Strip-mall suburbia or small sleepy town? For this girls' getaway to wine country, the latter is a no-brainer. We roll the convertible top down, crank up Fifty Shades of Grey on audiobook, bypass Kelowna and head straight to Osoyoos.
British Columbia's South Okanagan has long played country cousin to its slick northern neighbours. Think Sonoma versus Napa. But with the recent arrival of a celebrity-chef progeny, the launch of several vineyard restaurants and the restoration of a sockeye fishery, the southern end of the valley is suddenly flush with foodie vitality – while still maintaining its laid-back charm.
Driving there is half the fun. Cruising the Crowsnest Highway on a five-hour route from Vancouver, we ascend the steep summit to Allison Pass, wind around rugged curves and canyons in Manning Provincial Park and follow raging rivers to the Similkameen Valley, where we stop at a roadside fruit stand to fortify ourselves with fresh-picked produce.
On the shimmering horizon, Osoyoos unfurls in a panoramic vista of scrubby grassland nestled against terracotta hills and a vast turquoise lake. This is a pocket desert, the only one in Canada.
We drop our luggage at the Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort. The resort's sprawling villas sit on the Osoyoos Indian Band reserve, home to Canada's first Aboriginal-owned winery and the Nk' Mip Desert Cultural Centre, where a new commercial fish market opened this summer.
When we told people back home we were going to Osoyoos Lake to go salmon fishing, they thought we were crazy. There hasn't been salmon here in decades. But here we are the next morning, trolling for sockeye on the Okanagan Nation Alliance Fishery's new commercial boat.
Over the last two decades the ONA (representing eight member communities on both sides of the border), has been working with government agencies to restore the Columbia River system. The sockeye returned in record numbers this year.
"These fish live the Okanagan lifestyle," fisheries program manager Howie Wright jokes, reeling in a three-pounder. "They don't start biting until at least 10 a.m."
Perfect timing for a lake-to-plate luncheon. We take our fish to the Watermark Beach Resort, where executive chef Jonas Stadtlander throws it on the grill. Does the name sound familiar?
"I had to get out of my father's shadow," says the son of the legendary Michael Stadtlander. After working around the world at Michelin-star restaurants, he moved here last spring instead of running his father's new restaurant in Singhampton, Ont. It was a huge score for the resort's 30-seat wine bar, where his ahi tempura rolls and dukkah-spiced calamari are spicing up the menu at the only decent place to eat in town.
Did I tell you about the town? With one main street, which closes down for summer dances, Osoyoos (pop. 4,752) could easily stand in for a modern-day Mayberry on The Andy Griffith Show. The closest thing to a chain store is the local Home Hardware. But this is no ordinary Home Hardware. It's more an old-fashioned general store, spread over five levels, where the cooks shop for olive oil and we bought some styling straw sunhats.
Later that night, we taste more of the valley's bounty at Miradoro restaurant, a stunning glass rectangle suspended over Tinhorn Creek Vineyards. I'm not sure which I adore more – honey-glazed quail, wood-fired pizza or the Vegas-style misters on the wraparound deck.
We leave our car parked for most of the weekend. Why drive when the OK Wine Shuttle will chauffeur us to remote vineyard restaurants and back for $45?
It's a necessity for a tipsy day gallivanting down Black Sage Road, from Burrowing Owl Estate Winery (where an impressive young chef treats us to heirloom tomatoes) to Le Vieux Pin (to visit baby grapevine-chomping dwarf goats) and over to the swanky new Black Hills sit-down Wine Experience Centre (replete with Miami-style poolside cabanas).
On our last day, we visit Covert Farms at the foot of McIntyre Bluff, which marks the northern edge of the South Okanagan's wine-designated division. Hopping in the back of a 1952 Mercury, we take a tour of the biodynamic vineyards and vegetable fields.
Back at the farm's charming country market, we sit down outside to a butcher block of local charcuterie, artisan cheese, edible flowers and nuts, portioned into four flavour profiles carefully matched with the wines.
As kids crawl over old machinery and bicyclists drift in for picnics, we raise a toast to the Okanagan Valley's quiet southern side and make a wish: Let's hope it never gets too busy.
The writer travelled courtesy of the resorts and attractions.
IF YOU GO
The Fall Okanagan Wine Festival runs from Sept. 28 to Oct. 7 and features more than 165 events over 10 days at the heart of the harvest. 250-861-6654, thewinefestivals.com
WHERE TO STAY
Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort & Spa Spacious, fully equipped suites and villas managed by Bellstar Resorts on the Osoyoos Indian Band Reserve. One-bedroom suites start at $199. 1200 Rancher Creek Rd., 250-495-5445, spiritridge.ca
Watermark Beach Resort Luxurious villas and suites at the end of Main Street, with direct beach access to Osoyoos Lake. Studio suites from $129. 15 Park Place, 250-495-5500, watermarkbeachresort.com
WHERE TO EAT
Miradoro at Tinhorn Creek Elegant, modern setting for elaborate tasting menus or a casual pizza. Try handmade ravioli stuffed with mortadella and leeks. 32900 Tinhorn Creek Rd., 250-498-3742, miradoro.ca
Terrafina at Hester Creek Refined Tuscan cuisine in a warm, rustic room. Try the housemade charcuterie on the antipasto platter, bacon and sausage flatbread or roast duck breast. 13163 326th Ave., Oliver. 250-498-2229, terrafinarestaurant.com
Covert Farms Farm-fresh al fresco lunches and fun family events like the Haunted Corn Maze. 38614 107th St., Oliver, 250-498-2731, covertfarms.ca
WHERE TO FISH
Osoyoos Lake Fishing Excursions From late July to the end of August, the Okanagan Nation Alliance Fisheries offers eco-fishing tours with First Nations guides. Osoyoos Indian Band, 250-495-7901 ext 202; firstname.lastname@example.org
OK Wine Shuttle No need to drink and drive. Arrange a pick-up for evening dinners and daytime winery hops on designated routes from Osoyoos to Oliver. 250-495-3278, okwineshuttle.ca