The vine- and orchard-covered hills and warm-water lakes of the Okanagan, located in south-central BC, are in marked contrast to the rugged beauty of the region’s more mountainous interior, making the region not only one of Canada’s finest fruit-growing areas but also one of its most popular holiday destinations. Unless you want a resort beach holiday, you may want to avoid the crowds and bypass the area in summer. Three main centres – Kelowna, Penticton and Osoyoos, ranging from north to south along the hundred-kilometre-long Okanagan Lake – together contain the lion’s share of BC’s interior population. All have pretty ordinary downtown cores around which concrete, cars and unbridled construction thrive, along with an array of accommodation and tacky attractions. Things get more picturesque if you can slip away from the towns to the hills or lakeshore to quieter spots like Summerland.
The almost year-round lushness that makes this “the land of beaches, peaches, sunshine and wine” means that, in the relative peace of off-season, you can begin to experience the region’s considerable charms: fruit trees in blossom, quiet lakeside villages and wine tastings in local vineyards. You can also expect room rates to halve. Kelowna is the biggest and probably best base at any time of the year, but smaller Penticton arguably has the edge in summer when it has much more of a relaxed beach-resort vibe.
If you’re travelling between Kelowna and Vernon with time on your hands, consider taking Carrs Landing, which turns into Commonage Rd, in preference to Hwy-97. It’s a quiet detour that offers something of the beauty for which the area is frequently praised and is part of the Scenic Sip (wscenicsip.ca) wine route. As the road weaves through woods and small bays, the views through to the lake are enchanting. To get to Carrs Landing Road from downtown Kelowna take Spall Rd from Hwy-97, which becomes Glenmore Drive and then winds along the lake as the two-lane Okanagan Centre Rd West; then take Carrs Landing which becomes Mission Road and Commonage Road.
Surrounded by half-bare, scrub-covered, ochre hills, OSOYOOS (which comes from the Syilx’tsn word suius for “narrowing of the waters”) has one of Canada’s most curious landscapes. With a mere 25cm of rain per year, this is a bona fide desert, with lizards, cacti and snakes: 23 types of invertebrate are endemic. Temperatures are regularly 10°C higher than in Nelson, less than a morning’s drive away, which means exotic fruit like bananas and pomegranates can be grown, with the temperature also inspiring the odd adobe building around town. Its other great feature is Lake Osoyoos, Canada’s warmest freshwater lake, with an average summer temperature of 24°C. In summer it comes alive with swimmers and boaters while streams of RVs slow-tail their way northwards.
The relative lack of crowds and strange scenery might persuade you to do your beach-bumming in Osoyoos, though you may be pushed to find space in any of the town’s twenty or so hotels and motels during high season.
The Kettle Valley Railway operated in the Thompson–Okanagan region from 1915 until the early 1960s, to be finally abandoned in 1989, apart from a 10-mile section, which is used by a working steam engine. Since then great chunks of it have been part of a rails-to-trails programme which allows you to hike or cycle for hundreds of kilometres through the region, though the key stretch is the 215km section between Midway – on Hwy-3 near the US border – and Penticton. However, its greatest spectacle is Myra Canyon above Kelowna. Here the series of gigantic wooden trestles which once allowed the railway to be routed between the Kettle Valley and Okanagan now provide an impressive testament to engineering. This was underlined by the spirited work involved in rebuilding the structures after 2003 wildfires ran riot – as interpretive boards along the route explain. From the eastern trailhead car park you can walk or cycle out and back along the trestles for an hour or two, or even cycle all the way to Penticton, an eight- to nine-hour ride which descends into the Okanagan Valley – with a series of tunnels and the gorgeous scenery below making it a memorable ride. You’ll need someone to pick you up at the other end; Monashee Adventure Tours offers this service along with bike rentals.
When you’re surrounded by some thirty or so wineries – many international gold medal award-winners – the best option is to take a wine tour and let someone else worry about driving. At one time these focused on crisp, fruity whites and dessert wines, but now successful reds and cold-climate whites are common. It’s worth visiting a couple of vineyards since the valley’s microclimates and differing soil types allow neighbouring vintners to produce completely different wines. The wineries join together in early May, early August and early October for annual spring, summer and autumn wine festivals (w thewinefestivals.com) when free wine tastings, gourmet dinners, grape stomps and vineyard picnics lure the connoisseur and novice alike. More background can be found at Kelowna’s BC Wine Museum, 1304 Ellis St (Mon–Fri 10am–6pm, Sat 10am–5pm, Sun 11am–5pm; by donation), basically a glorified shop with a few exhibits. Below are a few recommended wineries to try if you strike out on your own.
Distinctly Kelowna Tours 1310 Water St t 250 979 1211, t 1 866 979 1211, w distinctlykelownatours.ca. Located in the Delta Grand Okanagan Resort. Offers a raft of wine tours such as the Westside Bench tasting experience, which takes in four wineries over 3hr 30min ($95).
Cedar Creek Estate Winery 5445 Lakeshore Rd t 250 764 8866, w cedarcreek.bc.ca. Voted Canada’s Winery of the Year in 2005 and 2006 and always a top contender. Daily May–Oct 11am, 1pm & 3pm; Nov–April by appointment; $7.
Mission Hill Family Estate 1730 Mission Hill Rd t 250 768 6448, w missionhillwinery.com. Lying on the west side of the lake, its buildings wouldn’t look out of place in Tuscany. Award-winning restaurant open June–Oct, check for hours. Tours daily: July & Aug hourly from 11am–5pm; Sept to mid-Oct 11am, 1pm, 3pm; $12.
Summerhill Pyramid Winery 4870 Chute Lake Rd t 250 764 8000, t 1 800 667 3538, w summerhill.bc.ca. Located in a beautiful spot with a top-notch restaurant and wines aged in a replica Egyptian pyramid – there’s even organic Champagne. Tours daily noon, 2pm & 4pm; $10.