“Cheers, cheers, cheers” is a battle cry of people you’ll hear everywhere you go in Kelowna, B.C., Canada’s wine capital. Every pub, lounge, winery or restaurant you visit in Kelowna, you are bound to hear the clinking of the glasses as Kelowna is the place where locals and tourists alike meet to celebrate, drink, socialize and relax.
At a long table next to us, a group of women holding a bachelorette party were in a celebratory mood, shouting “Cheers” while others sitting at the bar were hailing their favourite soccer team while enjoying the World Cup FIFA soccer tournament held in Russia. Whether you like it or not, in Kelowna, you cannot help but get into the mood to celebrate as Kelowna lives and thrives on wine.
A fun-filled family vacation awaits anyone who goes to Kelowna, the third-largest metropolitan area in B.C. with a population of 194,882, behind only Vancouver and Victoria.
Kelowna derives its name from an Okanagan language term for “grizzly bear.” Before it developed a reputation for its world-class wineries, golf courses and restaurants, it had been described as “Napa North” or a land of “peaches and beaches.”
It was just a little over 25 years ago that Okanagan’s modern wine industry began with the Canadian government providing incentives to growers and wineries to promote household names like Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah.
Visitors now have a choice of filling up their glasses from over 40 wineries, breweries, cideries and distilleries and they can savor abundance in every sip and bite. Restaurants in Kelowna feature fresh local, organic food cooked with ingredients from the farm down the road or the orchard around the corner.
We began our wine tour from Gray Monk Estate Winery, perched above the Okanagan Lake with stunning panoramic views of mountains, vineyards and the lake. Gray Monk is the English translation of the Austrian name of Pinot Gris, planted by George Heiss in 1976. Pinot Gris is now the top planted white grape variety and the best-selling wine in B.C.
The Heiss family has the province’s oldest family-owned and operated winery, celebrating 32 years of wine-making and 42 years of grape-growing. Pinot Gris is the best-selling wine in BC.
We dined at the Grapevine Restaurant operated by SAIT-educated Saskatchewan native Chef Siever, who has worked in Calgary hotels and golf courses. Our visit here was memorable with the Chef Siever’s culinary creations, Gray Monk’s paired wines and stunning views of Okanagan Lake. At the Grapevine Restaurant, you’ll find expertly crafted dishes to complement the wines.
Supplementing the reputation and sophistication of the area is the city’s lakefront Delta Hotels Grand Okanagan Resort located in downtown, close to all amenities with picturesque views of Okanagan Lake and the mountains. The hotel is so conveniently located that we only had to walk from the hotel to have our first dinner in Kelowna at the Waterfront Wines, a casual but sophisticated award-winning restaurant and wine bar.
But one doesn’t have to get out of the hotel to enjoy one of the best places to dine in Kelowna — Oak+Cru Social Kitchen & Wine Bar. Located right in the hotel’s foyer, this is a busy, friendly place either for formal dining or just meeting friends at the bar. With a panoramic view of the lake, it offers the bounty of the Okanagan Valley, which includes over 300 wineries and an abundance of local food producers.
As most wine drinkers would agree, wines are natural complements of cheese with its savory flavour. Hence, it is not surprising that Kelowna’s Carmelis Goat Cheese, a family-owned dairy, is popular among the residents and visitors alike. Carmelis, a boutique dairy produces premium, artisanal cheeses and gelato made from 100 per cent goat milk. The factory manufactures on a small scale, closely monitoring quality of each and every cheese from milk from their sister farm in Agassiz, Mystery Meadows, using traditional techniques learned during many visits to various areas of France in particular, and Europe in general.
Carmelis produces gelato, a rich, dense, intense flavour that cannot be matched by American-style ice cream. Gelato, made from goat milk, is lower in fat than ice cream, allowing your mouth to taste the true flavours.
Before leaving Carmelis, I was advised for best results to take cheese out of the fridge before eating and keep it at room temperature for an hour or two. The remaining cheese should be well wrapped to prevent it from drying out in the fridge. (I have yet to try this.)
Kelowna also offers a lot more besides eating and drinking. The city’s Downtown Marina is a waterfront area offering moorage in the heart of Kelowna. Here one can rent boats or one can participate in your preferred water adventure such as sea-dooing or water surfing. We spent an hour on a fast boat, touring the lake, passing under the Bennett Bridge, which goes to Penticton, and exploring and viewing the city’s landmarks from the lake. There are also conveniently placed seating areas along the pier which attracts pedestrians who just want to relax along the waterfront.
As a farewell to Kelowna, we dined and wined at the Mission Hill Family Estate, one of Kelowna’s premier wineries, and enjoyed the breathtaking views of Okanagan Valley. The winery has undergone a six-year transformation undertaken by team of international architects, designers and craftsmen.
The winery’s Terrace Restaurant, an outdoor eatery, is ideally situated overlooking rows of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Our exclusive guided tour started with a glass in hand, offering intimate and first-hand information on Mission’s wine-making philosophy and history.
Our last supper in Kelowna was at Mission Hills renowned Terrace Restaurant. The restaurant was packed and the kitchen conveniently located where diners can observe their meals being cooked and the busy activity going on among the staff. With breath-taking views of the mountain and the vineyards, it was a memorable visit complemented by a friendly waitress and delicious dishes, paired by selected wines.
Much of the produce used in the restaurant is grown in the winery’s garden and by working closely with local farmers. In summer, Mission Hill holds open air concerts in the winery’s spectacular outdoor Amphitheatre.
Apart from Mission Hill, the most well-known wineries in Kelowna are Summerhill Pyramid Winery, Quails’ Gate Estate Winery, Cedar Creek Estate Winery, and Gray Monk Estate Winery.
Less than an hour’s drive from Kelowna is Big White Ski Resort, a winter destination renowned for its champagne powder snow and family-friendly atmosphere.
Early this year, Alberta imposed a ban on all shipments of B.C. wine in retaliation for their opposition to the Kinder Morgan pipeline. The boycott, which stunned the local wine community, didn’t last long and B.C. resumed sending more than 17 million bottles annually to Alberta, earning $70 million to B.C. wineries.
Kelowna’s magnificent lake, famous vineyards and vibrant downtown core has attracted new residents, from empty nesters to young professionals, all year round. Kelowna continues to gain a reputation as a place to call home.
Mansoor Ladha is a Calgary-based travel writer/photographer and author of “Memoirs of a Muhindi: Fleeing East Africa for the West” and “Portrait in Pluralism: Aga Khan’s Shia Ismaili Muslims.”