British Columbia’s Thompson Okanagan region is named for the two great bodies of water that dominate it – The Thompson River and Lake Okanagan – but it’s every bit as impressive for its desert landscapes, evergreen mountains and low slung hills covered in a quilt of orchards, vineyards and golf courses.
Like the Napa Valley in California, Bordeaux in France, or Italy’s Chianti region in Tuscany, grape growing and wine production in the Okanagan Valley is not only a business but a way of life; one that defines the character and collective lifestyle. Add 50 championship 18-hole golf courses, three major ski resorts and numerous lake and golf resorts, and you have BC’s major all-season playground.
Certainly golf, boating, hiking, biking and skiing are all key activities, but there also are countless, more passive options that include music, dance; theater and visual arts, including performances, exhibits at tastings at various wineries.
Gateway to the region is the 100,000-strong town Kamloops, a city all too often overlooked as a destination, but one that comfortably combines the amenities of a city with an edgy sense of its frontier origins. Within short distances from the city’s heart are desert land and sandstone canyons, evergreen timberlands, Alpine mountains and glaciers, hundreds of fish-filled lakes, rivers, waterfalls; rolling hills grasslands, and Hoodoos – intriguing rock formations creating by centuries of erosion and a short distance from the center of Kamloops.
Kamloops has long defined itself as a city at a cross-roads and it’s easy to see why – the landscape changes in every direction from here. To the north, things get wild among the desolate forests that flank the Thompson River en route to the Rockies and Jasper. To the southwest the Nicola Valley and Merritt are pure cowboy country, while to the east, the large Lake Shuswap offers set-piece lake-and-mountain scenery.
The region’s big draw is the Okanagan Valley, which has as its centerpiece a chain of lakes that run 259km (155 miles) north-south from the foothills around Kamloops and the Shuswap to the U.S. border. All these lakes not only offer limitless waters pleasure to boaters and beach-lovers they have also spawned a seaside-feel in their resorts that’s highly unusual at inland Canadian locations. The weather helps, too. The Okanagan is famously mild, pleasant and sunny for much of the year – which goes a long way to explaining the presence of the many orchards and the success of its 200 vineyards and 129 wineries. This makes it the second largest wine producer in Canada behind Southern Ontario and gives it an identity unlike anywhere else in Canada. The Okanagan divides into three distinct parts: each with a distinct personality, unique lifestyle and character:
The region between Osoyoos and Penticton is the driest part of the region and the desert city of Osoyoos is located in the center of the only true desert in Canada. Osoyoos Lake is an oasis in the desert, rimmed with restaurants, B&Bs and small motels. The Nk’Mip Desert and Heritage Centre is a major stopping off point. The Sylix Okanagan Peoples settled in this valley thousands of years ago and this cultural center vividly demonstrates how they developed a close relationship with the land. The south is also famous for its Kettle Valley cycling trail, a route that follows numerous old railroad trestles.
Although many small communities surround it, the focus of daily life and tourism in the Central Okanagan is Kelowna with its 150,000 regional population. Here’s where you’ll find the Okanagan’s largest numbers of wineries, resorts, and, arguably, its most sophisticated lifestyle. It’s located about mid-way along the length of Lake Okanagan is the longest, at 83km-long (52 miles) the longest in the region. It’s also a massive 300 meters (1000 feet) deepest point, giving rise to talk of a monster – Ogopogo – living in its depths.
The main North Okanagan town, and a focus for most visitors, is Vernon, but just up the road is the historic O’Keefe Ranch and Armstrong, where they make wonderful cheese. The city’s Old Towne pays tribute to this in its cheese museum and features antique and specialty stores and even an operating bee farm. Then, at the end of the valley, 59 km (36mi) from Vernon lies Salmon Arm, a picturesque small city that rests on the shores of Shuswap Lake.
Kamloops Cowboy Festival – Every March, Kamloops is the site of annual Kamloops Cowboy Festival that displays the best in cowboy poetry
and western music, as well as cowboy artists and artisans.
Kamloopa Powwow – Every summer, the Kamloopa Powwow brings together 1300 performers, competitors, arts and crafts people and more than 15,000 spectators to a three-day annual First Nations event in Kamloops.
Rodeos – Experience the region’s western heritage by attending a rodeo.
The Thompson-Okanagan is one casual region. When you go to even the best restaurants or major cultural event, you’ll see men and women wearing jeans and casual wear. Sweaters replace jackets and suits, and neckties are seldom worn. High heels and suits are reserved for fund raising dinners for local charities
or for business meeting.
Information on all activities, restaurants, and accommodations is available at the Kamloops Visitor Centre, 1290 West Trans-Canada Highway, Kamloops, British Columbia V2C 6R3; Phone: +1-250-372-8000.