There are two ways to get to the Okanagan from Vancouver — and
There are two ways to get to the Okanagan from Vancouver — andboth of them are impossibly scenic. Aircraft, even Dornier’s propeller machines, fly over the Monashee Mountains in less than an hour. They don’t go too high, these noisy planes that sometimes lurch stomach-dippingly over air pockets, so the snow-capped peaks, which cup tens of pristine high-altitude lakes between them, are easily visible. This isn’t a flight on which to fall asleep. The mountains fall behind only as the valley unfolds closer to Kelowna, the region’s biggest city, revealing rolling farmlands sunbathing on a heavenly day. The other way to get here would be to drive down in five hours over the same terrain and Canada’s impeccable roads would make it a very tempting exercise for sure. I got to enjoy only a tiny bit of it, on the way from the airport to Vernon, the Okanagan Lake a grand companion on some stretches, making me constantly wish I could get off and walk by its shore.
The fruit- and wine-producing Okanagan Valley sprawls over 200 sq km in southwestern Canada, between the Cascades to the west and the Monashees to the east — and no, before you ask, the Rockies lie further east. What baffled me were the waters, massive stretches of them extending over the plains so endlessly that they couldn’t have been a sea or a river. I never saw its end, not even from the aeroplane — the Okanagan Lake, someone said, is 110 kilometres long as the crow flies. The Kalamalka, or simply the Kal, was the other vast sprawl of a rippling blue that awed and perplexed me; the aerial views were only a beguiling teaser. There are dozens of more lakes that make up this, Canada’s Lake Country — Wood, Vaseaux, Osoyoos and Skaha are some of the more prominent ones — their names a mix of First Nations (which comprise Canada’s native tribes) and English traditions commonly seen across the province of British Columbia. Canadians, blessed with such grand bounties, tend to wave at them without geographical specifics — I heard the Okanagan Lake’s length vary from 80 to 135 kilometres, and there were uncertain references to how it might be measured (by the shoreline or straight as a measuring tape). The Okanagan gives its name to the region, its shoreline so vast that there isn’t ever a single stretch that gets crowded, even Kelowna’s more populated beaches (they are actually sandy).
Millions of years ago, this land was fashioned by massive tectonic shifts, mountains rising from the sea, leaving the dry soil rich with minerals, just waiting to be irrigated by some of the world’s greatest freshwater lakes fed by glacial melt-offs. It’s not surprising that the Okanagan region is chiefly agricultural, its increasingly successful vineyards born of serendipity and hard work. Canada does not rank high on any list of the world’s leading wine-growing countries but I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets there one of these years. I am not given to topographical comparisons generally (‘this of the east’ or ‘that of another country’) but, just so I could wrap my head around this little-known part of the world, I couldn’t help thinking that the Okanagan is Canada’s Tuscany. Except that has to be extrapolated to size — Canada is the world’s second-largest nation (nearly ten million square kilometres of prairies, mountains and lakes); Italy is the seventy-second (a little over three hundred thousand). I could see why it was all difficult to measure.
Even more mystifyingly, they call the Okanagan Canada’s only desert. How can a predominantly agricultural region thrive in a desert? But it does — its munificent lakes are perennial even though the air is dry and precipitation negligible. The sun beats down fiercely during the day — it doesn’t set for too long (Canada has barely six hours of night in the summer) but when it does, it takes the heat along. It’s sublime weather for farming… and tourism!
It’s with such a brainwave in mind that the Sparkling Hill Resort was built, its funky glass-and-crystal design dominating laidback Vernon, which still does not appear to comprehend the enormity of the event. Sparkling Hill is no ordinary hotel. It sparkles with 3.5 million crystals — the first public building in the world designed by Swarovski’s ‘crystal architect’ Andreas Altmayer. The owner is Gernot Langes-Swarovski himself and the story goes that he was inspired to build a European-style spa experience in the extraordinary setting of the Okanagan Valley when he chanced by. It’s all very dazzling no doubt, but in a discreet and aesthetic sort of way, with colour-changing crystal installations defining the moods of many of the facilities, especially the Kur Spa, a fine place indeed to be kneaded.
