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Originally published September 20, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 20, 2007 at 10:47 AM

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Bold wines, vistas and ambitions in B.C.'s South Okanagan Valley

You can't drive past the long stretch of desert and vineyards here, or even past the lakes and beaches, without seeing a resort or a billboard...

Seattle Times staff reporter

A recreation haven

South Okanagan Valley is a hub for watersports and hiking and cycling trails that go through rolling vineyards and mountains.

Local resorts have rentals or have deals with rental companies. For instance, Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort & Spa offers guests a 25 percent discount for kayak rentals. An hour kayak rental through Spirit Ridge resort costs around $10 U.S.

Hikers and cyclists may choose from dozens of trails. Among the most popular biking trail is the historic Kettle Valley Trail, part of the Trans-Canada Trail. For more information, contact the Wine Country Visitor Centre at 800-663-5052. For other trail ideas, check tctrail.ca.

The Golden Mile Trail takes hikers through gold-mine ruins and vineyards. Located near Tinhorn Creek Vineyards in Oliver. For more information, see oliverchamber.bc.ca/to_do/recreation/golden_mile/golden_mile_trail.htm.

Finding Okanagan wines nearby

Two Okanagan wines are sold in the Seattle area: those from Mission Hill Family Estate Winery and Osoyoos Larose Estate Winery. Of special note is Osoyoos Larose, from French winemaker Pascal Madevon, a rising star in South Okanagan. His Bordeaux blend, Le Grand Vin 2004, will be available in Seattle in October. And his Le Grand Vin 2005, which will be released in Seattle by next summer, ranks among the top three reds in South Okanagan Valley.

Celebrating Okanagan wines

The valley has four major wine festivals, but the showcase remains the Okanagan Fall Wine Festival, which runs from Sept. 28 to Oct. 7. More than 40,000 people attended last year's fall extravaganza, and several of this year's events have already sold out. The festival includes 180 wine-pairing lunches and dinners, and tastings across the valley. For more information: 250-861-6654 or owfs.com.

Also coming up: Oliver's annual Festival of the Grape, Sept. 30, with a parade, entertainment, wine tasting, face painting, a grape stomp and a ceremonial "Blessing of the Harvest." See www.oliverchamber.bc.ca/to_do/c_events/grapefest/grapefest.htm

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You can't drive past the long stretch of desert and vineyards here, or even past the lakes and beaches, without seeing a resort or a billboard promoting a resort.

South Okanagan Valley, located just across the U.S. border from Central Washington, wants to be the next hot vacation destination in British Columbia — much like Whistler or Tofino.

Its road map to become "The Next It" spot? Follow the blueprints of Napa Valley by piggybacking on the success of Okanagan's emerging wine industry.

Restaurants? Check. Bistros, new culinary schools and foodie-oriented and wine-pairing activities are proliferating in the valley, with more coming by next summer.

High-end lodging? Check. Six resorts and luxury hotels will be built within two years. Even wineries are building boutique hotels and luxury cottages by their vineyards.

Golf courses? Check. Eleven golf courses, some championship quality, are located near lakes and vineyards, and now include country clubs and four-star amenities.

"South Okanagan Valley will be the hot place for recreation and resorts," said Lawrie Lock, of the Skaha Beach Club and Spa in Penticton, a $250 million (Canadian) development with luxury suites, "Canada's largest cooking school" and a temperature-controlled lake that can transform into a skating rink. "We are after that same demographic in the summer that Whistler gets in the winter."

Okanagan Valley, with its idyllic mountain setting and multiple lakes, remains a recreation haven for cycling and hiking or just frolicking on the beaches along the valley's 130 miles. It's also an agricultural hub, especially for the valley's famed peaches. But wine is now the main tourist draw.

Transforming conditions

The groundwork for this transformation began in 1988, when Canada provided tax incentives to local farmers to rip up old vineyards and invest in premium grapes. Many winemakers from Napa Valley and France took notice and moved to South Okanagan, where the intense summer heat and cool nights offer ideal winemaking conditions.

Many of B.C.'s cult wineries — Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, Black Hills Estate Winery, Blue Mountain Vineyard — are in South Okanagan. Canada isn't known for just ice wines anymore. South Okanagan has arrived, making big, bold Bordeaux style blends.

