CHELAN, Wash. —

There was a time, not long ago, when the shores of Washington’s Lake Chelan burst forth in spring with the delicate blossoms of apples, pears and other orchard fruits. From high on hillsides down to the banks of the long, glacially carved lake, pastel pinks and whites cloaked the trees, giving the appearance of a child’s nursery blanket upon the rolling landscape.

Since the turn of the 21st century, those orchards have been eclipsed by wine grapes — and with them, tourism has grown to play a larger part in the regional economy. The stone fruit is as delicious as it ever was, but many orchardists have now turned their land over to vineyards. Today, 21 individual wineries overlook the resort town of Chelan (pronounced sheh-LAN), and the number is growing.

Located in the foothills of the North Cascades, where the 4.3-mile-long Chelan River leaves the lake and flows into the Columbia River, Chelan is a town of about 4,000. Another 7,000 people live in the surrounding area, many of them in Manson, 8 miles up the north lakeshore.

The 350-mile drive north from Bend on U.S. Highway 97 takes about seven hours, crossing through the Columbia Gorge, the pine forests of Satus and Blewett passes, the Yakima Valley and Wenatchee. A city of 30,000, Wenatchee is the Chelan County seat, a 45-minute drive south of Chelan.

The climax of the journey is arrival at Lake Chelan itself. Fifty-five miles long, carved during the Ice Ages about 17,000 years ago, its measured depth of 1,486 feet is surpassed in the United States only by Oregon’s Crater Lake and California-Nevada’s Lake Tahoe. Yet it is no more than 2 miles wide at its broadest point.

At the lake’s north end is the community of Stehekin (pronounced steh-HEE-ken), surrounded by the high peaks of North Cascades National Park. There are no roads into Stehekin: Visitors arrive by boat or by air, on foot or on horseback. Only a couple of dozen people live here year-round. Still relatively free from outside influence (formal telephone service only reached Stehekin in 2007), it has limited lodging and dining options but plenty of heritage sites from the 1880s, when it was first homesteaded.

From Chelan, two boats — the Lady of the Lake II (which makes a four-hour run) and the faster Lady Express (2½ hours) — operate daily in summer, and at least three times a week in winter, to Stehekin. There’s also seaplane service.

Bird’s-eye view

I chose the latter option, but not to fly to Stehekin. I got my aerial perspective on the lake’s setting while being delivered to a Columbia River winery.

Shane Carlson, a veteran pilot and co-owner of Chelan Seaplanes, described the geology as we traveled aboard his 1959 DeHavilland Beaver floatplane.

Lake Chelan, Carlson explained, was formed by two separate glaciers, one moving through the North Cascades, the other crossing the Columbia Basin. They met about 12 miles northwest of the modern lake outlet. The southern part of the lake, known as the Wapato Basin, is warmer and shallower (“only” 400 feet deep); its surrounding terrain is gentle, with roads following both shores and providing ample boat-launch facilities.

Beyond The Narrows, where the lake’s width constricts like an hourglass to a quarter-mile, the topography changes rapidly. Hills turn to steep-sided mountains covered with pine forests that bear the scars of frequent forest fires. The lake’s deepest point is located directly below 8,245-foot Pyramid Peak. As the surface elevation is 1,100 feet, that puts the lake’s bottom at 386 feet below sea level.

Carlson left me at the Rio Vista Winery, promising to return to pick me up an hour later. John Little, the easygoing winemaker-owner, met me with his dogs on the Columbia River beach and walked me through a hillside picnic area and past on-site vineyards to the tasting room, called The River, which the winery shares with a small art gallery. There, his wife, Jan Little, poured me tastes of a broad spectrum of wines, including award-winning whites (viognier, chardonnay, riesling) and reds (cabernet, malbec, merlot, tempranillo).

“We have a unique microclimate here on the river,” said Little, who left a Seattle teaching position to become an orchardist on the east side of the Cascades. “The summer days are long and hot, the winters are relatively mild and the glacial soil is truly unique.” He’s been producing wine on a full-time basis since 2004.

