Quick – name a city in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley! You said “Kelowna”, right? I’m willing to bet most readers did; it’s what I would have said too. Given its central location and international airport, it’s not surprising that Kelowna is the best known city in this BC region and a very popular tourist destination. But Vernon, nestled between lakes in the northern part of the valley, is sort of like Kelowna’s lesser-known little sister – all the same great genes and personality, just not yet as well known as her popular big sis. In the case of the Okanagan, those ‘great genes’ comprise a dry climate (hot in summer, snowy in winter), wineries, plentiful fruit orchards, alluring hill-and-lake scenery, outdoor recreation opportunities galore and an excellent hospitality scene. So while Kelowna may get more international attention, Vernon is very much worth a visit. And it’s only a 40 minute drive from the airport.
The Family Fun Canada team was recently privileged to spend a long weekend in Vernon, during our company retreat. We filled our time with bonding, touring and enjoy the good life. Suffice to say we also did plenty of eating, drinking, spa-ing (is that a word?) and threw in a little sport and some strategizing, in an effort to appear balanced. Here’s how we explored the area’s big selling features.
Wine, Cider and Spirits
Unless you’re a teetotaler, one of the biggest draws of wine country is… the wine, of course! Nobody had to tell us twice, so we made the relaxing (and sensible) choice, and hopped a mini-bus professionally driven by MJ of MJO Tours. Far more than just a driver, MJ was a font of information about the history of Vernon, as well as its current attractions. She escorted us to four notable wineries (Ex Nihilo, Arrowleaf, Gray Monk and 50th Parallel), as well as a fascinating craft distillery (Okanagan Spirits), a rustic cidery (BX Press) and even a meadery (Honeymoon Meadery at Planet Bee). Each stop featured product tastings (included with the tour) and, en-route, MJ kept us fortified with a constantly changing selection of cheese, crackers and chocolate.
Boozing it up – er, informing our palates – all day requires stamina, so we took a well-deserved break midday to enjoy a delicious lunch on the patio at Gray Monk (also included in our tour). The September day was a touch on the chilly side, but we all wrapped up in the soft throws thoughtfully provided by Gray Monk for its restaurant patrons and thoroughly enjoyed the vineyard-and-lake view and all the planters overflowing with late summer flowers while we ate.
I particularly enjoyed the historical information that MJ offered during our tour and was struck by the resiliency of the folks who call the Okanagan home. From the earliest settlers putting down roots, to Japanese families interned in the area (and those that managed to hold on to their properties because their farms were considered vital to the war efforts), to fruit farmers who have had to continually adapt to changing economic conditions and consumer demands, these people are very much of the can-do variety. I came away really admiring their spirit and their vision and goals for their community.
My lasting impressions from our delightful day ‘on the road’: (a) there are some positively delectable wines, spirits and other alcoholic beverages produced by passionate artisans in Vernon, (b) each location we visited was completely unique to the others, in terms of architecture, design, varietal focus and atmosphere, (c) Vernon is surrounded by stunning scenery and (d) even little sips can really add up after a bit, so keep the food and water flowing as fast as the wine!
Despite our group devotion to wine, we couldn’t possibly go home without sampling some of the outdoor recreation that the Okanagan is famous for. So we spent a day trying two of the area favourites: golf and standup paddleboarding (SUP).
Our home-away-from-home for the weekend, Predator Ridge, is a lovely condo hotel that also happens to boast a world class golf course. In fact, it’s the summer home of Hockey Canada and I gather that hockey players know a thing or two about golf. We, however, did not, so we were lucky to get a beginner lesson from AJ Eathorne, a former LPGA player and PGA caddy. That girl can hit a ball! She was the perfect first-time coach, cracking jokes right along with us and making us all feel super comfortable while still managing to teach us a few things. I surprised myself by loving it, even if I didn’t show any signs of being a golf prodigy.
Onward to another new experience… on the water! The KalaVida Surf Shop, on the shores of Lake Kalamalka, has a distinctly Hawaiian vibe, but it’s all about the flat water round these parts. Our friendly and competent guide Lina coaxed us on to our boards and had us all zipping (or at least wobbling) along in no time. A competitive SUP racer herself, Lina even demonstrated some yoga moves on her board, all the while several months pregnant. Suitably impressed, the rest of us remained upright – and darn proud of it too. Can’t wait to try SUP again next summer!
OK, enough with the balance and back to the hedonism. While they certainly don’t play much of a role in my everyday life, I do love really nice spas. The Kurspa at Sparkling Hill Resort, a brief shuttle ride from Predator Ridge, is far more than that – it’s a destination spa. You could easily spend the whole weekend there. And you’d come out glowing. I’m not sure how to describe the spa without sounding like I’m writing a brochure, so I’ll just hit the high points. Heated outdoor infinity pool overlooking a gorgeous lake view. Serene meditation/relaxation room and a tea room. Indoor saltwater pool with underwater music. Seven completely unique steam rooms and saunas. Experiential showers. Kneipp Waterway (new to me!). Swarovski crystals everywhere. And we didn’t even get around to trying one of their myriad of spa services. It’s magnificent and it’s worthy of a visit all on its own.
So that’s how we spend one very fine long weekend in Vernon, BC. I’d happily go back and spend another. I’d also happily explore the area with our kids in tow. One tidbit of advice if you do plan to go and will be flying: don’t just carry one small bag onto the plane… it was a little tough watching the ladies who’d driven from Vancouver stocking up on bottles, fresh fruit, and goodies of all descriptions to take home with them!
The one consolation about having to make the trip home to Calgary/reality? The stellar Rocky Mountain view from the plane! But I bet it would look just as nice heading west again…