Banff, Alberta

“What good is the warmth of summer without the cold of winter to give it sweetness* or if winter is there can summer be far behind. How ever you put it, Canada is not all winter-scape and ski slopes but a country eagerly awaiting the expansive warm summer months for a playful jamboree of the three ‘S’ (sun, snow, surf). We join the summer rush for Kelowna, the mesmeric British Columbia town on shores of Okanagan Lake tippled with spectacular vistas of snow clad mountains glowering down on world-class wineries.

img_3296

Kelowna : An early start, around 7 am from Calgary, for a six-hour plus journey via Trans-Canada Hwy/AB-1 W and Trans-Canada Hwy/BC-1 W, has its dividends and we meet limited traffic as the road cleaves past golden prairie land tweaked by omnipresent jagged brown foothills. Further on the mountains turn green with cedar and pine forests interspersed with aquamarine lakes and gurgling streams. Road signs list this as wild life country, Banff National Park, but there is no sign of animals, not even a stray deer.

dsc05729There was no stopping in Banff and we take a detour for Yoho National Park and the cyan-esque Emerald Lake. To use a cliché it is a picture perfect lake guarded by the President, Burgess and Wapta Mountain ranges. The serenity is ephemeral as busloads of chattering tourists, waving selfie sticks, descend on the ramps. For a devilish moment I want to flip the crowd into the water to let me savor the surroundings. The person who had discovered this natural beauty in 1882, European Guide Tom Wilson, would probably have shared similar sentiments. We leave the Lake to the tourists, more buses driving into the parking lot, and move on for more nature’ freebies….. Skunk Cabbage Walk, Giant Cedars Interpretative Walk, Takkakaw Falls and Revelstoke a mountain community on the banks of River Columbia. Revelstoke, 415 km west of Calgary and 641 km from Vancouver, boasts of one of North America’s greatest vertical ski runs. With added capers such as dog sledding, snowshoeing, night skiing, walking trails, dirt biking trails, golf courses (summer fun) and vibrant musical evenings it is definitely an all round vacation destination.

We pass Vernon stretched out on the shores of the 16 kilometres long Kalamalka Lake. The glacial Lake is surrounded by rolling grasslands and green screens of Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir and it is difficult to decipher the color from the car, between tealish to indigo. The reason for color variants is due to limestone deposits left by receding glaciers. Vernon is a bustling mountain resort with its own airport and an alternate to Kelowna for an extended weekend stay.

Kelowna: Finally…. mission accomplished as we alight at Marriott Fairfield Hotel, the best family hotel we could manage in the over packed summer season calendar. Marriott is comfortable, child friendly with good size rooms and breakfast included. The ‘breakfast’ feature is a boon in any hotel as one is relaxed to plan day movements. A quick change and we are out to explore the city erroneously named ‘Grizzly bear’ in Okanagan language. There is nothing ‘grizzly’ or grouchy about this sedate town on eastern shore of Okanagan Lake. In fact, I read somewhere that Kelowna is  one of the most ‘livable’ cities in Canada due to its salubrious climate, abundance of fresh fruits and veggies and the supercalifragilistic* Okanagan Lake with its 135 km of extended shoreline (stretching from Vernon in the North to Penticton in the south). Along with water sports, SUPs (stand up paddle boards) fancy houseboats, ski boats, sailboats, kayaks and canoes to explore coves and bays one can ski even in summer (three major ski runs within an hours drive). An endless list of activities from golfing, hiking, bungee jumping, camping, climbing, caving, skydiving, Zip lining, horse riding or simply rolling in surf and sand with evenings devoted to pub-crawling or casino recce makes Kelowna a perfect me-time weekend destination. The highest peak is Big White Mountain, south-east of Kelowna, a skiing wonder with an annual 25 ft. of dry powder snow.

Okanagan Lake
Marina

It is the peaceful extended shoreline that makes us regret our late travel plans as we miss out on the waterside cottages in West Kelowna. Still we were lucky to manage a room at Marriott with easy access to Kelowna’s main street forking to the Marina, afloat with multi-colored boats of varying sizes and shapes, and flanked by restaurants, gift stores, img_3277boutiques, museums, art galleries and parks aflame with multi-hued flowers. Towards late evening the pebbled walkways transform into bruyante gaieté with tourists, bachelor and bachelorette parties crowding into restaurants, pubs or simply lounging along the lakeshore extracting their share of sun and camaraderie.

