Canada’s Scenic Okanagan Valley


Illustration by Melissa ColsonBritish Columbia’s Okanagan Valley had a lot going for it long before its wineries began making premium wines a decade or two ago. Generations of outdoor fun-seekers have flocked here from Vancouver and Calgary (five and eight hours by car, respectively) to hike, bike, climb, camp, boat, swim, fish, golf and party in naturally beautiful surroundings.

Long, sunny summer days add to the allure, and to the ideal growing conditions for the peaches and pears, apples and apricots, berries, cherries, plums and grapes that have given the Okanagan its reputation as British Columbia’s fruitbasket.

Just a few miles wide and 120 miles long, the Okanagan Valley owes its existence to a glacier that buried the place in ice a mile and a half thick about 15,000 years ago. The ice melted over the next several millennia, leaving behind a chain of deep lakes framed by midsize mountains that rise 4,000 feet and more above the valley floor.

The centerpiece of the valley is Okanagan Lake, which stretches nearly 85 miles from north to south. On the mountains above it grow forests of spruce and fir; bunchgrass and open stands of ponderosa pine cover the lower hills; neat rows of fruit trees and vineyards flourish on fertile terraces. Along its length are frequent roadside fruit stands, communities with names such as Peachland and Summerland, and scores of provincial parks that grant lake access from pretty beaches.

When we first visited the Okanagan decades ago, it was lovely as long as you stayed outdoors, but beyond that, the travel experience—accommodations, food, services, cultural attractions—left much to be desired. The emergence of the wine industry has changed everything.

The vineyards planted on either side of Highway 97 just north of Osoyoos Lake (the southernmost in the Okanagan chain) yield some of British Columbia’s most sought-after wines. The countryside happens to be lovely as well as productive. From the tasting room at Burrowing Owl Estate Winery on Black Sage Road, the neat rows of grapes and the tip of the lake in the distance make a pretty picture indeed. The tasting room itself connects to a reception area for the estate’s 10-room Guest House. Five rooms on each of two levels look over an attractive sundeck and an 80-foot outdoor swimming pool. (The inn also offers a two-bedroom penthouse apartment, complete with living room and well-equipped kitchen.) In the other direction, the vines extend upslope to a rugged, nearly barren basalt ridge. Burrowing Owl owns and harvests about 140 acres. Another 15 to 20 wineries lie just up the road.

The inn’s rooms are comfortably sized, with rustic good looks that come from stone-tiled floors, earth tone colors, natural wood trim and high ceilings. In a cozy, arched reading nook, two upholstered chairs face the windows. A handsome painted cupboard displays a coffeemaker and wine glasses, and next to it sits a simple work desk. The king bed angles toward the gas fireplace, a wall-mounted flat-screen TV and a glass door that leads to a small private balcony furnished with a table and two chairs. The bath, also tiled with stone, holds a soaking tub, a separate shower and a single vanity. A closet in the open dressing area near the bath includes space for luggage and a well-designed built-in cabinet with four roomy drawers. Accessories in the room include wine-themed art and a collection of large clay pots. Overall, the look and feel is appropriate for a wine country inn—not imaginative or luxurious, perhaps, but certainly agreeable. Request a corner room for more privacy.

Meanwhile, our dining experience in the Sonora Room, the inn’s restaurant on the other side of the tasting room, was exceptional. The name derives from the contention in these parts that the warm and arid southern Okanagan lies within the northern limits of the great Sonoran Desert—a proposition that seems improbable and one unsupported by any map we’ve found. That objection aside, the dining room’s slightly Southwest theme was done in good taste with a high beamed ceiling, warm wood floors, inviting fireplace, sturdy wooden tables generously spaced, comfortable chairs and wonderful views of the vineyards and the valley beyond. Our server was gracious and efficient, and spoke confidently about the wine list and chef Chris Van Hooydonk’s nicely balanced menu. The elk tournedos were wonderful, and we enjoyed some of the best wild salmon we’ve ever eaten.

The winery’s namesake burrowing owl, by the way, is not a myth, although the bird is rare and endangered locally. The name was chosen to call attention to the small owl—which actually does live in holes in the ground—and the tasting room’s $2 fee goes to help fund a reintroduction program.

The Guest House at Burrowing Owl Estate Winery 88 Room, from $349 (breakfast included); two-night minimum stay. 100 Burrowing Owl Place, Oliver, B.C. Tel. (877) 498-0620.

