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Okanagan Valley, BC

Best Attractions in the Okanagan ValleyIn an area with dozens of attractions and things to see, you may have trouble deciding where to spend your time on your vacation. Here are the highlights for this destination, as chosen by AAA editors.

By Greg Weekes

Natural scenery is one of the Okanagan's chief calling cards, and since the valley is so spread out driving is really the best way to appreciate what it has to offer. You can explore from one end to the other and never run out of things to do, and around every bend of the road an inspiring vista unfolds. This overview of things to do in the Okanagan Valley moves from the southern to the northern end of the valley.

What to See Near Osoyoos, Keremeos and Hedley

Osoyoos (oh-SOY-yoos), just a stone's throw from the U.S. border, bills itself as “Canada's Spanish capital,” and the stucco walls, tile roofs and cactus motifs do vaguely suggest a Mediterranean resort that somehow ended up in southern British Columbia, set against an austere landscape of rocky hills. Hike interpretive trails and learn about the history of the Okanagan Nation people at the Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Centre (pronounced “inkameep”).

The far southern end of the Okanagan Valley verges on true desert. There's a stark beauty in the towering cliffs, bare hillsides and high, rounded bluffs. Some of the plants and animals inhabiting this arid environment are found nowhere else in Canada. Experience a protected portion of this fragile ecosystem at the Osoyoos Desert Centre . The prevailing vegetation of bunch grass, sage and prickly pear cactus is beyond the reach of the irrigation canals that have transformed much of the valley into checkerboard shades of green.

Take a side trip through the Similkameen Valley (from Osoyoos, head west on Hwy. 3). The scenery is delightfully bracing. The first 16 kilometres (10 mi.) pass through an arid region of sagebrush-spotted hills; the countryside is beautiful despite the prevailing shades of brown. Suddenly snowcapped mountains loom into view. The views, simultaneously desolate and grand, include mountain flanks dotted with individual trees that collectively create a pointillist effect. Richter Pass, where Hwy. 3 veers north, is framed by lofty peaks. Farther on the small agricultural community of Cawston is hemmed in by towering bluffs rising on each side of the roadway.

Keremeos, the valley's largest town, has orchards, vineyards and fruit ranches. Stop and pick up some fruit or vegetables at one of the local stands. West of Keremeos there is one spectacular view after another all the way to the hamlet of Hedley, which is dwarfed by the surrounding mountains and marbled cliffs. Hedley is an old mining town; with the aid of binoculars you can view the openings of abandoned mine shafts and the weathered ruins of old mine buildings perched precariously on the cliffs of Nickel Plate Mountain, some 1,524 metres (5,000 ft.) above the valley floor. Note: The distance from Osoyoos to Hedley and back is about 152 kilometres (94 mi.); allow 2 hours for the round trip.

Sample Wine in the Southern Okanagan Valley

Vineyards are one of the Okanagan's distinguishing features, and a winery tour is one of the valley's most popular outings. The Okanagan Valley is much drier than Ontario's Niagara district, Canada's other major wine-producing region. Intense sunshine, warm summer days and minimal rainfall are ideal for ripening grapes to full maturity, while cool nights help retain high acidity. The award-wining result: full-bodied reds like Cabernet Sauvignon.

About midway between Osoyoos and Oliver is the Burrowing Owl Estate Winery (from Hwy. 97, east on Hwy. 22 about 3 kilometres/1.9 miles). Vineyards at the southern end of the valley coexist with a desert environment that is varied but deceptively fragile, and here there is an emphasis on preserving the environment. Bluebird boxes and two bat nurseries encourage these voracious insect eaters to stick around, barriers protect the ground nests of meadowlarks and interloping snakes are safely relocated. The same sense of care extends to the Sonora Room, the winery's restaurant, which overlooks the vineyards and has a local reputation for prepared cuisine as well as fine service. Dinner reservations are recommended; phone (250) 498-0620.

Find More Wineries and Activities in Penticton and Naramata

Penticton straddles the southern tip of Okanagan Lake and the northern tip of Skaha Lake, giving this breezy summer recreation haven the best of both worlds. It's a beautifully scenic location tailor-made for enjoying the outdoors. Soak up some rays on the lakefront beach before touring the lovingly restored stern-wheeler Sicamous, which is docked nearby at SS Sicamous Stern Wheeler .