Even Jancis Robinson, one of Europe's most influential wine critics, raves about the wines produced in this valley.

Fall is a good time to visit. While summer can sizzle, autumn highs range in the 80s, with clear blue skies typical through October. And it's barely sweater weather in the evening. It's the best time to hike or bike since the trails aren't crowded, and you don't have to worry about the 100-degree summer heat.

The Okanagan Fall Wine Festival, Sept. 28 to Oct. 7, with numerous wine-pairing dinners and tastings, is this valley's signature event. The festival draws tens of thousands of wine lovers and arguably ranks second to the Toronto International Film Festival as a Canadian lure to American tourists.

But that's an anomaly. In tourist terms, this valley is more Atlantic City than Las Vegas, drawing visitors from nearby cities rather than from across the country.

However, lodging-industry executives predict that will change once the newest resorts and luxury hotels are completed by spring 2009. With South Okanagan being a five-hour drive or a one-hour flight from Seattle, the tourism industry envisions South Okanagan becoming as popular as Vancouver with Washington visitors.

Many of the valley's acclaimed wineries and resorts lie in the south end, near the U.S. border, in a 37-mile stretch between the towns of Osoyoos and Summerland. Here are the highlights:

Osoyoos

This beach town is about a mile away from the U.S. border, near Oroville, Wash. This is Canada's only desert, with thousands of rattlesnakes, but Osoyoos is also a hotbed for camping and water recreation.

The recently built Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort & Spa near Lake Osoyoos, with 94 suites and many four-star amenities, is already the most complete resort in South Okanagan, and developers aren't finished. More luxury rooms are coming in 2009.

This development, on a First Nations reservation, features Nk'Mip (pronounced "Ink-a-meep") Cellars, North America's first aboriginal-owned winery, a nine-hole desert-links-style golf course, two high-end restaurants, a spa, a waterslide and swimming pool, and the Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Centre, dedicated to native people of the area.

At night, only the critters chirping and the hum of the air conditioners can be heard at this resort. But don't let the tranquility fool you. In warm weather, Lake Osoyoos is filled with rowdy jet skiers and wakeboarders by day. Best to see the lake at sunrise while young revelers are recovering from their hangover from the night before.

Get up early, hike around the desert and vineyards, then rent a kayak to paddle in the shadow of the mountain ranges.

Another Osoyoos development, Watermark Beach Resort, will be completed by 2009.

Oliver

This town, billed as the "wine capital of Canada," owns the valley's largest concentration of vineyards, with more than a dozen wineries including the acclaimed Jackson-Triggs Vintners, Fairview Cellars, Black Hills Estate Winery and Osoyoos Larose.

Burrowing Owl winery reigns here, consistently making some of B.C.'s best syrahs, cabernets and chardonnays. The winery recently built a boutique hotel and restaurant on its 130-acre vineyard. Perched atop a hill, The Guesthouse provides Tuscanesque views of the rolling vineyards and lush valleys and features spacious rooms with fireplaces and private entrances to the pool. The penthouse includes a private elevator and a kitchen where the chef will cook dinner in your two-bedroom suite.

For years, Fresco restaurant in central Okanagan ruled as the valley's top restaurant, but that's changing as more star chefs head south. The Burrowing Owl's Sonora Room Restaurant is one of the toughest reservations to land on Friday and Saturday nights now that star chef Bernard Casavant, of Whistler, runs the kitchen.

Burrowing Owl will get competition in 2009 with completion of the Oliver Wine Village, with a hotel, spa, restaurants, wine center and culinary school.

Penticton

The largest city in South Okanagan is one of the most popular places for tubing down the river channel. Penticton has two miles of public beaches where, in summer, you'll find orange-vest clad children munching on fries at the family-oriented Okanagan beach, or bikini-clad sunbathers and high-speed jet skiers at Skaha beach.

In spring 2009, the first phase of the $250 million Skaha Beach Club and Spa will be completed. The entire development will include 690 suites, seven swimming pools, a health spa, a cooking school and a 2.5-acre lake.

