinerary of different kinds of wineries. Our first stop is The Vibrant Vine where we’re greeted with paper 3-D glasses to view artist Phil Lewis’ wildly colorful paintings of wolves, moose and birds. The winemaker is brother Tony, a former musician and engineer. As we sample his spicy gewürztraminer, he regales us with tales about learning winemaking on the Internet. Judging from what we sample, he’s learned well.
We drive onto Lakeshore Road and across the lake via Bennett Bridge to West Kelowna and Quails’ Gate Winery, one of the largest family-owned wineries. It’s also home to Old Vines Restaurant, a wood-and-glass space with drop-dead views of Lake Okanagan. I order sable fish with lentils and, with their signature pinot noir, it’s heavenly.
After lunch, we head to downtown Kelowna for a different drink — handmade distilled spirits. Okanagan Spirits is a 10-year-old craft distillery that uses a copper still from Germany that looks like it belongs to Willy Wonka, to produce smooth fruit brandies and gin, vodka and whisky. After sampling, we buy a few bottles for friends.
We split up — some of us head to boutiques in Kelowna’s walkable downtown. I slip on running shoes to enjoy the city’s lakeside parks and pathways. Kelowna has 10 parks, many threaded along the lake. Three — Waterfront, Stuart and City Park — are linked by a 1.5-mile concrete boardwalk that’s shared by walkers, cyclists and rollerbladers. I work up a sweat passing picturesque marinas and public art, including giant sculptures of dolphins, sailboats and a big blue polar bear. There’s even a green, undulating Ogopogo — the famed lake monster said to roam the lake’s 700-foot depths.
Later, we meet for dinner at Waterfront Wines. The pakora-battered calamari and ultra-buttery foie gras topped with sweet gewürztraminer jelly make me swoon — and these are just the appetizers. My scallops come perfectly cooked and the lemon ice cream has me vowing to put off my diet until next month.
Before we leave town the following day, we stop at the Wednesday Kelowna Farmers and Crafters Market to buy smoked salmon for snacks and then head south to Summerland. We cross the lake again, past strip malls in West Kelowna, and quickly we’re in the hills. Highway 97 is a smooth four-laner skirting the lake where pleasure boats look like toys, giving us a sense of the lake’s massive size. Clouds hang on the hillsides, but the sun is shining. Since arriving, we’ve experienced a mixture of clouds and sun, and I’m grateful it’s unseasonably cool.
Summerland, 45 minutes from Kelowna, is a quaint town with walkable streets filled with Swiss-style buildings. Since we skipped breakfast, we head into True Grain Bread, a whole-foods bakery that mills heritage grains like kamut, emmer, and red fife and bakes chewy, wholesome breads. We pick up bread along with a few cheesy pretzel buns for breakfast, and oat and chocolate chip cookies for later.
We churn into Summerland’s hills past cherry orchards heavy with fruit to Dirty Laundry Vineyard where we park the rig in the ample parking lot. It’s named for an early Chinese entrepreneur who operated The Dirty Laundry, a laundry downstairs and a saloon and bordello upstairs. The winery does a fun, campy take on the bordello theme with “working girls” in spangles and feathers pouring wines with names like Naughty Chardonnay, Secret Affair and a Girl in Every Port. Guests can buy cheeses and other picnic foods and wine by the glass or bottle and enjoy sweeping views of the valley, the Kettle Valley Railroad trestle and the lake below.
How could we possibly be hungry — again? We are, especially when we hear Summerland’s Local Lounge and Grille has a talented new chef. We sit lakeside in this contemporary restaurant and feast on innovative dishes — a salad of citrus-grilled squid, pecorino, pea shoots and preserved lemon; crispy pork belly with quinoa salad; and juicy roast lamb sirloin with minted English peas. Yum!
We drive south on Highway 97 toward Penticton, a town of about 30,000, situated between Okanagan and Skaha lakes. The mountains are higher and steeper here; the cliffs white and erosion-scarred. The city’s warm, sunny climate, mountainous terrain and lakeside location make it a center for outdoor sports like climbing, hiking, boating, cycling and mountain
biking. It’s home to the Penticton Challenge Triathlon and Iron Man athletes often train here.
We motor through town and into the hills to the Naramata Bench, land boasting a unique combination of soil, sun, weather — terroir as winemakers call it — that makes its wine uniquely flavored. Given the spitting rain and skies rumbling with thunder, you wouldn’t know Penticton gets only 13 inches of rain each year and is Canada’s second-warmest city. At Upper Bench Winery & Creamery, one of the newest, the owner gives us a tour and we sample wine and creamy cheese, and buy a few.
Then we churn southward, the terrain becoming drier. In fact, if we kept driving south, we’d bump into the northernmost tip of the Sonoran Desert. But, today, our destination is the town of Oliver and Covert Farms, a 600-acre organic farm and winery specializing in wine tasting, u-pick vegetables and local artisan food products.
We pile into the back of a 1952 Mercury pickup for a one-hour tour and learn Covert uses biodynamic methods — working with nature — to increase yields and grow crops in this dry climate. Afterward, we enjoy wine and a charcuterie plate of locally produced meats and cheeses.
We drive back toward Summerland to Okanagan Lake Provincial Park just off the highway. The park has two campgrounds — south has utilities, but north is less crowded with better lake views. We opt for a roomy spot in north campground and enjoy the view.
The next morning is our last day and we meet Ed Kruger of Monashee Adventure Tours to work off a few calories. We scramble into Kruger’s van and drive up and up into the mountains to about 3,000 feet. We stop along a gravel track, site of the former Kettle Valley Railroad that once brought silver and fruit out of these hills. The rail bed has been transformed into the Kettle Valley Rail Trail (KVR) and the section we’re riding is practically all downhill.
We helmet up and peddle after Kruger, who sets an easy pace. The track is mostly flat, so riding is a breeze. We pause at spectacular viewpoints and Kruger fills us in on history and flora and fauna. About halfway through our 17-mile journey, we pass through lush vineyards and over a trestle. Some of Kruger’s tours include wine tasting, but even this relatively flat path leaves me panting. I can’t imagine sipping and peddling.
We’ve cycled for a couple of hours and we’re nearly at our destination when Kruger yells, “Gear down! We’re heading uphill.”
I shift to 1 and 1, the lowest on my sprocket. The hill gets steeper and my legs burn. I hear my friends gasping behind me. “You’re doing great,” Kruger calls out.
We peddle into the parking lot of Poplar Grove Winery and The Vanilla Pod Restaurant where we’ve parked the rig.
Sweaty and exhilarated, I’m triumphant. It’s time to celebrate — with wine and lunch.
For More Information
Canyon Farms RV Park
250-801-1969 | www.canyonfarmsrv.com
Destination British Columbia
Lake Okanagan Provincial Park Campgrounds
Monashee Adventure Tours