Monday, October 31, 2011

Seeking Sun and Wine in the Okanagan Valley

                                             The Town of Penticton on Okanagan Lake

Heading south from Kelowna on Highway 97, you reach the second great wine growing area in British Columbia. High on benches overlooking the beautiful blue lake, as well as some which stretch back into small, sunny valleys towards the coastal mountains, grape vineyards have taken over many of the lovely fruit orchards that once were the valley’s mainstay.  

The first small village you pass through along this western shore of Lake Okanagan is Peachland, just 21 miles southwest of Kelowna. The town stretches along the lakeshore for about a mile. It is a serene and picturesque community dating back to the late 1800s, when pioneer fruit grower, John Moore Robinson arrived from the Canadian prairies in 1897. He quickly recognized the agricultural potential of the land along the lake. As well, he claimed and sub-divided the bench land above the lake, eventually establishing the town.

Peachland is said to be the home of Ogopogo, Lake Okanagan’s famous prehistoric monster. It is at Squally Point, just across the lake from Peachland that many sightings have taken place and therefore is thought to be the creature’s habitat. The aboriginal people have believed in this lake monster for centuries, although many scientists have discredited the idea.

There are two wineries established here: the Greata Ranch and Hainle Vineyards. Both wineries have a tasting room, and Greata offers a wonderful veranda with wine and cheese pairing and unmatched views of the lake. Open from April through October.

Just 18 miles south of Peachland, we come to the lovely town of Summerland. Blessed with warm beaches, bright blue skies, and the perfect climate for orchard or vineyard, it is a virtual Garden of Eden. Some of my earliest memories are centered in this paradisiacal area, and it was here that I attended my first two years of school.

Old Summerland is down on the water, where they have recently built a beautiful resort, Summerland Waterfront Resort Spa. I haven’t tried it yet, but it is getting good reviews on Trip Advisor.

Outside of being at the lake level and having a very nice pool and access to water sports, there isn’t much to do down here. But it’s only a 5-minute drive to uptown;  and Penticton, with its numerous restaurants and shops, is only 15 minutes away. Most of the town’s business now thrives on the upper benches.

 To the west of town, lies fertile Prairie Valley, where I was fortunate enough to live during the 1940s, and now is resplendent with vineyards. Driving up into the hills behind Prairie Valley, you can experience the fun of the old Kettle Valley Steam Railway, while you traverse ten miles of beautiful, vistas along the only preserved section of this historic railway. You’ll enjoy the sights of the old reservoir, lush orchards, and new vineyards until reaching a spectacular view of lake and land from the old railway bridge, two hundred and thirty eight feet above the floor of Trout Creek Canyon.

The sight and sound of the restored 1912 locomotive, the ‘KVR 3716’ will bring the era of steam travel alive, as you ride along on this ninety minute journey in a vintage passenger coach or open air car. On certain trips throughout the summer months, one can experience the ‘old west’ as the notorious Garnett Valley Gang raids the train and ‘robs’ the passengers all for the benefit of local charities. The outing includes a delicious BBQ and musical entertainment.

From Prairie Valley Road, you also get a magnificent view of Summerland’s major landmark, Giant’s Head, an extinct volcano that is now a mountain with a face that resembles the profile of a man. The stump of the volcano’s cone remains in the form of this monolithic rock Reminders of the cataclysmic volcanic explosion that created Giant's Head Mountain are regularly found in the area. These are examples of lava bombs, volcanic material that spewed into the air and cooled in round shapes in the Summerland Museum.

Summerland is home to 10 wineries, from the premier Sumac Ridge winery north of town, to my favourite boutique winery, Dirty Laundry Vineyard, set in a perfect location between Giants Head Mountain and Trout Creek Canyon. Many of them now have their own viewing verandas for tasting and lunches.

Directly across the lake from Summerland are the village of Naramata and the famous wine growing Naramata Benches. The only way in, is through Penticton and you’re better to overnight in that vacation center. While there is the Sandy Bay Resort with lovely cabins for those who want to make their own food; as well as some lovely B&Bs, there are not many restaurants to choose from in this small village.  You probably will decide to drive back to Penticton to eat in any case.

But the views are well worth a day trip along the east side of the lake, and the wines are excellent no matter where you travel in the Central Okanagan Valley. My suggestion is after visiting a few of Naramata’s 19 estate wineries, take a break with a patio lunch at the excellent Rooster Winery where you get a fabulous view of Giant’s Head across the lake and an equally great glass or two of chilled Rosé wine.

Top: Giant's Head Mountain, Summerland, B.C.  Bottom: Red Rooster Winery, Naramata Bench

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