Canada’s Okanagan delights with wine, culture
Slideshow: Vineyards, art, cycling and more along 84-mile-long lake

KELOWNA, B.C. — A grotesque sea serpent haunts an ancient glacial lake on B.C. Highway 97, a single long day’s drive north of Central Oregon. If you don’t believe me, ask a Canadian.

This monster is known as Ogopogo, and its legend is as much a part of life on Okanagan Lake as water sports and orchards and wine. It’s not a story that has been created for the convenience of the 21st-century tourism industry. Ogopogo has been around for a while.

Two centuries ago, native Salish tribes warned white settlers about N’Ha-a-itkl (“lake demon”) or Naitaka. They described the creature as 40 to 50 feet long, with a serpentine body that displayed multiple humps as it plied the lake’s deep waters.

Now, there’s no solid proof that Ogopogo actually exists. But the cryptid (a term also used to describe Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster) would have plenty of places to hide. Although Okanagan Lake is nowhere more than 3 miles wide, it is 84 miles long from Vernon in the north to Penticton in the south, and its depth ranges to 760 feet. A couple of sizeable islands — many alleged sightings have taken place near Rattlesnake Island — offer additional refuge.

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Photographs have all been fuzzy enough for skeptics to argue that the Ogopogo myth was created by otters or floating logs. Film crews have sent divers into the lake waters in search of the serpentine creature, but they’ve come up empty handed. So far.

For the most part, the legend of Ogopogo lives in the playgrounds of Kelowna, the Okanagan region’s largest city with a population of about 120,000. In Kerry Park, toddlers clamber over a joyously happy lakeside monster that could be a friend of cartoon serpents. Nearby, Ogopogo reappears as the emblem of a parasailing company, its dragon-headed boat ready to sail off with a crew of adventurers.

Residents of this thriving city — the largest in interior British Columbia, located midway up Okanagan Lake’s eastern shore — aren’t worried about Ogopogo. Surrounded by orchards and vineyards, a center for year-round outdoor recreation with a burgeoning cultural scene, friendly Kelowna is worth a visit in any season, whether or not you see its serpent.

Canadian culture

The hub of tourism in Kelowna is the Delta Grand Okanagan Resort, nestled lakeside on the northwest fringe of downtown. Overlooking the Kelowna Yacht Club and lovely Waterfront Park — site of many outdoor concerts in summer — the modern resort comprises a 390-room hotel and conference center.

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On the lakeshore, Kelowna’s Waterfront Promenade links the resort to a string of parks and beaches that extend two miles south to the 3,500-foot-long William R. Bennett Bridge, Canada’s first floating bridge. Stand-up paddleboarding has become a pursuit here to rival jet-boating in popularity. The bridge links the city to West Kelowna and points south, on Highway 97.

North of the hotel and east of Waterfront Park, local sculptor R. Dow Reid’s stunning “Rhapsody” fountain, representing a trio of leaping, intertwined dolphins, stands near the entrance to the Kelowna Cultural District.

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This six-square-block district, between Water and Ellis streets, was once home to canneries, shipping wharves, a sawmill and a cigar factory. But beginning in 2000, the city stimulated a reinvention of the neighborhood in much the same vein as Portland’s Pearl District.

A first stop for visitors might be the Kelowna Art Gallery, which exhibits a mix of works by local and touring international artists. Just east, the pedestrian Artwalk offers access to the multi-purpose Rotary Center for the Arts; to the Kelowna Community Theatre, home to the city’s symphony and ballet; and to the Kelowna Actors Studio and performance venue.

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The 1917 Laurel Packinghouse has been refurbished as home to the B.C. Orchard Industry Museum and the B.C. Wine Museum. Opposite is Kelowna’s Old Cannery Building (1912-60), now studio lofts of industrial-chic design. The 1927 Canadian Northern Railway station is now the Train Station Pub. Nearby, the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League play their home games in the arena at Prospera Place.