Pioneer wineries

Later, halfway between Chelan and Manson at the pioneering Lake Chelan Winery, I took a brief winery and vineyard tour, then watched a handful of visitors take part in a grape stomp.

Winery owners Steve and Bobbi Kludt, like the Littles of Rio Vista, moved to the Chelan valley to grow apples. They had great success with their Red Delicious apples until the apple market collapsed in 1998. Realizing they would need to make major changes to survive as farmers, they replaced their orchard with the first commercial vineyards in the valley. It was a bold move but, as it turned out, it was the right one.

Today the winery occupies the last privately owned apple-packing shed in the region. In addition to production facilities, it has a spacious gift shop and a seasonal barbecue — and its wine and cheese tastings are free.

During my Chelan visit, I also stopped by the Cairdeas Winery, just across a side road from the Lake Chelan Winery. Cairdeas (pronounced “car-dis”) means “friendship” in Gaelic, according to Lacey Lybecker, who founded the winery with her husband, Charlie, in west Seattle in 2009. Within a couple of years they had moved to Lake Chelan, where they focus on sustainable production of artisan lots of Rhone-inspired blends like a viognier-roussanne and a syrah-mourvedre-grenache.

Other area wineries include the Benson Vineyards Estate Winery, whose specialty is Mediterranean-style wines, and Nefarious Cellars, where husband-and-wife winemakers Dean and Heather have perfected the division of labors: He makes the reds, she makes the whites.

At least three new wineries and tasting rooms are scheduled to open in 2015, bringing the total number of Chelan-area wineries to over two dozen. Spring barrel tasting is coming up next weekend, and there’s not a winery or tasting room that won’t be open.

Fruitful stops

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While much of the winemaking activity takes place near Manson, on the lake’s northeast shore — even Rio Vista has added a second tasting room in the quaint Village on the Bay shopping district, and the new Rootwood Cidery is slated to open in mid-July — Manson is also the last bastion of the orchard industry.

No one can drive the road between Chelan and Manson without spotting the sprawling Manson Growers Co-operative. One of the oldest warehouses in the valley, the co-op represents 70 separate growers, including manager Doug England, who walked me through the enormous, hangar-like building.

“We process 1 to 1½ million Gala apples a day,” England said, explaining that his staff removes the apples’ natural wax, adds a vegetable wax and heat-dries each fruit. “That’s over 60,000 bins a year, 80 percent of which we export to Asia.”

At Blueberry Hills Farms, just north of the lake, I had a late breakfast with Kari Sorensen, known throughout the valley as “Blueberry Kari.” Sorensen, who calls herself a “fifth-generation American farmer,” said the 20-plus-acre farm has been in the family for more than 100 years, starting with her great-great grandfather, Amos Peters. She and her parents, Roger and Linda Sorensen, offer 16 different varieties of blueberries on their U-pick berry farm, as well as blackberries, raspberries, strawberries and (for flower lovers) peonies.

In 2002, the Sorensens built a country-style store, originally perceived as an upscale fruit stand with a bakery and sales of house-made jams and salsas. Before long, it had grown into a full-service restaurant and gift shop serving heaping helpings of scratch cooking at breakfast and lunch daily. I recommend the Barn Waffles, topped with blueberry or peach pie filling.

On the south side of the lake, from April to October, the Sunshine Farm Market has operated out of a large tent since 1991. Originally, it sold only apples. Today it sells a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables from local growers, along with specialty foods, gifts and Tunnel Hill Wines — made by orchardist Denny Evans, who founded the market 24 years ago.

The market’s novelty is its U-press apple cider. Every Saturday and Sunday, patrons are invited to exert a little energy making their own coarse cider on an old-fashioned, corkscrewlike press. They might choose between such varietals as Ambrosia, Fuji, Gala, Honeycrisp, McIntosh, Pinova, Sunrise or Sweet Tango. In any case, it takes 20 pounds of apples to produce a single gallon of cider.