Western spa experiences, not that I am an expert on them, tend to club all eastern influences in their search for exotic interiors, so Turkish motifs pop up alongside Indian music and Thai-style Buddha iconography. It’s all very peaceful anyway, the massages relying less on oil than on the competent hands of the masseurs. Masseurs are friendly and efficient instead of docile and leisurely. Water, along with hot and cold treatments, is an important source of therapy, with multiple saunas, steam baths and pools to engage dreamy guests after the massage is over.
But we were also here to see a mild Canadian outdoors and that’s where we headed soon enough, our day beginning with a quick stop at the farmers’ and crafters’ market that comes up on Kelowna’s Dilworth Drive on Wednesdays and Saturdays, in the mornings till about 1pm, and bustles with a hundred and fifty convivial sellers and, sometimes, their families. The shops are a colourful assortment of farm-fresh fruits and vegetables, trinkets in metal and roughly hewn wood, and there’s a row of fast-food counters, everything locally made, the caveat for pitching a place here. A kiosk selling lemonade (shot with cranberry juice, loaded with ice, the North American way) did brisk business as a hot sun beat down, reminding me a little that this agricultural desert was perhaps not an oxymoron after all.
Fresh fruits are harvested through the summer in the Okanagan Valley — cherries, apricots and peaches in different weeks of July and August; pears and plums in August-September, with apples bringing up the rear till the end of October, when the days begin to shorten rapidly. The Kelowna Farm to Table movement lists a host of visitor-friendly farms and restaurants that rely on them. We headed to Sun City, a cherry farm spread over eighty acres in this holding, owned and managed by a family of Punjabi origin and astonishing enterprise. Buckets and baskets overflowed with luscious cherries, every one of them handpicked and machine-sized because a single less-than-perfect fruit in a random inspection could rubbish a whole consignment. A cherry orchard begs long walks but we settled for a quick photo-op and piled on the calories at their ice cream counter, chatting about the bureaucratic difficulties in exporting to India.
The high point of the day, naturally, was a tour-and-tasting at the Summerhill Pyramid Winery, an organic vineyard that has been winning awards consecutively for its Cipes Brut, its wines aged in a naturally cool concrete pyramid (an alternative to the sunken cellars of the Champagne region since the subsoil in the Okanagan Valley does not lend itself to underground storage). It was at Summerhill’s friendly bar that I discovered ice wine. You probably shouldn’t take my word for it since I am no wine connoisseur but it really was divine, especially the 2011 Merlot and the 2007 Reisling, and I have that on better authority than mine.
Ice wines are delicate to behold, their slim 750ml bottles costing upward of C$100, the small quantities in which they are produced the reason for their out-of-reachness. They are sweet, dessert wines, the grapes for which are harvested in the dead of winter, when temperatures drop between -5° and -8°C for three consecutive days — there is no harvest in the years during which such precise weather does not prevail. An ice wine harvest ‘hotline’ (ironically) is set up to call volunteers from the Okanagan for the plucking, which usually begins around 2am and ends with a hearty breakfast at sunrise. The freezing air and soil compel the plant to send all its resources to the fruit, which becomes sweeter for it, and therefore the result. It’s usually had at the end of a meal, with a cheese smorgasboard if you please, and it’s sweeter even than the late-harvest wines (grapes for which are plucked just days before winter arrives). I am still heady from the joy of it.
Our next halt was the Okanagan Lavender Herb Farm, the romance of its neatly trimmed gardens turned into an elegant ‘experience’, a reminder of the potential for tourism that’s routinely squandered in India. So you meander about on a ‘self-guided tour’ (map provided), take in the fresh, sweet-scented lavender swaying in the wind, learn a bit of its history at the ‘museum’ and promptly forget it, skip the hedge maze and children’s play area but tie a ribbon with a wish (pen and metal tree provided), shop in a super-aesthetic store and buy things you don’t need, and then recover from all that hard work with lavender-scented iced lemonade out in the sun-kissed patio.