We linger on in the Rhapsody Plaza area of Waterfront Park, there is a slight chill in the air, but it is fun watching people cavort in and out of shops and restaurants and what is missing are the parasols and boardwalk silhouettes of British seaside towns. Downtown Kelowna is within walking distance to parks, beaches, walking trails, the Marina, Yacht Club, Delta Grand Hotel and adjoining Lake City Casino. Shops and restaurants line Bernard Avenue and Richter Street even though Bernard Avenue extends into a residential zone. The commercial and cultural hubs are within Richter and Abbot streets and Water Street along the Lake.

Food: Summer is the time for patio dining and we explore the available options. On Day One it was Vietnamese buffet and since we arrived twenty minutes before closing time had to fast feed ourselves. Day Two was Indian cuisine at Dawett Fine Indian Cuisine (1435 Ellis St.). This is one thing that intrigues me, that in spite of sizable Indian diaspora quality Indian restaurants are limited in cities worldwide. Either they are fancy and charge exorbitant rates or there are mom-and pop types using too much cooking medium and spices. In need of mood swing I try my hand at the slot machines at Lake City Casino at Delta Grand Okanagan and stumble out with miniscule earnings, $75, from trying out nearly 20 slot machines. I was probably zapped by the kitschy brazenness of 500 slot machines and table games spread out in 30,000 square feet. Once bitten I learn the trick for slot machines… to never sit on a machine where the previous occupant had won and to try the machines with weird facades.

Chinatown: Kelowna’s ambiance and climate were the drawing points for visitors and settlers including  French Roman Catholic missionary Father Charles M Pandosy who settled here in 1859. The popular 1908 Annual Regatta drew competitors and crowds from neighbouring towns of Okanagan Valley and Vancouver, despite absence of road links, and was one of the reasons for the city’s historic maturing and evolution as a tourist destination.  Chinatown, situated between Harvey and Leon Avenues, had an important visitor in 1911,  Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen. He visited Kelowna for fundraising as around this time nearly 15% of Kelowna’s population was of Chinese origin. The numbers drastically dwindled over the years due to decline in business and Chinese people moving to Vancouver and Alberta.

dsc05821

We gave history a miss, along with Kelowna Art Gallery and Okanagan Heritage Museum, preferring the Wineries and fruit farms for the heady combination of scenic beauty and spectacular shoreline. Kelowna boasts of about 30 wineries out of the 200 wineries in the entire Okanagan Valley region. Most are family owned, including Mission Hills Family Estate Winery overlooking the breathtaking Okanagan Valley wine country and Okanagan Lake, that have opened their premises to tours and wine sampling.

Winery Visit: A slight drizzle fails to camouflage the speeding motorboats and dawdling yachts as we cross Okanagan lake via the five-lane floating  William R. Bennet Bridge, connecting Kelowna with West Kelowna and West bank. We had booked the 60 minute Reserve tour at Mission Hill and head straight for fortress-like entry gates via a drive framed by Oak trees. The construction, a throwback of a movie setting with massive contemporary curved arches held together by single Keystone and hand chiseled Indiana limestone, is slightly overwhelming as we follow our Guide to the Wine Education Centre for a recorded inspirational film about the Estate. The curved roof, made of hand-welded copper sheets, is a recurring theme throughout the winery. Equally fascinating is  the Outdoor Terrace, the Loggia and the BELL TOWER with the four bronze bells said to handcrafted in Annecy, France by the Paccard Bell Foundry and dedicated to immediate family members, the Amphitheater, tried to visualize a Shakespeare play under balmy skies and the award-winning Terrace Restaurant overlooking the Lake.

From here we trooped down to the underground Barrel Cellar to learn about the intricate process of fermenting, ageing and protecting fine wines. The cellars, with a capacity for 800 barrels, are well-lighted, humidity controlled and environment-dedicated but they remind me of Alibaba’s cave and I await for forty thieves to pop out from the caskets. A gated wine vault is home to the family’s personal wine collection served during special family occasions and as benchmark against some of the world’s top producers. The only source of natural light into the cellar is from an oculus or an eye placed in the ceiling. Oculus is also the name of the winery’s premium wine.