One regret on this trip was that we were unable to arrange a night or two at a neighboring estate that recently built a wonderful new tasting room and six Mediterranean-style suites within its 70-acre vineyard. Hester Creek Estate Winery, which has some of the older premium wine grape vines along what is known as “The Golden Mile,” converted its former tasting room into a compact restaurant with a sunny terrace, where we had an excellent lunch. The sophisticated new tasting room includes a beautiful state-of-the-art kitchen that hosts cooking schools and wine dinners. Regrettably, the suites were fully occupied; we had discovered the inn late in our planning, and booking a room was impossible. Clearly, though, the facilities were first-rate, and the staff we encountered in the restaurant and the tasting room were capable and charming, and made our brief visit most enjoyable.

Millions of crystals give name to Sparkling Hill Resort, which opened in May 2010 and is owned chiefly by Gernot Langes-Swarovski, patriarch of the Swarovski family and former head of the Swarovski crystal company. Three-and-a-half million crystals throughout the resort, the receptionist tells us, worth $10 million. We can account for a million or so in the glittering four-story atrium lobby alone, which itself is designed as a giant crystal, with panes of glass overlaid on a web of steel. At the center is a huge multi-tiered crystal cascade. More crystals are massed over two floating sky bridges that connect the upper floors of the hotel. Lighted crystals, embedded in handrails, flow down the stairways. There’s a soaring crystal bird-shaped form in the dining room and a crystal rainfall chandelier in the lounge. Inside our Penthouse suite, a framed free-form design with hundreds of crystals hangs on the wall and lights the foyer. A crystal pendant glows above the dining table. Crystals sparkle in the powder room mirror, in a lighted inset in the coffee table and in the front of a wardrobe.

This is surely the Liberace of mountain resorts! But for all the bling, what captures our eye is the sublime view, everywhere, beyond the walls of glass.

The resort sits at the highest point of a ridge about 1,250 feet above Okanagan Lake, its foundation blasted from the granite bedrock. From our second-floor corner suite with its floor-to-ceiling glass along the entire length, there is nothing to obstruct the view of the shimmering lake and the mountains that rise from its far shore. From the private wraparound terrace, we can also see distant peaks to the north and east.

The suite is attractive, spacious and nicely furnished, but other than the view, what sets it apart is its large, sleek master bath. There’s the same grand view as from the living room, because the exterior wall, floor to ceiling and 20 feet long, is all glass (although there are privacy blinds for the shy or the circumspect). The floor is laid with gray granite tiles. At one end of the room, there’s a double chrome-and-glass walk-in shower with forceful twin showerheads, and at the other end, a finely crafted cherry double vanity topped with polished black marble. Hidden behind a door opposite the window wall is an en suite cedar-paneled sauna/steam room. The centerpiece of the bath, set on its own contrasting tile “rug,” is a seductive, freestanding soaking tub, and overhead, a starscape of crystals that lights up at the touch of a switch.

The really serious plumbing is downstairs in the 40,000-square-foot KurSpa. There are three different aroma- and light-enhanced steam rooms; hot, hotter and hottest saunas; one cool-down room with chilled tiles and a crushed-ice dispenser; several shell-like “experience” showers with sound effects and varied sprays from all angles; a water-therapy stepping channel; an indoor swimming pool with underwater music; a hot pool; and a heated outdoor infinity pool.

The spa has a fully equipped fitness studio, a tea room, a meditation room with lake and mountain views, and an unusual cold sauna in which you spend up to three minutes, closely monitored, wearing gloves, socks, a headband, a face mask and little else, in a room that has been chilled to minus 166 degrees!

The resort has one restaurant, which serves a buffet breakfast, as well as lunch and dinner. While the food was good (emphasizing products from local farms, orchards and vineyards), the service was uneven, as it was throughout the property. Our favorite experience came on the second night of our stay, when we had been forewarned that the dining room was preparing for a large contingent of golfers. We sought refuge in the cozy lounge downstairs, tended by a poised and gracious young man who understood our wish to avoid the restaurant this particular evening. As we sipped cocktails on the small terrace overlooking the lake, he assembled for us a plate of ciabatta, local cheeses, house-cured meat, pickled vegetables and roasted olives, to which we added a ripened pear we’d gotten at a roadside stand.

Several walking trails circle the resort. Just below Sparkling Hill lies the Predator Ridge golf resort, with acres of fairways, rugged pine-covered ridges and wheatgrass meadows. Thirty minutes away, with long views down the lake, is The Rise Golf Club, a 6,600-yard Fred Couples Signature Course. Helicopter skiing/snowboarding or fishing adventures that depart from the resort’s helipad can be arranged. Sparkling Hill Resort is 40 minutes from the town of Kelowna, the region’s commercial center and home to a busy airport with direct flights from Seattle (70 minutes) and from major cities in Canada.

Sparkling Hill Resort 90 Penthouse suite, from $680 (buffet breakfast for two, valet parking and access to KurSpa saunas, steam rooms and pools included). 888 Sparkling Place, Vernon, B.C. Tel. (877) 275-1556.

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