Surf, sun and sand in Kelowna (photo: Shawn Talbot Photography); the author and her family at a local park, circa 1975 (inset)

Kelowna Then and Now

By Twyla Campbell

Each summer from 1967 to 1978, my family drove 1,500 kilometres from our farm in southeastern Saskatchewan to spend two weeks vacationing at my grandparents’ home in Kelowna, B.C. Back then, a non-stop Trans-Canada Highway trip could take 24 hours. Our drives took three days—with seven of us in the family car and a tent trailer in tow. My siblings and I passed the time reading, sleeping and playing road-trip games.

Seeing the Rockies come into view near Calgary was always a milestone on the journey. There were still hundreds of kilometres to go, but those peaks were our halfway point.

Rogers Pass was another marker. Emerging from the darkness of a highway snow shed signalled our proximity to the Enchanted Forest and Three Valley Gap—two kitschy but endearing tourist attractions. But it was shimmering Kalamalka Lake south of Vernon that told us we’d reached the Okanagan.

A couple of days and we’d be sun-browned and feral. We spent most of our waking hours at the beach or the pool, with breaks to refuel on burgers, homemade ice pops and carrots pilfered from grandma’s garden.

That was my childhood Kelowna. Visiting as an adult—and an AMA member—things are a little different.

With a population of just over 130,000, Kelowna is the Okanagan’s largest and most tourist-friendly city. Its biggest natural attraction has always been Okanagan Lake, which stretches 135 kilometres north to south. Thirty beaches provide ample space for sandcastle building, while the pristine water offers respite from the summer heat.

A musty air mattress served as our pool float back in the day. Vacationers today have other on-water options, from stand-up paddleboards to yacht rentals. The latest trend, flyboarding, sees thrill-seekers strap jet packs to their feet to soar above and dive through the water. Parasailing, where you’re hitched to a kite pulled behind a boat, seems tame in comparison.

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Of course, there’s much to do for landlubbers too. Last year, Kelowna introduced a bikeshare program through Dropbike. For a dollar an hour, you can rent a bright orange bicycle from specially marked parking spots called havens. Download the Dropbike app and scan the bike’s QR code to unlock it; when you’re done, return your ride to any haven.

Several bike-rental companies can help you explore farther afield. Kelowna boasts more than 300 kilometres of bike lanes, plus scores of off-road trails outside town. The historic Kettle Valley Rail Trail offers unforgettable canyon scenery while traversing 18 trestle bridges and two tunnels.

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The Kettle Valley Rail Trail spans Kelowna’s Myra Canyon (photo: Ronnie Chua/Alamy)

After all the watersports, cycling and sightseeing, quench your thirst at one of the area’s nearly 20 craft breweries, cideries and distilleries, or one of 61 licensed wineries.

Vines originally planted in the 1980s have now been bearing fruit—and showcasing the Okanagan’s diverse terroir—for years. The districts of Kelowna and Lake Country form one of the valley’s seven viticultural regions, an Eden for cool-climate grapes. Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay thrive in the clay, sandy loam and limestone-rich soil. Wine lovers can spend days navigating varied wine routes—for the vino, but also the architecture. Old World aficionados love pioneering vineyards like Mission Hill and Gray Monk. Or check out the Instagram-ready structures at 50th Parallel Estate and Ricco Bambino, an urban winery with a Miami-meets-Amalfi vibe.

These vineyards are exemplary of the new Kelowna: boundary-pushing businesses that have turned a quiet lakeside village into a world-class destination, brimming with rooftop dining, penthouse condos and 21st-century luxuries.

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Through it all, Kelowna remains approachable. The lakefront where I gorged on grape freezies as a child is the same one I now stroll with my grown daughters (though we’ve swapped the ice pops for artisanal gelato). These days, I load my picnic basket with Okanagan ingredients: organic sourdough from Sprout, plus local cheese and meats from One Big Table, a cooperative grocery store on St. Paul Street.

If you prefer to leave the cooking to someone else, two award-winning chefs, Mark Filatow of Waterfront Wines and Rod Butters of RauDZ Regional Table, recently expanded their dining domains. The former founded Waterfront Café on Abbott Street, while Butters opened Sunny’s: A Modern Diner on Bernard Avenue.

Filatow and Butters are longtime advocates of farm-fresh fare; they helped it go mainstream in Kelowna. Downtown bistros like Salt & Brick and Oak + Cru, and new winery restaurants—The Garden Bistro at The Chase Wines, Block One at 50th Parallel and The Red Fox Club at Indigenous World Wines—all follow the farm-to-table philosophy. Ingredients are sourced from conscientious growers, whose verdant fields offer up seasonal produce and free-range proteins. The funny thing is, this is how we lived on the farm and how grandma cooked when we came to visit: Honest food, made with love.

Perhaps that’s why Kelowna still has my heart. The city may be more polished now, but every time I return, I end up feeling like a kid again.

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Exploring Mission Hill Winery (photo: Michael Wheatley/Alamy)

Break up the long drive with fresh air and a few treats

Fantastical find: The Enchanted Forest just west of Revelstoke houses fairy-tale creatures crafted by artist Doris Needham. It opened to visitors in 1960 and has been lovingly maintained over the years. Follow the Yellow Brick Road to visit wizards, dragons and more.

Cool treats: Homemade ice cream from D Dutchmen Dairy in Sicamous, just off the Trans-Canada Highway, always satisfies. The Dewitt family scoops old-fashioned ice cream available in a multitude of flavours.

Goods and provisions: The original Mennonite owners of Log Barn 1912 (on Highway 97A outside Armstrong) sold fruit and vegetables from a small shack. Now there’s also a proper gift shop selling sausages, jams, baked goods and more. You can’t miss the nine-metre-tall goat walk spanning the entrance.

Wherever you’re going in Canada or the U.S., AMA Travel guarantees your hotel booking will be the lowest price possible. Plus, our experts know all the best things to see and do when you get there. Contact an AMA Travel specialist to start planning your next quick trip.