A brief photo  session and with some more comments about the collection the tour culminates with sips of three award-winning wines at the tasting room above. Next-door to the tasting room is the expansive Wine Boutique and Gift Shop, open year round, with display and sale of wines, art pieces, cook books, hand painted Italian ceramics, art and artifacts, condiments and preserves. One can redeem the $5 Gift Voucher towards purchase of any of the three newly tasted wines. We purchased a Reserve 2014 Pinot Noir and a jar of Fig Preserve. There is more to the Mission and if I had the time would have booked a Wine and Food Pairing event.

A wine-full end to the tour and lunch is at another family owned winery, Quails Gate Winery and its Old Vines Restaurant, an all season culinary destination on the slopes of the extinct volcano Mount Boucherie. The abundant resources of the Okanagan Valley is complemented by gracious service, good food and sublime wines. It is the landscape that plays to our senses ending in a languorous, amative afternoon.

Kelowna Farmers Market and Lavender Farms: I imagine lavender vistas as we head for Okanagan Lavender farms, a beautiful farm property set in picturesque surroundings with sweeping views of Okanagan Lake. Again wrong timing of visit, as August is end of season with lavender flowers in harvesting stage. Few purple patches are still visible and we head straight for the deck café for some lavender lemonade, a delicious summer drink & lavender gelato and a gorgeous view of Okanagan Lake. (https://www.okanaganlavender.com). Next-door gift shop is an indulgence of handcrafted products, tea blends including Citrus Spearmint Tea; lavender oils and creams, spices, wedding favors and home products. I buy Pure Lavender Essential Oil and a jar of Lavender Jelly.

Next on our list is fruit picking. Kelowna’s agricultural products are internationally renowned and the best way to enjoy fresh-from-the-tree fruits is to book a picking hour. One can check out farm listings in tourist guides and most are free or charge nominal fees for the fruit picking. We drive through winding mountain lanes flanked with fruit trees drooping under their produce towards our selected farm to find that there are no cherries or grapes but only pears.  The ‘picking’ trees are marked, with no restrictions on numbers and I think we weighed the quantity and paid accordingly. The Farm-to Table movement is  spreading big time in Canada…check out this site…..http://www.fromfarmtotable.ca

dsc05916Finally it was time to return to the city, for one last walk along the Marina, to gaze at the twinkling lights reflected in the frisky waters of Okanagan Lake. A three-day trip turned into a fascinating nature trip because as the tourist blurb says… ‘Gorge on cherries, bob for apples and stomp grapes….Kelowna is down-to-earth but luxuriant all the same’.

On return journey, to Calgary, we stop at a Kangaroo Farm…a feel of Australia in Canada with joeys, giant kangaroos, wallabies and even an emu serenading us. www.kangaroocreekfarm.com   address: 3193 Hill Road, Lake Country BC V4V1T7, Canada.

How to get to Kelowna:  Kelowna International Airport. (YLW) from major Canada cities. Or by road from any city.

Other Facts

  1. John Steinbeck….TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY: IN SEARCH OF AMERICA
  2. supercalifragilistic   from Disney film MARY POPPINS 1964 (Wikipedia
  3. There are more than 60 grape varieties grown in the Okanagan including Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Auxerrois blanc, Marechal Foch and Cabernet Franc
  4. Kelowna is second largest wine-producing region due to its continental climate.
  5. Other places of interest are: Prospera Place, home to Kelowna Rockets in heart of Central District: Rotary Center for Arts; Kelowna Community Theater, a 853 seat theater presenting wide range of live productions from comedy, dance performances to kids shows. It is home to Ballet Kelowna, Okanagan Symphony Orchestra and Kelowna Community Concert Society.
  6. Another must visit site is Myra Canyon. This is the highly scenic part of Kettle Valley Runway (KVR) that runs along a steep-walled canyon. Constructed at turn of century the Canyon is highlighted by 2 tunnels and 18 trestle bridges.