Exploring town

The Chelan Farmers Market kicks off May 21 in the town’s Riverside Park and continues from 4 to 7 p.m. every Thursday through Oct. 1. It’s a good introduction to the charming downtown area of Chelan, whose main street, Woodin Avenue, runs due east after crossing the Chelan River on a bridge over its outlet from Lake Chelan. Here are a variety of retail shops, galleries, cafes, coffee shops, banks and real-estate brokers; there seem to be a lot of city people interested in moving from Seattle to Chelan.

A highlight of downtown is the Ruby Theatre, built in 1914 (at a cost of $6,500) and the longest continuously running movie theater in Washington — and probably the Northwest. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1991, it seats 250 movie goers. A series of owners have faithfully renovated and added state-of-the-art equipment to keep it operating.

The south lakeshore, adjacent to town, is a favorite venue for water-sports lovers, especially at Don Morse Park on the north shore. Boating, fishing, water-skiing, jet skiing, even parasailing have attracted generations of families to visit from the Seattle area in summer. There’s hiking and bicycling year-round, and in winter, nearby Echo Ridge welcomes nordic skiers and snowmobilers. The small Echo Valley Ski Area has downhill runs.

There are also nine golf courses within an hour’s drive, the most notable having just opened last August. Acclaimed course designer David McLay Kidd, a Tetherow resident well-known for his work at Bandon Dunes, built Gamble Sands on a bluff overlooking the Columbia River near tiny Brewster, about 30 miles northeast of Chelan.

Kidd had an empty palette on which to work: The plateau had no trees, no buildings, no standing water — only sagebrush and jackrabbit holes. His resultant 18-hole course is deceivingly simple: Novice golfers such as I may swing confidently, but often without the desired results. “There is nothing lurking to humiliate and frustrate, but plenty to navigate,” Kidd explained to the website.

The owners of Gamble Sands, Brewster’s Gebbers family, envisions a high-end destination resort on the site, with the initial course to be followed by the 18-hole Gamble Cliffs course. In addition to a hotel, spa and residential estate, the resort will include an equestrian center and outdoor amphitheater for concerts. There is no announced timetable for completion.

Stay and eat

Chelan has been welcoming visitors for well over a century. In fact, Campbell’s Resort — still the town’s premier resort — has been in business since 1901. Sprawling across 8 lakeshore acres, it is a fifth-generation family business that over the years has rebuilt, renovated and expanded, all while remaining a Lake Chelan icon.

All 170 of its rooms face the water, overlooking a sandy beach and a separate pool area. The lodge features a conference center, a full-service day spa and two restaurants — the fine-dining Bistro on its lower level and a more casual Grill & Pub on a veranda above.

On my most recent visit, I saved a few dollars by lodging in a condominium unit at the lakeside Chelan Resort Suites, operated by Chelan Vacation Properties. It was clean and comfortable, but about a mile’s walk from downtown. Another good accommodation option, for those who like views, is The Lookout, a new condo-style village being developed by the creators of Seabrook, on the Washington coast.

In Chelan, my favorite places for dinner are Andante, an upscale and atmospheric Italian restaurant, and Campbell’s Bistro. At the latter, chef Troy Nescavil’s seared duck breast, made with a sauce of cherries blended with Nefarious syrah, was superb. And his “fallen pinecone” dessert was unlike anything I’ve had elsewhere — an almond torte with hazelnut crème, chocolate ganache and a carefully designed toasted-almond topping.

Out in Manson, I can recommend Fromaggio Bistro, an artisan creamery (it makes its own cheeses and ice creams) with a tapas-style lunch and dinner menu.

For breakfast, you won’t do better than the tiny Riverwalk Cafe, a farm-to-table establishment that grows many of its own herbs, and always uses local cage-free eggs. And the Lake Chelan Artisan Bakery makes all of its breads, bagels and pastries fresh each day.

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