South of the Cultural District and north of Bernard Street, downtown’s main drag, provincial and city government buildings intermingle with Kasugai Garden, a Japanese sister-city friendship garden, and the Okanagan Heritage Museum, which presents traveling international exhibits as well as displays of local human and natural history.

A couple of miles further north via Ellis Street, Knox Mountain Park is a popular place for hiking and biking. It also has outstanding viewpoints for panoramic perspectives across Kelowna and the entire central Okanagan region, including east to the Big White ski resort, one of the most popular winter-sports venues in southern British Columbia.

Pyramid power

Not surprisingly, hotel rates decline in proportion to distance from the lake. We found very comfortable lodging on Highway 97, about three miles east of the city center, at the Best Western Plus Kelowna Hotel and Suites. Modern and spacious, it included a restaurant with complimentary breakfasts for hotel guests.

We had a fine inland seafood dinner one night at the Waterfront Restaurant & Wine Bar, just around the corner from “Rhapsody.” And in between a bike ride and an old-fashioned barbecue dinner at the home of old friend Sean Pegg, we loved our lunch in the Sunset Organic Bistro of the Summerhill Pyramid Winery, much of it pulled directly from a half-acre permaculture garden.

I’ve never visited another winery like Summerhill. Canada’s Okanagan region turns out some outstanding wines — most of them, unfortunately, not available in the United States due to small-scale production and import-export restrictions. Okanagan visitors can’t help but see lush vineyards extending on slopes above the lake in all directions, along with bountiful peach, apple and cherry orchards.

Most well-known varietals have done well in British Columbia, including German-style Rieslings and gewürztraminers, along with merlots and cabernets. Nearly as popular are hybrid grapes, among them Baco Noir and Marechal Foch, bred for harsher climatic conditions.

Summerhill produces wine from most of these grapes, as well as syrah, pinot gris and ehrenfelser. But it is perhaps best known for its sparkling wines and for its award-winning ice wines, especially those made from pinot noir and zweigelt, an Australian varietal.

Summerhill’s founder, and still its owner, is Stephen Cipes, who left a Wall Street job in 1986 to dig in the Canadian dirt. On his hands and knees, he planted clones from French vines, refusing to enhance their growth prospects with pesticides or herbicides. He insists upon organic practices, he said, because “They keep the lake clean and our grapes free of chemical tastes.”

Cipes’ four sons followed him into the wine business. On our recent visit, chief executive officer Ezra Cipes led us into the winery’s iconic structure — a replica of Egypt’s Great Pyramid, aligned to true north. All Summerhill wines are aged in this pyramid for a full month.

“We have a twenty ear experiment proving the effect of sacred geometry of liquids,” Stephen Cipes explains on his website, and “a twenty year track record of international gold medals. My goal from the beginning was and is to make the finest wine in the world, especially sparkling wines. The French tradition of putting sparkling wines in a dark cool place for thirty days for the cuvee and dosage to ‘marry’ was my original inspiration to achieve this goal.”

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Myra Canyon

Pegg’s house is about a mile uphill from Summerhill. Another mile beyond, high in rugged hills that are in constant danger of devastating forest and range fires, is Myra-Bellevue Provincial Park.

Exactly 100 years ago, the Kettle Valley Railway was built through these Okanagan Highlands, linking Penticton, at the south end of Okanagan Lake, with the gold and silver mines of the West Kootenay region to the east. Working at about 4,000 feet elevation, engineers hung their railway on a series of 20 wooden trestles, taking seven miles of track to cross steep, mile-wide Myra Canyon.

After trains cased to run on these tracks in 1972, the trestles fell into disrepair. Twenty years passed before a volunteer group undertook restoration, building boardwalks and guard rails atop the trestles, developing a trail system between them. It all went up in smoke, literally, in the late summer of 2003, when a 20,000-acre fire destroyed not only 200 homes on the outskirts of Kelowna, but also 14 of the 18 surviving wooden Myra Canyon trestles.

