Just after the start of the fall semester last year, Zach and I experienced some intense wanderlust and decided to book a Thanksgiving getaway to Kelowna, British Columbia (BC). At the time, the Canadian border had recently reopened to American tourists, and we hoped it would remain that way come November. By the time Thanksgiving was within sight, we were amped up to go. We planned to drive across the border, which meant we needed a negative Covid PCR test within 72 hours of our arrival at the border crossing. Since we intended to cross on a Sunday, it left us with a very small window to get tested, creating a crunch in the last few days and some necessary isolation to ensure we didn’t get sick. The day before we were set to get tested, our car was hit while parked in a parking garage on campus. Thankfully, the driver left a note and had already submitted photographs to their insurance agent, but we had a situation that had the potential to derail our entire trip.
We have managed to make a single car work for us over the last six years, but this was the first instance in which it would have been really helpful (and immensely less stressful) to have a second car. There was enough damage that our car was no longer street legal and needed some extensive bodywork. So, as we juggled preparing for our trip and staying healthy, we also had to deal with an insurance company, an auto repair shop, and a rental car company. It made for two very stressful days while Zach got it all ironed out. Thankfully, by Friday (the day before we were set to leave), we had a rental car, plans for our car to get to the body shop, and negative Covid tests.
We set off on Saturday morning, driving northwest to Washington’s Tri-Cities (Kennewick, Pasco, & Richland), where we had a budget hotel reservation to break up the drive. We passed an uneventful evening and departed Sunday morning under grey clouds and fine rain. The drive north to the border was dreary. At times the fog was so dense that we could barely see in front of us. It was like driving through an amorphous grey blob that, unassuming, swallows you whole. We were anxious about the border crossing even though we had submitted all of our Covid documentation through the phone app, brought printed copies, and had the necessary records for Truman to cross too. Of course, all the fear was for naught.
The weather had improved by that point, and the drive from Osoyoos to Penticton was delightful. We were surprised by how many orchards and wineries we passed. The hillsides are swathed in rows; fruit trees and grape vines cover nearly every available acre (or hectare). It’s not quite like other wine regions we’ve visited. It felt more rural – which I liked. Homes were swallowed by crooked trees and lines of vines, with fewer grandiose villa-style buildings. It must be gorgeous in the spring when the fruit trees are in bloom. We were going to be a bit early for our Airbnb check-in, so we decided to stop in Penticton for a coffee. We parked on the main drag, grabbed some coffees, and popped into The Book Shop to browse. We are suckers for used book stores, and this was a delicious one. Dimly lit, with a slightly musty scent, shelves bulged in every direction offering an exquisite and quirky selection. I snapped up three books by two of my favorite Canadian authors, and we left before I could do further damage. Penticton sits at the southern end of Okanagan Lake, so we stopped briefly to go for a walk along the shore before hopping back in the car.
It was only an hour’s drive to Kelowna from Penticton. The highway follows the west side of Okanagan Lake and hugs the lakeshore quite closely in a few spots. We passed several smaller towns along the way; many – like Peachland – looked positively idyllic. West Kelowna and Westbank were larger communities than I anticipated and the rapid growth the area has recently experienced was evident. Our Airbnb sat slightly above Kelowna’s downtown area. It was a nicely converted basement unit with a well-thought-out living area, kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom. We even had a patio, although it wasn’t quite the season for sitting outdoors, and access to the backyard for Tru. After we checked in and situated ourselves, we went out for dinner and a pint at a British-style pub, The Welton Arms. It was our first experience showing our vaccination cards (anywhere!) and my first time eating inside an establishment in… maybe a year and a half? I had an excellent stout with fish and chips (couldn’t resist), while Zach chose a bitter ale and Tikka poutine. It felt oddly liberating to be inside, eating and drinking, and also so comforting. Like a restoration of normalcy.
Monday looked to be our only clear and sunny day in Kelowna, so we started the morning off at Dilworth Mountain Park. It’s a small but tranquil park with towering ponderosa pines and a great view of the city and hills beyond Okanagan Lake. There were some icy snow blobs on shaded parts of the trails, but otherwise, it was a pleasant, crisp walk for all of us.
We left the park and drove down to the lakefront, thinking we would walk along the boardwalk. It was fairly breezy on the water, and Tru abhors wooden planks, so it didn’t quite go to plan. We still walked around Waterfront Park, enjoying the views and speculating about afternoon plans. Since it was sunny, we thought it would be a good day to hike around Spion Kop.
