Travel + Leisure magazine listed it among its best places to travel in 2016. It’s recently been named the number one wine region in the world by the Huffington Post. Wine Enthusiast Magazine listed it as one of the 10 best wine travel destinations. And USA Today ranked it the second best wine region to visit.
Clearly, word is out about B.C.’s flavour-filled Okanagan.
And what’s not to love about the wine- and food-filled valley? There’s 250 kilometers of rolling orchard and farmland—all just a half-day’s drive from Calgary. You’ll find clear, deep lakes in British Columbia’s fertile interior, 136 (and counting) wineries, a community of immensely talented farm-to-table chefs and a jaw-dropping recreation paradise. Oh, and it’s now a full-fledged four-season destination.
But with so much to do, so many tasty things to eat and drink—where do you start? How do you choose? And where do you end up?
Much of the buzz about the Okanagan comes from the trailblazing wineries of the Naramata Bench, jaw-dropping new winery experiences in Okanagan Falls, agritourism in Oliver, and First Nations cultural enterprises in Osoyoos.
The southern third of the valley has recently emerged with such rich and eclectic experiences—while somehow maintaining its laid-back charm, which can be a welcome break from the crowds in Kelowna. And Penticton makes an ideal home base for a South Okanagan adventure. The beachside city of 32,000 boasts a mom-and-pop shop Main Street and chill beachy vibe, along with luxurious creature comforts for visitors.
“Meet you back at the Peach,” I yell to my husband as I push my standup paddleboard off from the beach onto the mirror-flat lake. It’s a very early season paddle in chilly waters, but the hubby and I both needed some out- door adventure after being cooped up all winter. As I paddle out, my husband sets off on his bike along the South Okanagan-Similkameen Cycling Network, a world-class trail crossing orchards, vineyards and valleys.
In a couple of hours, we’ll meet back near the east end of Penticton’s Rotary Beach, at the legendary local concession stand housed in a giant peach. With so many options, we’re spoiled for choices, and today, we take a divide and conquer approach to the morning’s outdoor activities. (Seems like just yesterday we were carving through fresh spring powder at the lakeside Apex Mountain Resort, which is just 30 minutes from downtown Penticton.)
After working up an appetite, we wander from the beach up Main Street. These quaint storefronts and independent boutiques are the stuff every town wants, but few actually have. First up: The BookShop, a Penticton institution since 1974. I risk losing myself for hours among the 5,000 square feet of vintage titles.
Two blocks north is Ad Hoc clothing, with its impressive collections of Canadian-crafted women’s wear, shoes and accessories. But our stomachs are grumbling, so we pass by quickly on our way to Brodo Kitchen for chef Paul Cecconi’s local comfort food and funky farmhouse decor. I can’t decide what to have, so I don’t—I order the flight of soup, a genius idea where you get three small tasters of soups of the day.
As we travel north from Penticton, I shout “Winery!” about every 40 seconds as my husband graciously acts as my designated driver. I also call out “Distillery! Cheeseshop! Cidery! Another winery!” as he focuses on the twists and turns of the road that strings together some of Canada’s best wineries in a stretch known as the Naramata Bench. It’s only about 14 kilometres from Penticton to Naramata, a village of 2,000 residents, but at this delicious pace, it could take us a week.
This is a region bursting with over- the-top natural beauty. But the dramatic clay-bank terraces and rolling orchards rising between Penticton and Okanagan Mountain Park really take the landscape cake. Hikers, cyclists, and walkers will want to plan a few hours on the TransCanada Trail in and around Naramata.
This portion of the former Kettle Valley Railway—the “KVR” in local parlance—has some of the best views you can find. The abandoned rail route has been repurposed as a recreational trail, ideal for cyclists. Book a tour to bike through forests and canyons, passing alpine lakes along the way.
We make a pit stop at Upper Bench Winery & Creamery for cheesemaker Shana Miller’s outstanding cow’s milk cheeses, including satiny U&Brie and assertive King Cole, both made on site. Of course, there’s some wine tasting to do, as Upper Bench’s wines are also estate grown and made. While you’re there, ask about joining the Curds & Corks Club, which nets you complimentary wine- and-cheese tastings at the winery, as well as quarterly shipments to get the tasty goods at home.
