I swirl the NK’MIP Reisling ice wine around my teeth, nibble on local artisan Carmelli’s goat cheese, my feet up on the balcony at Spirit Ridge Resort with a white fleecy robe wrapped against the evening chill. The air is so crisp I could take a bite out of it while I gaze at the setting sun in hues of peach and purple over Osoyoos Lake. I feel civilized, sophisticated and oh-so mellow.
While hubby enjoys hard adventure like climbing mountains in Jasper National Park, I am more of a soft adventure kind of gal – soft robes, soft cheeses, soft touch massage, soft pillows and duvets…
This area of the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia is home to the Osoyoos Indian Band, one of the seven bands of the Okanagan First Nations. The 32,000 acres they control are known as NK’MIP (pronounced in-ka-meep) which means bottomland. The Band developed the NK’MIP Resort to create jobs for their members by sharing their history and culture with visitors and by creating more respect for the unique Canadian desert environment. One of their most established businesses is NK’MIP Cellars which started here with vines planted in 1968. They are North America’s first aboriginal-owned and operated winery and have won dozens of awards over the years.
I love the South Okanagan in the offseason. There is something sensual and sumptuous about the quieter energy and lingering scent of Indian summer. I love the leaves crunching underfoot and the earnest efforts of everyone to engage you as the season winds down. Winter here is just as beguiling and myriad activities can be found throughout the mountains in the region.
My evening began with a detoxifying Montecelli mud treatment at onsite Sonora Desert Spa and ended with a fabulous meal at Passa Tempo with owner and wine aficionado Paul LaGrange and his family. Wine Spectator magazine named Paul’s wine list the best with over 200 wines to choose from.
Jeremy Luypen, athlete turned chef, served it up right. We started with rock salt shrimp followed by dry-aged steak and rounded out with dessert wine from another local vineyard, LaStella Moscato. Nice and apricot-y.
The next morning, Iris of sales takes me on a tour of Spirit Ridge, one of British Columbia’s biggest resorts with full or partial ownership options and rental pool offsetting investment. Or you can just do what I did, and go for a few nights as a non-owner. Perfect for all ages, the Ridge rocks with boomers, babies, boppers and betweenies all grooving to the Okanagan spirit. Iris is a boomer who dresses like a betweenie. All the gals in the Okanagan, the California of the North, look like they live on the beach.
I wander over to the NK’MIP Desert Cultural Centre that promotes a better understanding of the Okanagan First Nations, also a partner in the Spirit Ridge resort. Interpreter Russell Wuttunee takes us on a desert walk where we carefully avoid moulted snakeskins (but no snakes), prickly cacti and learn about desert edibles. Russell, an award-winning Cree singer from Saskatchewan, blessed us with a chant in the round house at the end of the tour. Russell really puts the spirit in the ridge.
I spent the afternoon with architect Henry Yorke Mann for a tour of his amazing homes including a postage stamp 260 square foot house he built for his partner Denise called Quietude. I have admired and written about Henry’s work so was delighted by this personal tour and gift of a handhewn book about his architecture. Henry drove us around on gravel backroads in his low slung Porsche. Driving too fast at 80, Henry is still doing commissions.
We visited the stunning and recently completed home of John and Darlene West with views overlooking their vineyard. Henry created deep roof overhangs coupled with mathematically calculated light shelves that allows sunlight deep into the home in winter but keeps it out in the summer, so no need for air conditioning.
Half of the Wests’ vineyard is missing under mud from a slide last summer that John narrowly escaped being buried under. The Okanagan is like that. Nature is both beauteous and beastly with slides, forest fires and floods raging at different seasons. Sometimes disastrously with massive evacuations, sometimes not at all.
Okanagans take a mañana attitude, “If you gotta go, what nicer place to do it,” says local organic fruit grower Steven Schmidt at his roadside Herb Garden market about to close for the season. The apples are flawless and juicy and I buy enough to make apple cider back home on the prairies.
When I was a kid on family vacations, apples and cherries festooned the benchlands of this semi-desert region. Now it is mostly vineyards, about 40 in the South Okanagan alone, with names like Twisted Tree and Burrowing Owl with plenty of award-winning wines and fantastic festivals, the last in October.
Stick around and you might make it to the ice wine harvest. Ice wine is produced from grapes that have been harvested frozen on the vine, often nocturnally, and pressed in a continuous process while the air temperature is 17.6°F or lower—which could be as late as January.
The next day, I move my digs to the Watermark Resort in Osoyoos on the edge of the warmest lake in the region. Over grilled sable fish from the Queen Charlotte Islands and Black Hills wine, sales director Judith Hart tells me they have some great deals on condos.
“A condo facing the mountains is under $300,000. Where else can you buy lakeside property for that? In the winter, we get a lot of prairie ‘snowbirds’ coming to roost, escaping -30 temperatures,” Judith explains.
The Watermark is exceptional yet intimate with attentive staff, high end finishings, lakeside views and all the right touches in the rooms including Royal Doulton flatware. And more soft duvets to rest your weary wine-addled head and soft robes to visit the pools.
I wind up my south Okanagan tour by driving back to the airport in Kelowna two hours north. I feel like I am living in a Beach Boys album, passing through towns like ‘Peachland’ and ‘Summerland’ and humming along in my Lincoln MKS, a free Budget car rental upgrade because everything’s negotiable in the off season.
Before hopping the plane, I eat breakfast at the roadside Jammery for its award-winning best breakfast in the Okanagan every year, and the jams are yummy too. I watch as owner Bill Morrison makes jam in vats.
I rue not having time to hop a quick heli-tour with Okanagan Mountain heli-tours and chief pilot Johanne Vates. Johann trained my husband as a heli-pilot years ago, but that’s another story.
I think you get the picture. The Okanagan is full of great people and services with lots of tasty stories to tell. You’ll just have to go there and start your own.
Top photo: Sunset at Spirit Ridge. Credit: Pamela Irving