Reconstructed over the next five years with disaster-relief funding, the Myra Canyon trail system reopened in 2008. Today it is one of the leading tourist attractions in Kelowna.

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We hadn’t brought bicycles with us, but owner Ben Vos of Myra Canyon Bicycle Rental and Tours fitted us with two-wheelers. We completed our self-guided morning tour of the trestle-top rail trail, a mostly level, 15-mile round-trip ride, in just over two hours.

Riding across a wooden trestle, which may be a quarter-mile long and 1,000 feet from top to bottom, can be an unnerving experience. It’s made more so when transiting tunnels, cut through hard rock, and when glancing toward Okanagan Lake in the distance, where Ogopogo could make an appearance at any time.

Ultimately, though, we found the ride exhilarating, a bit of soft adventure to extend our time between winery visits.

South Okanagan

And there were wineries aplenty as we drove the 45 minutes south from Kelowna to Penticton, across the floating bridge and down the southwestern shore of Okanagan Lake. In all, there are 110 wine producers within the Okanagan region, a majority in the West Kelowna area; in the South Okanagan, between Penticton and the U.S. border; and around Naramata, a hamlet on the lake’s southeastern shore.

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We paused for lunch at Summerland, known for its 1912 steam locomotive that today runs a popular tourist route. From here, we rolled through lakeside fruit orchards to Penticton.

A bustling provincial center with 32,000 citizens, Penticton is located where the Okanagan River pours from its namesake lake into Skaha Lake, and eventually to the Columbia River in Washington state. A promenade follows Okanagan Beach for 0.8 mile from Penticton Lakeside Resort to the S.S. Sicamous, a historic sternwheeler beached on the lake shore. Musical revues are staged on the lawn outside the vessel in summer.

Highway 97 follows the river through a series of small lakes to the international frontier about 40 miles south of Penticton. At least three dozen wineries are located along the highway, which runs through Oliver to Osoyoos. Among the largest is the Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, lodged in a palatial hillside chateau north of Osoyoos Lake. Across the valley, Inniskillin offers daily tours of its riesling ice wine-making operation.

Osoyoos, only six miles from Oroville, Wash., is a growing town of 5,000 that sprawls on both sides of 12-mile-long Osoyoos Lake. It has become popular with Vancouver families who drive four hours to Canada’s warmest fresh-water lake: Its average depth is only 45 feet, and its water has an average summer temperature of 75 degrees.

The Nk’Mip (pronounced IN-ka-meep) band of the Osoyoos tribe has developed an impressive resort here. The Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort & Spa is the centerpiece of a complex that includes the Sonora Desert Spa, the Passa Tempo Restaurant, a golf course, conference center and RV park. The Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre offers films and artifact exhibits, a system of nature trails and several interpretive programs.

But I have long had a soft spot for Naramata, eight miles north of Penticton. The village of 800 boasts equal elements of hip sophistication and raw hippiedom.

We spent the last night of our Canada trip here in the classic Naramata Heritage Inn & Spa. Built in 1908, it was once a destination for paddle-wheel steamers that carried freight and passengers the length of Okanagan Lake. Restored and reopened in 2001 as the Heritage Inn, the 12-room hotel preserves the original architecture and luxurious furnishings. A fine-dining restaurant, a casual wine bar and a full-service spa bring it into the 21st century.

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A stroll around Naramata leads past the local museum and general store, a pair of lakeside parks and a tranquil outdoor labyrinth at a Christian retreat center. There are artists’ studios, bed-and-breakfast inns, a lavender farm and, of course, the wineries.

I spent the early hours of my last morning in Canada sitting beside Okanagan Lake, gazing at the rippling waters and searching for Ogopogo. Alas, I was not destined to discover the sea serpent. But that doesn’t mean Ogopogo isn’t there.

— Reporter:

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