Most people — unless they’ve been living under a rock for the last 20 years — have heard of California’s celebrated wine country, the fabled Napa Valley. And even oenophiles around the world can probably name pinot noir-nurturing Santa Barbara County, thanks to the indie hit film “Sideways.” But I’m always surprised how many people have never heard of “Napa North,” Canada’s wine country. Canada actually has two major wine-growing regions: one in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, between Vancouver and the US border; the other is in Ontario.
And here’s something that surprised me: it’s perfect for families. If you’re visiting the area, of course you’ll want to see Vancouver, the glittering green city of glass between ocean and mountains — like a more outdoorsy San Francisco with Asian flair. Set up your base downtown at Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver, a short walk from where the cruise ships dock and the Olympic torch burned at last year’s Winter Games.
Once you’ve explored the city, tack on an extra two or three days to tour the Okanagan. It’s a short flight or a four-and-a-half-hour drive east. And as you begin to descend into the valley, the landscape transforms dramatically from rain forest to Canada’s only pocket desert.
The best time of year? Now — during the fall crush and all the harvest hoopla. The valley is also home to orchard after orchard of apples, cherries, peaches, pears, apricots, corn, and so on. Here’s our hit list:
1. Stop at a fruit stand – and stock up on luscious fruit at its peak. The fragrance is heady. You really don’t need to dine out at all here if you don’t want to; just buy a baguette, some BC artisan cheese and a bunch of fruit. Many have U-pick orchards; a blast for the kids.
In the central Okanagan, try the Naramata Community Market at Wharf Park (Wednesday afternoons) for heirloom tomatoes, grapes and peppers; line up for pastries-to-die-for from Joy Road Catering. If you can get a sitter, be sure to do a winemaker dinner with Joy Road — especially at God’s Mountain Estate. Stroll the lavender farm, Forest Green Man Lavender, just up the road. Add a bottle of local wine (for the grown-ups); many of the valley’s 120 vintners only sell their award winning, small-batch wines here. In Naramata/Penticton, we recommend Nichol, Kettle Valley, Poplar Grove, Pentage, Painted Rock, Blue Mountain and Laughing Stock — which, incidentally, made a limited edition blush wine for YEW restaurant at Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver.
2. Picnic – Take your fruit stand bounty and blanket and find a lovely spot for a leisurely meal. This area is made for picnics — and picnicking is made for kids. There’s a nice park in Naramata on the shores of Okanagan Lake. The Market of Summerland, a fruit stand in the town of the same name, has an apple tree-shaded picnic area with playground right next to the peach orchard. Several wineries have gorgeous grounds and welcome al fresco diners, including Red Rooster Winery.
Linden Gardens, south of Penticton, boasts nine acres of blooming gardens and lawns. Along the Kettle Valley Railway (KVR) trail — for hiking, biking and cross-country skiing — The Trail Store south of Naramata is a picture-perfect cottage and fruit/veg U-pick nestled between plum trees, sunflowers and cornfields. Jean will make the family a grilled peaches-n-cream corn on the cob, apple juice slushie or dish up an ice cream. Warning: you will likely leave with 9 lbs of peaches. Just accept it. And follow Jean’s eating instructions when biting into perhaps the juiciest peach you’ve ever tried: “head forward, hair back.”
3. Cycle – We were whooping and hollering as we zoomed up and down the gently undulating KVR on our mountain bikes between Penticton and Naramata. The view below of Lake Skaha, cliff top vineyards and orchards, is spectacular; the trail is wide and easy-going. There are lots of places to stop along the way, even a port-a-potty. Park near the Yacht Club and do an out-and-back. The way back is downhill, so pretty exhilarating.
4. Swim – It’s hot here, and you’ll want to cool off. (I don’t know about you, but our two kids — nine and eight — can swim for hours. Even at Disneyland we had trouble getting them out of the pool to go visit the park!) Find a country inn (there are many) with a pool, and kick back under the grape vines on the chaise lounge while the kids swim and swim. Enjoy that Poplar Grove cabernet franc. Or take the whole family for a swim in the lake. Park your towels near Penticton’s legendary “Giant Peach” on the north side of town and dive in and out to your heart’s content. You can rent boats, jet skis, parasails, paddle boats, the works.
Bottomline: don’t plan. You really don’t need much here: it’s the simple things. And this valley of meandering country roads is the place to enjoy just that.
Michelle Pentz Glave is the Have Family Will Travel editor. Before diving into communications/PR, she was a journalist for 25 years in the US and Germany including stints with The Wall Street Journal Europe, Gruner+Jahr (Bertelsman) and the Albuquerque Journal. Her work has appeared in Outside, Wired, Travel + Leisure, Sunset and Fortune. She has a Bachelor's in English from Yale and a Master's in Journalism from Columbia University. Michelle is passionate about family, food, farmers, her garden and taekwondo. She lives on Bowen Island, near Vancouver, Canada, with her husband and two kids: Sabrina, 11, and Duncan, 10.
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