In the meantime, stop at the Poplar Grove Winery for the camemberts and blue cheese, the only cheese shop in B.C. that could be said to rival the acclaimed Farm House Natural Cheeses in Fraser Valley.

Summerland

Who would have thought that a town with an old English-style village and Tudor architecture would be known as a beach getaway? But Canadian families in vacation season crowd the 11 beaches and stake out the 250 picnic tables with mountain views.

Winelovers, though, head for Sumac Ridge Estate Winery, whose 2003 White Meritage is considered one of B.C.'s best wines.

Summerland Waterfront Resort recently built 115 suites, and its Aveda spa will be ready by October. This new resort features rooms within 10 steps from the hot tub, swimming pool, and kayak and Jet Ski rentals.

Another development, ready as early as 2010, will be Summerland Hills Golf Resort, designed by the architect of Kingsbarns Golf Links in St. Andrews, Scotland, one of the world's top courses.

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or tvinh@seattletimes.com

IF YOU GO

If you go

South

Okanagan Valley

Where

South Okanagan Valley is about a five-hour drive from Seattle. Take Interstate 90 east, then Highway 970 east, then U.S. 97 north to Osoyoos.

Horizon Air offers nonstop service between Seattle and Kelowna. Flight time is about an hour.

Lodging

• Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort & Spa, 1200 Rancher Creek Road, Osoyoos, B.C.; 877-313-9463 or spiritridge.ca

The Guesthouse, Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, 100 Burrowing Owl Place, Oliver, B.C.; 877-498-0620 or burrowingowlwine.ca

Summerland Waterfront Resort, 13011 Lakeshore Drive S., Summerland, B.C.; 877-494-8111 or summerlandresorthotel.com

Wineries to visit

In Osoyoos:

Nk'Mip Cellars, 250-495-2985 or nkmipcellars.com

In Oliver:

• Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, 877-498-0620 or burrowingowlwine.ca

Gehringer Brothers Estate Winery, some of the best-valued wines; 800-784-6304

Jackson-Triggs Okanagan Estate makes one of B.C.'s best syrahs; 250-498-4500 or jacksontriggswinery.com

Tinhorn Creek Vineyards, tourist-friendly with great views and popular hiking trail; 888-484-6467 or tinhorn.com

In Okanagan Falls:

Wild Goose Vineyards & Winery makes some of B.C.'s best gewurztraminers; 250-497-8919 or wildgoosewinery.com

In Summerland:

Sumac Ridge Estate Winery; 250-494-0451 or sumacridge.com

Dining

Toasted Oak Wine Bar & Grill, 34881 97th St., Oliver; 888-880-9463 has one of B.C.'s most extensive wine libraries, including cult wines from Blue Mountain Vineyard and Black Hills Estate Winery. A must-stop for wine fans, especially if you don't want to spend all day touring wineries. The restaurant offers a cheaper menu than resort restaurants.

The Sonora Room Restaurant at the Burrowing Owl in Oliver, 877-498-0620; considered the best restaurant in South Okanagan. Make reservations before 8 p.m. or most of the chef specials will be sold out.

The Patio at Lake Breeze Vineyards, Naramata; 250-496-5619 or lakebreeze.ca. This bistro offers great views but only serves lunch May through Oct. 8.

The Cellar Door Bistro at Sumac Ridge Estate Winery; 250-494-0451 or sumacridge.com

Passa Tempo at Spirit Ridge, Osoyoos; 250-495-8007 or pas satempo.biz/osoyoos

Traveler tips

• If you plan to bring back wine, you can cross the border with up to one liter duty-free. After that, the federal tax is 21 cents per bottle (750 ml) in addition to the state tax. (A Washington resident would pay five cents per ounce.) But the unwritten rule, according to one U.S. Border Patrol officer, is that if you buy no more than three bottles, most border patrol staffers will let you pass rather than make you get in line to pay the duty tax.

• Unlike the Peace Arch border crossing at Blaine, passenger cars can usually clear U.S. Customs within 15 minutes on Highway 97 most days.

More information

Thompson Okanagan Tourism, 800-567-2275 or totabc.com. Request the "Wine & Cultural Guide," which can be mailed to you.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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