Recently, to escape the impending chill of fall on BC’s west coast, I made the quick trip east toPenticton in search of the dry interior heat for last week of summer sunshine.
And it was a good week: I spent long, languid days on the beach, sampling wine from tasting rooms overlooking sprawling vineyards and simply soaking in the charm of this lovely lakeside town.
Penticton is only a five-hour drive east of Vancouver via Highway 5 but the landscape is remarkably different. This part of the south Okanagan Valley is a semi-arid climate, influenced by its location bordering Canada’s only “pocket” desert in nearby Osoyoos. Forming the northern arm of the Sonoran Desert, which covers large parts of the Southwestern US and Mexico, it extends across the US-Canada border like a dusty finger pointing north.
I particularly love the drive east. The thick, forested mountains of the west coast quickly fade away as the landscape flattens, mountains rounding to golden and parched hillsides. Cedar and fir trees are replaced by stands of ponderosa pine and sagebrush. And the sun: it’s the kind of heat that, to me, feels like it could warm even your very bones.
With my cousin as my local guide, and armed with no particular plan or schedule, we explored the town and surrounding countryside. Here are just a few of many highlights from the week:
It’s impossible to talk about the south Okanagan without mentioning the wineries. There are nearly 30 along the 15-km (9.3 mi) drive through Penticton and Naramata alone. Combine that with orchards and organic growers and you have all the ingredients, so to speak, of a (semi) desert oasis. You could easily spend a week just sipping and sampling your way through the region (and if you plan to do just that, you can read about it here.)
But, we only had two days and thankfully, it was still plenty of time to get a taste.
I travel a fair bit in BC and I’m constantly amazed by the ever-changing landscape. One minute you’re gazing up at immense mountain peaks; the other, you’re watching, as the car winds its way along a curving road, a rolling hillside golden and flecked with green, the sun falling in patches across vineyards that gently slope toward a still lake below.
The south Okanagan Valley is, of course, the latter. Driving along the road soaking in the view, it’s easy to see why winemakers would want to set up shop here. And they have: vineyard after vineyard unfolds like a patchwork quilt of patterned greens.
One day one of wine touring we tackled the area south of Penticton making our way to Oliver, a 40-minute drive away. Oliver, together with nearby Osoyoos, produces more than half of all the wine grapes grown in BC—an ideal place for first-timers to get acquainted with BC wine.
We first stopped in at See Ya Later Ranch, beloved by dog owners (and wine lovers) everywhere; the winery is named as a tribute to the founding owner of the land and the wines are named after his former pets. A few samples later and a bottle of rosé in tow, we headed to Tinhorn Creek Vineyards.
After sampling the very tasty goods, we were on our way to Black Hills Estate Winery—home to the wickedly good Nota Bene, a red blend that, while steeper than our average price, was worth the pretty penny. To round out the day was Burrowing Owl, quite possibly the prettiest winery in all of BC. I mean, look at those views:
Day two: Naramata Bench. Be prepared to stop every couple metres or so; this is prime wine touring area with some 30 wineries dotted along this stretch of tarmac. We stopped first at Township 7 Vineyards & Winery, which has locations in both the Fraser Valley and here. A sucker for Syrah, I was very happy to try our next stop, Poplar Grove Winery’s version. The only thing better would be sipping it at the Vanilla Pod Restaurant, arguably one of the best winery restaurants in the Okanagan. A quick visit to Hillside Winery & Bistro and Bench 1775 Winery, and we found ourselves in Naramata proper.
Tip: The Penticton Visitor Centre & Wine Shop is worth both a stop before and after. Grab a map & get directions (if driving) beforehand; and after, stop in at the Wine Shop, stocked with local wine at winery prices, to grab bottles from your favourites that you may have missed. Also note: I drove with a designated driver; if you aren’t able to sweet talk someone from your group, there are plenty of companies that offer wine tours, including Landsea Okanagan.
Beach Days & Floating the Penticton River Channel
Despite being in a semi-arid climate, Penticton is not without water. It’s flanked on either side by a lake: the 135-km (83 mi) long Okanagan Lake, which sits to the north, and Skaha Lake, which forms the southern shoreline of Penticton stretching to Okanagan Falls. This means you are are no more than a 10 minute drive from water at all times here.