You could spend several days alone just checking out wineries around Penticton; the hills that rise up from Okanagan Lake's eastern shore are a major wine-producing area. The community of Naramata is the nucleus for some 20 (and counting) wineries, making it one of the most compact—not to mention picturesque—wine touring areas in the entire valley. From downtown Penticton stay on Eckhardt Avenue or Vancouver Avenue until you reach Upper Bench Road, which becomes Naramata Road as it winds for 16 delightfully scenic kilometres (10 mi.).

Hillside Winery and Bistro is one of the older, established wine-making operations. Tour the facilities and then have lunch at the rustic Barrel Room Bistro (the second-story patio has a wonderful view of Okanagan Lake and the surrounding orchards and vineyards). A good choice is the spinach salad garnished with seasonal fruits and berries, paired with a glass of Muscat Ottonel.

Another idyllic spot is Lake Breeze Vineyards, 930 Sammet Rd. (just off Naramata Road; watch for the signs). Mahdina's, the winery's patio restaurant, has a pretty setting looking out over the lake and a menu of salads and seafood dishes that go well with a white wine like Pinot Gris or Sauvignon Blanc. The Red Rooster Winery, 891 Naramata Rd., began as an entrepreneurial venture by a Swiss couple. The views are panoramic, with vineyards looking down on blue water, and the grounds are sprinkled with the offbeat work of local artists. Browse through the wine shop, which carries a selection of Chardonnay, Pinot and other wines as well as a whole bunch of rooster-themed gift items.

Take a trip on the Kettle Valley Steam Railway and discover a bit of the Okanagan's early 20th-century history. The Kettle Valley Railway line, built to link southern British Columbia mining camps to coastal communities, was a key player in the early development of the region's fruit industry. A vintage, restored 1912 steam locomotive chugs along a 16-kilometre (10-mi.) length of track, the only preserved section of this historic line. The train departs from the Prairie Valley Station on the outskirts of Summerland, passing lush orchards and vineyards before crossing Trout Creek Trestle Bridge, nearly 73 metres (240 ft.) above the floor of Myra Canyon.

Continue the Wine Tour in West Kelowna

There's another cluster of wineries in and around West Kelowna (Westbank), a sprawling Kelowna suburb on the western side of Okanagan Lake. Proprietor Anthony von Mandl's specialized tours and on-site cooking classes make a visit to the Mission Hill Family Estate more than just a reason to pick up a bottle of wine. Stroll around the extensive grounds and stop to listen to the four bronze bells—handcrafted in Annecy, France, at the venerable Paccard Bell Foundry—toll from the 12-story Bell Tower. It stands in a spacious courtyard where there also is an outdoor amphitheater and a loggia with views of the lake and valley below. A visit to the Bordeaux-style barrel cellar is part of the standard tour; you also can take a more personalized tour that adds a walk through the chef's private herb garden and savory tastes from the kitchen paired with five different wines. Have lunch al fresco on the terrace, which overlooks rows of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines.

What to See in Kelowna

Absorb the abstract paintings and sculptures of acclaimed Dutch artist Geert Maas at the Geert Maas Sculpture Gardens and Gallery north of Kelowna. The outdoor installations feature such works as “Ancestry,” cast bronze figures resting on a stainless steel hemisphere surrounded by a group of metal spheres. On view in the indoor gallery are acrylic paintings and two- and three-dimensional works in various sizes. You may even get to meet the artist himself.

Head North of Kelowna for Local Fruits and Farms

Roadside fruit stands throughout the valley are open daily during the summer and fall harvest season, but some keep haphazard hours. For a taste of the Okanagan's agricultural bounty, stop by Gatzke's Farm Market, 15686 Pelmewash Pkwy. in Oyama (10 minutes south of Vernon, 20 minutes north of Kelowna). Sample right-off-the-tree apples, cherries, pears, plums and nectarines, tour the farm operation, and pick up some homemade jam or one of grandma Gatzke's fruit pies to take with you. Gatzke's is open Victoria Day weekend (late May) to Thanksgiving (mid-October); phone (250) 548-3444.

The O'Keefe Ranch was one of British Columbia's largest cattle ranches in the late 19th century. Spanning more than 20,000 acres, it encompassed a small settlement that included the first post office in the Okanagan Valley. Relive those frontier days at the Historic O'Keefe Ranch . The Victorian-style mansion offers a peek into the lives of a prosperous ranching family. You can pan for gold, check out vintage farm machinery, ride a tractor, watch a saddle maker and a blacksmith at work, visit St. Anne's Church—the first service was held in 1889—or just walk around the park-like grounds enjoying the fresh air.

See all the AAA recommended attractions for this destination.

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Okanagan Valley, BC

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