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From Rieslings to Rattlesnakes

© By Hans Tammemagi
 
   

The Okanagan Valley, which cuts through the mountainous terrain of British Columbia with the precision of a surgical incision, is quite different from the rest of Canada, as my wife, Allyson, and I discovered recently. In a land renowned for ice and snow, the Okanagan sports a warm Mediterranean climate and, combined with the soft contours of the landscape, reminded us of New Zealand
     The shimmering blue waters of Okanagan Lake fill the valley floor for almost its entire 160-kilometre length as it stretches from Osoyoos near the United States border due north to Vernon. The long lake offers sandy beaches as a cool refuge from the summer heat as well as a range of water sports including sailing, fishing and swimming. However, we kept a wary eye out for Ogopogo, a legendary monster that is reputed to dwell below the waves.
     Kelowna, the valley's largest settlement and, situated halfway up the valley, was a good base for our explorations. It also has a renowned Cultural District-recently recognized as the "Best in Canada"-that covers six blocks encompassing galleries, museums, theatres and artists' studios. We found that the gardens, sculptures and pathways along the waterfront were a delightful place to promenade in the evenings and offered a never-ending variety of people watching.
     Blessed with rich soils and plentiful irrigation water, the Okanagan is lush and fertile; all through the summer and fall roadside stands are piled high with nature's bounty of fruits and vegetables. Grapes and wine, which date back 140 years to the early missionaries, dominate the valley and today over 100 wineries offer world-class vintages. We spent several afternoons wending our way along country roads amongst long rows of vines that march up and down the valley sides like platoons of soldiers. We stopped at numerous wineries to sample Rieslings, Gewürztraminers, Pinot Noirs and Canada's specialty, ice wine.
     Allyson's favourite was Summerhill Pyramid Winery, perched high on the valley slope, where we sampled champagne with wonderful vistas. Steve Cipes, the proprietor, led us into the dark, spiritual depths of the pyramid, an exact scale replica of the Great Pyramid of Egypt. "The pyramid channels the earth's flux of magnetism," he explained. "All our wines are aged here so they can be infused with this energy."
     One day, Allyson and I went hiking in Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park just south of Kelowna. Following the trail through a ponderosa-pine forest along the rolling valley side we passed soaring cliffs, waterfalls and had sweeping panoramas of the lake. The trail wound through the charred devastation caused by the great forest fire of 2003, which contrasted with the green tinge of re-growth. Then the steep walls of Wild Horse Canyon enclosed us and we thought of ghosts of Salish Indians who used to trap wild stallions here.

   

     The Okanagan Valley is also busy in the winter season for the surrounding hills offer downhill and cross-country skiing, snow shoeing, snowmobiling and, of course, there is always ice fishing. Mt. Baldy Ski Resort is located near Osoyoos and Big White Ski Resort is near Kelowna.
     At the southern end of the Okanagan Valley is a truly unique habitat: a desert. At the Osoyoos Desert Centre we strolled along a boardwalk that carried us through a fragile sun-burnt landscape of antelope brush and sage that is home to many rare and endangered species including the badger, the burrowing owl and the rattlesnake. As Joanne Muirhead, the Director, explained, "Here at the Desert Centre we are striving to protect this unique and beautiful ecosystem. It's the only one in Canada and with the rapid development in this area, it could be gone in 15 years." Allyson and I agreed that that should not happen.
     The clear night skies have made the Osoyoos area a Mecca for astronomers with their telescopes. One night we drove high up the valley slope to visit with Jack Newton, an internationally renowned amateur astronomer and his Observatory Bed and Breakfast. We sat in a comfortable 16-seat theatre, sipping wine, while Jack showed spectacular photos of galaxies, sun spots and rings of distant planets on a wall-sized screen. Then we climbed to the top floor and gazed through his 16-inch telescope complete with a rotating domed roof at the moon's craters and other wonders of the cosmos.
     My favourite winery was NK'MIP Cellars owned by the Osoyoos Indian Band. As we learned to our delight, the arid desert climate produces big bruising reds and crisp whites. We sampled Merlots and Chardonnays surrounded by vibrant native masks, paintings and carvings featuring bears, beavers and eagles.
     Then, we wandered next door to the NK'MIP Desert Cultural Centre where the displays and films gave a fascinating insight into the history and culture of the Osoyoos Indian Band. We strolled along a network of trails through the dry desert landscape and a reconstructed native village including a cool pit house.
     We watched as a rattlesnake that had been implanted with a radio transmitter was released into the wild as part of the Centre's Rattlesnake Research Program. Wayne McKibbon, the chief biologist, explained, "We have placed transmitters in over 400 rattlers in the past three years and are getting to know a lot about their behaviour. We even built a snake-proof fence to divert one of their regular routes away from the campground." As the snake emerged from the bag we were surprised to see its rattle had been painted in bright stripes, like a fancy spa pedicure. "We give each rattler a distinctive code so we can identify them," McKibbon said.
     A variety of golf courses abound in the Okanagan. The Sonora Dunes course in Osoyoos, for example, is renowned for its resident rattlesnakes. We were warned to tread carefully when we hit into the rough.
     On our last evening, Allyson and I sat on a winery patio enjoying dinner and sipping a wine as the setting sun glistened on the lake and framed the hills in fiery pastels. We raised our glasses and promised to return to this sunny paradise.

   

Hans Tammemagi has written two travel books: Exploring Niagara - The Complete Guide to Niagara Falls & Vicinity and Exploring the Hill - A Guide to Canada's Parliament Past & Present. His work is often featured in Osprey and CANWEST papers.

Photo credits
Hans Tamemmagi
Click for Kelowna, British Columbia Forecast

If you go
This Destination
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www.destinationosoyoos.com & www.tourismkelowna.com: general information and accommodation
www.nkmipcellars.com: NK'MIP Cellars winery: 1400 Rancher Creek Road, Osoyoos
www.desert.org: Osoyoos Desert Centre, 146th Avenue
www.nkmipdesert.com: NK'MIP Desert Cultural Centre, 1000 Rancher Creek Road, Osoyoos.
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Okanagan_Valley

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