Dutch for lookout hill, Spion Kop is a network of trails that climb a hill north of town to a viewpoint of Okanagan, Wood, and Ellison Lakes. We drove through country orchards and new housing developments to reach the trailhead and started up the Arrowleaf Trail on the east side of Spion Kop. We weren’t sure how icy or snowy it would be and figured we would go as far as we wanted, even if we didn’t summit the hill. The trail was slushy and frosted at points as we began. As we gained elevation, we had a nice view of Wood Lake to the east. At our first junction, we decided to follow the Lupine Trail to the North Overlook instead of the trail to the summit. We realized that we didn’t have time to hike to the top due to a wine tasting appointment at 4:00. In the end, the North Overlook was underwhelming. We could just barely see Kalamalka Lake over the barbed boundary of a private property fence. Even still, it was a peaceful hike through ponderosa pine, slush, and snow (at the higher elevations) and a chance to forest bathe.
We dropped Tru off at the Airbnb and continued on to our appointment at Mission Hill Winery in West Kelowna. We made a pit stop at Tim Horton’s and scarfed down sandwiches in the winery parking lot – very elegant. Mission Hill Winery was the only winery I knew I wanted to visit before we arrived and one of the few requiring a tasting appointment. (Many of the sommeliers told us that reservations are necessary in the summer. However, since we were visiting during the off-season, we were able to walk into every other winery we visited without them.)
Visiting Mission Hill is an experience. We arrived shortly after 3:30, giving us time to wander the grounds before our 4:00 appointment. Mission Hill was one of the first wineries in the Okanagan Valley in 1981 and is a pioneer in BC’s wine industry. It’s also architecturally stunning. Built to resemble the monasteries of Europe, the architecture married with the scenery offers a reverent experience. Twin arches welcome you to the winery, both hand-chiseled from one block of Indiana limestone. The founder’s family crest – yes, that is a pelican – hangs in the center as the keystone. Emerging from the archway, a large courtyard unfolds with a 12-story bell tower, loggia, amphitheater, and exquisite views of Okanagan Lake and snow-dusted Okanagan Mountain. The goal was to create a sense of place, and it’s wildly successful in that endeavor.
When Covid began, Mission Hill stopped doing tastings at their tasting bar and transitioned to a more intimate setting in a more spacious room lined with dining areas. Seated on luxurious plush couches, the room set a warm, rich tone for the tasting. Our sommelier was fantastic, answering all of my questions about the region and giving us ample insight into their wine-making process. We had six wines – all of which were excellent – and thoroughly enjoyed our time. The tasting lasted roughly an hour, so as we exited the building, we were greeted with the 5:00 bells, rounding out an exemplary visit.
We awoke on Tuesday to an overcast sky with a light drizzle. Befitting the mood, we visited Bright Jenny, a coffee shop in Kelowna’s North End, and spent some time savoring lattes and pastries. It was supposed to dry out as the day wore on, so we decided to pop downtown and visit Mosaic Books. Yet another excellent bookstore with so many options, my fingers were itching. I picked up and put down several titles before succumbing to one from the bargain area. We swung by a Hudson’s Bay Company – which I honestly didn’t realize is basically just a Macy’s – so I could pick up some mittens like a friend of mine. The weather began to clear, so we turned toward Lake Country for an afternoon of wine tasting.
Lake Country is north of Kelowna and just south of Spion Kop, almost nestled between Okanagan and Kalamalka Lakes. With slopes that run down to the shores of Okanagan Lake, there are several wineries in Lake Country along a Scenic Sip trail. We began at Arrowleaf Cellars, which rests just at the top of a sloping hill strung with vines. Unbelievably, we were the only patrons, so we enjoyed feeling like VIPs and had a really wonderful chat with our sommelier, who was originally from Guatemala. All of Arrowleaf’s grapes are grown in Lake Country, so it was a cool opportunity to try a Riesling and Chardonnay grown in a slightly different region of the Okanagan. There was a discernable difference from the ones we tried at Mission Hill, so I felt sort of accomplished in being capable of recognizing the subtleties. When we left, the weather had cleared, except for a line of low clouds hanging onto the lakeshore opposite us.
For our next stop, we went to Ex Nihilo Vineyards. It was the only other winery we visited where they were still doing seated tastings. It was festive in their tasting room, and we weren’t alone anymore, adding to the gaiety. We really liked their wines, particularly the pinot noir, but we wanted to round out the afternoon with one more winery.
