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Okanagan Revolution

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Story by Nancy Gratham

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There is a legend growing in British Columbia. Millions of years ago, it says, dense ice carved its way across the province. When it reached the south central interior, it chiselled out the 200-kilometre long Okanagan Valley. And when the ice melted, that valley turned water into wine. Well, maybe things didn’t quite go like that, but spend a summer day in the Okanagan, and it is perfectly apparent that these sunny, dry, vine-laden slopes have found their higher purpose.

This is wine country. And golf country, for that matter. Oh, and ski country and, more and more these days, world-class leisure-resort country, too. It’s no surprise then that tourism in the area now generates nearly a billion dollars annually, and those tourists, along with the retirees who have also discovered the benefits of Okanagan life, are behind the fastest-growing industry in the area.

The Okanagan has become a bona fide destination, and while the reasons for that may have started with the area’s fortuitous location on the northern edge of the Sonora Desert a location that brings it more hours of sunshine a day than even Honolulu they really begin with its drink. There are now some 50 wineries in the Okanagan Valley (80 in B.C. and about 170 in Canada), and they are definitely not what they used to be. A government-sponsored haul-out of 90 percent of the province’s jug-worthy hybrid grapes about 20 years ago made room for better vines and rejuvenated a wallowing industry. Regrettably, what the old

hybrids were producing once inspired Maclean’s magazine to declare, “B.C. wines needed a stepladder just to hit the heights of mediocrity.” No more. These days wineries in the Southern Okanagan are growing the “noble” vinifera grapes long responsible for the world’s best wines. And the world is starting to notice. High atop Mission Hill on the edge of Kelowna, Mission Hill Family Estate has had a lot to do with that growing renown. The winery rang the bell on the new era of B.C. winemaking in 1994 when its Mission Hill Grand Reserve Chardonnay 1992 won the International Wine and Spirits Competition’s prestigious Avery Trophy for the “Best Chardonnay Worldwide.”

Today, in a testament to how far we’ve come, Mission Hill proprietor Anthony von Mandl is president of that competition, one of the wine world’s most important appointments, and his winery is a favoured stop for wine and food types the world over. From the vantage point of The Terrace, Mission Hill’s exquisite mountain-top eatery, the picture of the Okanagan’s recent evolution is as clear as the view of Okanagan Lake below. This is no longer just a fruit-pickers’ haven. It is a serious destination for Canadians and world travellers alike. “This is just like the Napa,” declared one well-versed Terrace diner recently, “but with better water features.” Indeed, these diners are seasoned tasting-room tourists hunting for oenophile treasure in little wineries and local rooms across the valley. And here’s the thing: with the agri-tourists come the eco-tourists, riding their full-suspension Rocky Mountains along the trails of the storied Kettle Valley Railway, hiking the mountain passes and rafting the frothing rivers. And those who don’t want to go extreme go to golf.

For every winery in this thriving valley there is a golf course, and many of those can be counted among the best anywhere. The city of Kelowna on the shores of Okanagan Lake is home to a generous number of those award-winning tracts, such as Gallagher Canyon Golf and Country Club. To the south, Summerland and Penticton Golf Clubs, Fairview Mountain and Inkameep Desert Canyon in tiny Oliver, officially known now as the Wine Capital of Canada, not to mention the 27-hole Osoyoos Golf and Country Club,

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attract thousands of players annually. They come for the dramatic desert scenery and unique desert golf, but if playing through a patch of prickly pears is a challenge, finding a place to stay won’t be. If ever there was an out-of-bounds line that separated golfing and resort living in the Okanagan, it has by now been well-blurred.

From the high-end Tuscan villas that overlook the fairways at Okanagan Golf Club in Kelowna to the Craftsman cottages and lodge at Predator Ridge just outside of Vernon, greenside accommodations are big business in a still booming provincial real-estate market. In fact, B.C. swept the top five spots Kelowna and Penticton among them—on its way to claiming seven of the country’s top 10 most desirable cottage-country markets last year. It should come as no surprise then that the initial phases of Skaha Beach Club & Spa on Skaha Lake in Penticton were snapped up so quickly.

The ash cabinets, Italian limestone flooring and indoor/outdoor fireplaces surely had a lot to do with that. But so did the lifestyle of active leisure that comes as part of the purchase price. Along with the private lake, health club and wine bar serving some of the finest offerings from one of the most rapidly expanding of the new world wine regions, developer Mel Reeves had the good sense to incorporate a “Mission Zen” spa into his design plans.

The massage-and-mud industry in this country is still in its economic infancy, but spa tourism was one of the fastest-growing niches in Canada last year, tallying a billion dollars of revenue along the way. And chances are the same folks who enjoy vino therapy or a Vichy shower also take pleasure in a fine glass of B.C.

late harvest wine, a round on a championship course, an afternoon at the wine festival or hiking the scenic trails. Come winter, world-class ski hills are a short drive away. The good news is, once those folks have found their way to the Okanagan, all their favourite things are right where they want them.

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