Yes, we did it all — ate by a lakeside restaurant, window-shopped in Kelowna’s main street, people-watched at its lively boardwalk, took pictures by the Ogopogo (a mythical lake demon, now a painted cartoon serpent), surrendered to the Kur Spa at the Sparkling Hill Resort, sampled more wine than we should have, and tried but could not quite grasp the geography of the Okanagan Valley, not even when we flew out, in fact, towards the Canadian Rockies. Sparkling and salubrious, the second-largest nation in the world also has some of its most wildly beautiful vistas.
Getting there: The Thompson Okanagan is a vast and varied region made up of distinct ‘communities’ in the British Columbia province of Canada. There are four key hubs for holidays in the Okanagan Valley, its balmy farming and wine-growing district — Penticton, Kelowna, Vernon and Kamloops. Kelowna, where we spent most of our time though we stayed at an-hour-away Vernon, is equipped with an international airport and connected well to the rest of Canada and some places in the US. Several airlines, including All Nippon Airways (we took their flight over the Pacific via Tokyo), fly to Vancouver from Delhi and other Indian metros (from Rs 1.3 lakh round trip). There are daily flights from Vancouver (from C$245), Victoria, Calgary and Toronto to Kelowna.
Currency & visa: 1 Canadian dollar = Rs 60 (approx). Visa details at vfs-canada.co.in.
Where to stay: We stayed at the luxurious Sparkling Hills Resort (Sparkling Place, Vernon; from C$445, sparklinghill.com). The rooms have avant garde interiors and an enormous bathtub in the corner of the bedroom, right by the wall-size windows with sweeping views of the Okanagan valley and lake. The Delta Grand (1310 Water St; from C$310, deltahotels.com) is a landmark right on the lake in Kelowna’s charming Cultural District. If you are looking for something closer to mid-range, try Hotel Eldorado (500 Cook Rd; from C$250, hoteleldoradokelowna.com), a quaint heritage property, also lakeside. More cost-effective accommodation is available away from the water. The Sandman Hotel and Suites (2130 Harvey Avenue; from C$120, sandmanhotels.ca), for instance, offers an ‘executive tower’ which has well-appointed rooms that don’t take such a big bite out of your wallet.
What to see & do: Relax. That’s what the Okanagan Valley is all about. Pick cherries if you are feeling particularly energetic. Stop by at farms and farmers’ markets. Enjoy wine-tasting sessions and great food at the laidback wineries (there’s a long list of visitor-friendly vineyards at kelownawinetrails.com).
Eat and love the Kelowna Farm to Table movement — pick up a brochure with complete, easy-to-read listings of local farms, vineyards and restaurants that collaborate to offer authentic Okanagan experiences, including ‘u pick’ orchards, gourmet picnics and cider tours. Brochures are handy at the airport or the Visitor Centre on Kelowna’s Harvey Avenue; you can watch out for the yellow ‘Farm to Table’ signages as you drive.
Stop by at the BC Orchard Industry Museum on Ellis St, right next door to the BC Wine Museum — which not only stocks the valley’s best wines but also sells locally made preserves, speciality products, books by local authors, and décor items.
Try the valley’s great outdoors in the truest Canadian traditions if you can’t bear to waste all the scenery on lolling about. Water-sports enthusiasts can swim, boat, fish, paddle or even scuba dive in the lakes; hiking trails are also close by.
Distinctly Kelowna (distinctlykelownatours.ca) is a highly recommended operator offering nice daytrips and custom itineraries for the region, including wine and agri-tourism experiences.
Ask the Visitor Centre for helpful details (they also provide current harvest, blossom and u-pick information). tourismkelowna.com, the official tourism website, is another fantastically helpful resource.