Our final stop of the day was Gray Monk. Again, we were the only patrons, although their tasting room is certainly built to hold many more people. It felt more commercial and less atmospheric. However, we had a great time – not just because it was our third tasting! In addition to the regular tasting, we enjoyed a chocolate and raspberry dessert with our port tasting, which put it over the edge. They were also having a Black Friday sale – which we learned has begun to be imported from America, sorry! – so we walked away with three bottles.
On Wednesday morning, we planned to drive to Myra Canyon and walk a portion of the Kettle Valley Rail Trail. I knew it would have snow but was unsure about how much or what the road conditions would be like. Our rental car had all-wheel drive, but it’s not our car, so I felt anxious about how it would handle a snow-covered road. Only the last seven kilometers to the trailhead were unpaved. The forest service road was well-graded and the snow was only a few inches thick. My anxieties were unfounded, and we slowly but steadily drove up to the trailhead at Myra Station, only to discover we were the only people!
The trail had a decent layer of snow but not enough to require the snowshoes. So we changed into our snow boots and got started. It was overcast and grey when we began but clear and crisp. Truman wasn’t so jazzed at the beginning; however, he acclimated to the snow and surroundings and settled in after a while. It was a beautiful walk. The surrounding forest was still, and it offered a lot of quiet reflection.
The portion of the trail we walked is part of a much larger system that extends well beyond the Kelowna area. Originally part of British Columbia’s push to connect the Kootenay Mountains to the coast, the Kettle Valley Railway (KVR) opened in 1916 and ran from Midway to Hope. The section in Myra Canyon was challenging due to its steep walls and wide creek-carved ravine. The engineer, Andrew McCullough, decided to hang the railway on the sides of the canyon, constructing 19 wooden trestles. Today Myra Canyon is part of the Myra-Bellevue Provincial Park and is recognized as a National Historic Site. This section of the trail has two tunnels and 18 wooden trestles.
Unsure of how far we wanted to go, we ended up turning back before the first tunnel. Of course, when the sun emerged on our return, we both felt a twinge of regret. Hopefully, on our next trip, we can return to complete the Myra Canyon section in its entirety – on bikes!
Our sommelier at Gray Monk told us about a new resort owned by the Swarovski family not too far from Lake Country: Sparkling Hill. She said they had recently opened an Austrian restaurant on the resort grounds in a 16th-century Austrian farmhouse. This piqued our interest. After doing some research that evening, we discovered that, indeed, Gerni’s Farmhouse was located on the grounds of the resort and open to the public for lunch.
We dropped Truman at the Airbnb and began our drive to Sparkling Hill. It was a gorgeous drive along Wood and Kalamalka Lakes. After we exited the highway to the west, we drove through open pasture, then a luxury neighborhood called Predator Ridge, and finally up to the tippy top of a hill where the resort rests. Sparkling Hill is luxurious and intimidating. We walked into the glittering lobby, and while Zach was content to wander freely, I fervently looked for a Gerni’s Farmhouse sign. A stairwell led us outside to the top of a long, steep driveway. Still feeling a little uncertain, we walked down the driveway, which deposited us at the back of the farmhouse. There, we could see the clouds rolling in over the lake, bringing snow. The front of the farmhouse faces the lake rather than the resort, so it’s not until you are standing directly in front of it that you get to behold the beauty of it.
It began to snow just as we reached the front of the farmhouse. We stood outside for a bit, gawking at the lake and the farmhouse before we retreated to the warmth inside. Originally built in 1587 in Weerberg, Austria, the two-story farmhouse was disassembled and shipped to Canada, where it was reassembled by an Austrian firm on the grounds of Sparkling Hill. It had only opened a month or so before our visit, so we felt indebted to the sommelier at Gray Monk. We each had an Erdinger with our meals (schnitzel for me, leberkas for Zach) as we examined the craftsmanship inside the farmhouse, everything neatly executed with exacting precision.
After lunch, we drove into Vernon and stopped in at their public art gallery. It was very small, with only four galleries. The main exhibition hall had a superb showing from a Saskatchewan artist, Marsha Kennedy. Her exhibition had an intense focus on ecology, birds, and the human destruction of the earth – it was revelatory. We left in the rain, which quickly turned to sleet and then snow as we drove back to Kelowna.