Canada’s only desert, and sprawling lakes, the Thompson Okanagan’s natural wonders are only matched by its active spirit and world-class wine region.
The spectacular drive from Vancouver to Osoyoos, the first stop on my weeklong trip through the Okanagan Thompson region in the interior of British Columbia, should have been a four hour drive. However, there were so many interesting places to stop along the way that it took me closer to six. I couldn’t resist pulling off the road to browse antique stores, buy peaches and cherries, and homemade beef jerky at a store in the middle of nowhere.
My first planned stop was just before hitting Osoyoos, at organic winery Rustic Roots, one of 133 licensed wineries in the region. Going back five generations, Rustic Roots serves up a delicious selection of wines in a very pretty setting, and even if you aren’t drinking, it is worth a stop for the great organic fruit stand, and farm store. They are also more than happy for you to wander the farm and go pet their donkeys.
Reaching Osoyoos itself, I checked in to the lovely lakefront Watermark Resort. Located at the end of the town’s main street, the location was perfect, and after dipping in the pool to refresh myself after that long hot drive I enjoyed tapas in the on-site restaurant and then crashed out as soon as I got back to my suite. I hadn’t quite been prepared for how scorching hot it was, and in mid-July that dry desert heat made me feel like I was in Vegas.
Before it got too warm the next day, I headed to the Osoyoos Desert Centre and learned that this area is in fact a real desert, complete with rattlesnakes and tumbleweed, despite the fact that much of it has been tamed into vineyards and orchards.
Then it was on to Nk’Mip Cellars, North America’s first Aboriginal owned and operated winery, for lunch. I sat out in the patio restaurant there eating a braised wild boar tacos with pea stew and ripe cherries, a gentle breeze whispering through the vines below, and it was such a perfectly serene experience. The attached cultural centre and gardens were beautiful, and there was plenty of aboriginal artwork throughout the tasting rooms.
Onwards I drove to Oliver, along twisting turning mountain roads, past vineyards, farms, and lakes, in awe of how gorgeous this place was. My next stop was Covert Farms, where I’d scheduled an agricultural tour. The tour was conducted by the farm’s hospitality manager, Derek Uhlemann in a gorgeous bright red 1952 Mercury truck, and we drove through gorgeous vineyards (they grow thirteen kinds of grapes, and third-generation farm owner Gene Covert says that his grandfather was the first person to try growing grapes in the Okanagan), and fields of fruits and veggies. The tour ended with a tasting plate of local cheeses and charcuterie in the converted horse barn that serves as the Covert Farms store, and of course tastings of some of their very delicious wines.
Next stop was a sweet suite at the Summerland Beach Resort, where I plonked down my bags, took a quick dip in the pool and readied myself for the winemakers dinner I was to attend at God’s Mountain Estate. Even with GPS I found it tricky to find the place, but where I thought it might be I saw an old Volkswagen bus signal then swerved up a dirt track, so I followed him, snuck through the electric gate behind him and drove up the twisting driveway hoping that I wasn’t about to get shot for trespassing.
I found the rest of the party on a huge patio that had stunning views out over the lake, and a long table set for the crowd mingling there with wine and canapés. Within minutes I had a glass of my own and the winemaker, Severine Pinte of local winery Le Vieux Pin was chatting with me while we ate perfect bite sized seared wild sockeye salmon cakes. Soon Dana Ewart, one of the head chefs and owners at Joy Road Catering, who puts these dinners on all through the summer at a different winery every week, was ringing a little bell that summoned us to take a seat, and dinner began.
Every delicious course, from the squash blossoms stuffed with goat cheese and mint to the rabbit (the loin cooked with prunes, hind legs braised in house made bacon, the front legs cooked in duck fat) to the decadent Mille-feuille that came for dessert, started with a brief and fun introductions to both the wine and food from Pinte.
The dinner was wonderful, and many of my tablemates had attended before, at both God’s Mountain and other locations. Many were staying overnight in the sprawling, eclectic, antique filled villa, which offers bed and breakfast, and after poking around inside I desperately wished I was staying there too (I later found out one of the guest-rooms there is ceiling-less, and you get to sleep under the canopy of stars).
Next morning I checked out downtown Summerland. The main drag is populated with antique stores, little boutiques, an excellent bakery named True Grains (it smelled heavenly walking in there, and the croissants I bought were perfectly light and delicious
My other Summerland stop was the Kettle Valley Steam Railway, where I took a trip through the mountains onboard a steam-train complete with conductors and engineers in authentic uniforms, and was serenaded by a banjo player who went from carriage to carriage, taking requests. It was a fun trip along 10km of preserved tracks, with a stop to buy cherries and admire the engine before climbing back onboard to head back to the station.
Then I drove on further, to Kelowna, enjoying more stunning scenery all the way there. Stopping downtown, I walked along the lively lakefront for a while and had a tasting of, then bought a few bottles of, artisan booze made with local fruits at Okanagan Spirits, a small batch distillery that makes gorgeous gin, as well as various liquors.
Whilst in Kelowna I stayed at the historic and rather fabulous Hotel Eldorado on the shore of Okanagan Lake. I walked along the busy beach before bed, feeling happy and very, very relaxed. Breakfast at the hotel was lovely, and I sat looking out over the lake as I read the paper, thinking that in almost a hundred years things probably hadn’t changed very much at all in the dining room I was sat in.
As I happened to be in town on a Saturday, I got to browse the huge Kelowna Farmers’ Market. All the Okanagan’s bounty was spread out on table after table, with entire stalls dedicated to peaches, to basil, to blueberries. There were baked goods, and all manner of ethnic foods to try, as well as crafts by local artisans.
My last stop in the Okanagan was the peaceful gardens of the Okanagan Lavender Farm. An intoxicating wall of scent hits you as you walk in, and then you see the lavender wreaths, teas, herb mixes, and all kinds of sweet lavender concoctions. There’s a café with a huge deck overlooking the gardens, and I treated myself to a warm and perfectly crumbly lavender and rose petal scone with delicate lavender jelly. This was washed down with a tall frosty glass of lavender lemonade. Perfect.
Driving through this region had been wonderful, and I was sad that my journey had ended save another long but pretty drive back to Vancouver. There was so much to see that I hadn’t had time to stop at, which of course means that a return trip is badly needed at some point.