Next, we venture down into quaint Naramata Village to Forest Green Man Lavender, a tiny gift shop of handmade lavender products and more, set against fields of lavender and orchards. It’s then time to hit Naramata’s “living room”—Manitou Beach—for the late-day rays before a sunset dinner at Vanilla Pod Restaurant at Poplar Grove Winery. The gorgeous hillside property overlooks the glowing lights of Penticton—the perfect end to the perfect day.
“This should take care of a few calories,” I pant as I lean into the steady incline of Giant’s Head Mountain trail. Summerland, on the west side of Okanagan Lake, catches early morning rays on its beautiful beaches (Sun-Oka, Peach Orchard, Rotary, Kinsmen and Powell). Other must-sees include quaint European half-timber buildings, and its signature landform, Giant’s Head.
Before our morning trek, we caffeinated at Good Omens Coffee House and ducked into True Grain Bread for traditional pastries made from Okanagan-grown organic wheat. So the 15-minute walk from the mountain’s parking lot to the summit was very necessary!
The sweeping vistas at the summit—some 500 metres above the valley floor—made the hike well worth it. From here, we spot the 1912 KVR locomotive rumbling along the track.
For lunch, we literally eat and drink in our lovely view at Local Lounge and Grille’s lakeside patio. We then explore the wineries and cideries along Summerland’s wine route—cheekily named Bottleneck Drive (bottleneckdrive.com). Our first stop is Sumac Ridge Estate Winery. Founded in 1979, it’s B.C.’s oldest operating estate winery. The recently renovated tasting room is the ideal setting to sample Stellar’s Jay Brut sparkling white and Black Sage zinfandel red.
For something completely different, we zip over to an improbable location for great wine: a bay in an industrial park. This is where Tyler Harlton’s TH Wines set up shop to craft hand- made vintages in very small batches.
“This view should be hanging in the Louvre,” I whisper to our server as she pours me a glass of Liquidity Winery’s rosé. The wine’s the colour of a sun- rise and made from 100-percent Dornfelder grapes, a rarity in the valley. And the view? I wonder how my careful pourer doesn’t constantly lose herself in these panoramic surroundings.
There’s the sleek, modern tasting room, itself a reason that Liquidity is a must-stop destination in Okanagan Falls. As you relax on the patio, soak in views of lakes Vaseux and Skaha. Then head to the bistro for Pacific Northwest dishes made with ingredients freshly cut from Chef Rob Walker’s own garden. The bistro was recently rated by Open Table as one of the top 100 restaurants in Canada.
After a sip and a bite, make your way to Liquidity’s indoor-outdoor gallery of sculpture and paintings. The winery hosts an artist lecture series, bringing some of the world’s top artists to the area to discuss their work—over a glass of wine, of course. Winemaker dinners, art exhibits and music events make Liquidity a total cultural experience.
Before destination wineries like Liquidity moved in, Okanagan Falls was an international rock-climbing haven. Now with better access and parking, Shaka Bluffs Provincial Park is a 489-hectare playground for climbers, hikers and mountain bikers. On well-marked hiking trails, we pass by groups ascending sheer rock faces, happily chatting away in German, Spanish, French and English.
OLIVER & OSOYOOS
“Laverne! Shirley! Tonta! Patrick” Derek Uhlemann calls the herd of shaggy-haired Highland cattle lumbering toward him. He’s handled these beauties since they were babies, but I’m still glad to be on the other side of the fence of these gentle giants. Uhlemann is an affable guide for Covert Farm’s Signature Series Experience farm tour. From the back of a 1952 Mercury pickup, guests explore the picturesque organic farm, U-pick and vineyard at the foot of McIntyre Bluff. It’s the perfect blend of South Okanagan history, culture and tastings.
The Okanagan has been home to the Interior Salish Syilx people for thousands of years. A great way to learn about the cultural history, flora, fauna and geography of the area is at the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre. The Osoyoos Band are also pioneers in aboriginal-owned and operated wineries, with award-wining vintages made at Nk’Mip Cellars.
“If we go any further south, we’ll need passports,” my husband remarks. He’s right—it’s time for us to head back north toward our picturesque home base, Penticton. As we look back on our short adventure—over a glass of pinot—we realize our South Okanagan to-do list has grown even more, in spite of our many pit stops. The more distilleries we visit, trails we bike, lakes we paddle, and dishes we taste, we realize there are still so many things to experience in the South Okanagan. Cheers to a return visit!
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