Some locals argue Skaha is better, warmer, but to me both were heaven. Unlike some rocky beaches of the west coast, the sand here is fine, massaged gently by the motorized lapping of waves on the shore. I lounged on the beach, sun tanning and taking the odd quick dip to cool off, stopping only to dive into an ice cream cone (there are plenty of beach huts and shops nearby that sell food and snacks).
The Penticton River Channel, on the other hand, is a 7-km (4 mi) sliver of water that connects Okanagan and Skaha lakes. Floating down it is quite possibly the best way to spend a lazy summer afternoon. Every summer hundreds of floaters, carried by the gentle current and with drinks and snacks in tow, do just that. While I didn’t make it this visit I’ve been in years past and it’s made my summer highlight reel time and again. If you go, the launch point is near Okanagan Lake at Riverside Drive. There are tube rental shops for those who don’t have one, and shuttle buses transport floaters (for a small fee), once they’re done, back to the top of the channel.
What I didn’t miss out on was the food. Penticton surprised me with the sheer number of restaurants tucked amid its downtown core. Eateries, beach shacks, burger joints, taco stands—it’s all here.
Favourites? The Bench, an artisanal deli and fine foods store, which served as our pre-wine touring fuel. I devoured the best breakfast burrito I’ve had to date and strong coffee from local roasters Backyard Beans in nearby Summerland.
The Barley Mill Brewpub is a must for local beers made in-house and a juicy, juicy burger (it’s been voted the region’s best by readers of the South Okanagan News). I loved Tacos Del Norte for its adorable exterior as much as I loved their fish tacos (it may be inland but there’s plenty of fish around these parts). Brodo’s Kitchen made me a repeat visitor two days in row for their fresh, locally sourced ingredients turned delectable sandwiches.
And yet, I barely scratched the surface of places to eat here; my advice: go wander around and pop in at the first place that entices you (trust me, you won’t make it far).
Hiking the Kettle Valley Railway & Fishing Skaha Lake
While lazy days by the beach or wine touring are great, I crave a certain amount of adventure. The need to stretch your legs, to be outdoors. Luckily, Penticton’s rolling hills also make for some pretty spectacular hiking and biking.
The Kettle Valley Railway is the area’s best-known hiking and biking trail. Built between 1910-1915, this now abandoned section of railway line once served as the “Kootenay to Coast Connection,” an old CPR passenger and freight line. Now preserved and well-maintained, I set off one morning to walk a portion of the track.
The first thing I see? This:
Oh, did I mention Penticton is rattlesnake territory? They don’t want to be seen, I was told. You’ll be finewith hiking boots and socks. I convinced myself any slight noise was a ploy to get my heart rate even higher, but truthfully, it was more my imagination than anything. I hiked a good 5-km (3-mi) section of relatively uphill terrain (with so many sections of the trails it’s easy to plot your course based on preference) overlooking vineyards that faded into the shimmering waters of the lake beyond.
We didn’t limit ourselves to the Kettle Valley Railway either. Early one morning we clambered upMunson Mountain—a popular viewpoint overlooking the city—and late one evening, just before the last rays of sun slipped below the horizon, we meandered to Hardy Falls in nearby Peachland to watch the Kokanee Salmon on their annual spawning run.
Fish on the brain, the next day we ventured to Okanagan Falls Provincial Park to cast a line for Brook Trout. Unsuccessful, despite seeing them jump, we tried our luck in Skaha Lake for bass. I got a small nibble—my first fish ever!—but figured we’d leave him to his swim away.
Note: you must have a license to fish in BC; you can purchase them at local sporting good stores or online here.
Between wine touring, sampling the local food, lounging on the beach and exploring the trails and rails, it was a perfect late summer visit. By the last day, I could see the leaves tinged ever so slightly with red and yellow. Fall, too, comes to Penticton. But at least I knew I was heading home blissfully relaxed and with one last dose of Vitamin D under my belt.