When multiple people with different backgrounds and interests – a Vancouver wine enthusiast, two-time Ironman competitor, avid mountain biker, and golfer – all talk up the Okanagan Valley, BC, you had better believe I am going to check it out.
A six-hour drive from Seattle puts you in the heart of the Southern Okanagan Valley, where the landscape is arid and captivatingly inundated with valleys, lakes and orchards.
Consisting of seven pockets of wine regions, 50 golf courses, and the Kettle Valley
bike/hike trail which spans 372 miles, we quickly learn it will require more than the few days we have here to properly investigate everything the region has to offer.
Checking out the view of the Okanagan from the Kettle Valley Trail
Since we are only here for three days before hopping back on the road to continue our BC excursion, we decide to concentrate our efforts on the Naramata Bench
which is a 20 minute drive from Penticton. Don’t get discouraged as you drive through fast food chain-ridden and strip mall-filled Penticton as you will be rewarded with rolling hills and a view of orchards, cliffs and the abundant beauty the Bench has to offer.
Tip: On your way through Penticton, grab a dark chocolate mocha at Blenz and pick up information on the Bench at the Visitor Center on Eckhardt Street.
Why set my sights on the Naramata Bench when it is stacked up against the local’s favorite of neighboring Oliver just a few miles away (deemed the wine capital of Canada) or Kelowna – in the northern Okanagan region which lays claim to esteemed Mission Hill Winery
With 30 wineries on the Bench, the scenery is stunning and the prospect of generally smaller non-commercialized boutique wineries makes the decision an easy one for me. I make a note to visit Kelowna and Oliver on my next visit to the Okanagan.
View as we ride along the Naramata Bench
Some people wonder where Penticton ends and the Naramata Bench begins. I deem the Bench Artisan Food Market
as the line of demarcation. Run by two sisters, the Market is located at the foothill of the Bench and the place is frequented by bikers, locals going out for a jog, and visitors staying on the Bench seeking out their morning coffee.
This is a great place to grab a picnic lunch or start off your day with breakfast. The kitchen kicks out some mighty fine breakfast burritos and sandwiches (made to order) which taste even better when enjoyed on their outdoor patio.
Do not leave The Bench without trying the breakfast burrito
THE burrito: Free run eggs, asparagus, spinach, spanish rice, chorizo, gouda, and chipotle mayo
The Kettle Valley Trail is a mountain biker’s paradise. It suits multiple levels as the main Kettle Valley trail is wide, dirt-packed (albeit sandy at times), and never exceeds a 2% grade. There are also opportunities to deviate from the trail and break-off single track points for more experienced mountain bikers.
We decide to pick up the trail from an entrance close to the Nichol Winery
, so we can end the ride on a downhill.
The trail is well marked with maps and km posts. At post 116, we are rewarded with a plethora of bottled water left by the host of the primitive campground. This makes up for the rattlesnake warnings (we did not encounter any rattlesnakes).
If biking isn’t your thing, no problem. We primarily have this oasis of a trail to ourselves with the occasional sighting of a hiker, ATV’ers and three motorized vehicles.
There is also a company called Ambrosia
which will shuttle you from Penticton to the Chute Lake Resort on the Kettle Valley Rail trail so you only need to ride one way downhill. ($30 per person)
I figured it would be appropriate to sit on this bench, overlooking the stunning Naramata Bench
The trail is so beautiful we rode it for 6 hours
Not to beat a dead horse, but I think the Kettle Valley Trail is the shiz'
We came across several rock ovens which were built in 1913 to make the hard lives of the men who worked on the railroad easier. Isn't it ironic the rock ovens lasted longer than the railroad?
Riding through a tunnel on the trail
Just as we were finishing up a grueling 5 mile sandy stretch, we come across Chute Lake Resort which is accessible by car via the main road. The lake is frequented by families, and couples. You can stay in one of the old-fashioned rooms or pop a tent right on the lake.
Run by couple Gary and Doreen Reed who have owned and personally operated the place for 36 years (she is still the receptionist and compromises the front of the house staff and he still cooks the food), this place is like stepping back in time, straddling two time periods: Fonzie’s Happy Days (the 70s) and the pioneer days of Laura Ingalls’s Little House on the Prairie (1930s).
Interior of Chute Lake Lodge - Traveling back in time
A hipster looking couple in their early 30′s walk into the lodge and the guy is excitedly giving his girlfriend a play-by-play rendition of what’s changed and what’s the same.
Hipster dude used to come here every summer with his family when he was a kid and his most vivid memory is the pet trout that resided in a large fish tank in the lodge. Ms. Reed used to feed the trout shrimp (Mr. Fish clearly wasn’t into processed fish food) and occasionally pet it. Apparently, the Reeds went on vacation one winter many years back and there was a power outage. The person watching the lodge had his hands full and forgot about the resident amphibian and its need for oxygen. The event saddened Ms. Reed so much she decided a collection of lower maintenance glass bottles were better suited in the space.
Ms. Reed sees hipster dude and in a grandmother familiar tone greets him and pats his head with an exuberant ”Hiii Joey!” Joey is mildly embarrassed by the greeting (he refers to himself now as Joe), yet it is clear he is happy to see her.
I scarf down the slice of apple pie and Mr. Reed’s specialty fries (with each order of fries, he grabs a potato out of the produce basket and slices them up before dropping them on the fryer) and then hop back on my bike.
Chute Lake Resort is open year round and car accessible for those who don’t want to rely on a bike to get there. The lake is known for its abundant stock of trout so bring a fishing rod if you feel like it.
Ordering some grub at Chute Lake Resort's lodge
- a Bench local’s favorite – is fun for enjoying coffee, smoothie, slice of cake or all of the above on their sweet outdoor deck. I feel somewhat out of place sitting out on the deck enjoying my slice of red velvet cake as the place is swarming with spandex-wearing Ironman competitors chatting away about the progress of their extreme workouts and nutrition.
The Ironman Canada goes down in Penticton every year. Thankfully, the Ironman competitors are a friendly bunch and seem eager to shift gears and inquire about our mountain bikes and pop-up camper. I wipe the cake crumbs off my face and engage in conversation with them.
I feel like a slice or two (or three) of red velvet cake after a day of riding
Beware wine enthusiasts: You will find it difficult to leave the Naramata Bench or the Okanagan Valley, for that matter. There are 30 wineries on the Bench and they are all so inviting.
Many of the wineries on the Bench are less known and family-run, as in the family oftentimes live right above or right next to their respective winery. Similar to most family-owned establishments, these wineries are full of authenticity, personality and charm. You won’t see pretentious tasting room associates in expensive button-down shirts and fancy cuff links. If that is what you want, then stick with the Northern California wineries.
One of my favorite wine excursions of the trip is visiting whimsical Elephant Island,
which has a Peter Pan vibe making you feel like an adult who has just been allowed to relive your childhood with adult juice.
We park, walk 8 steps into the tasting room, and are greeted by a woman - in a pony tail wearing an Adidas jacket and Lululemon pants – resembling more like Sporty Spice over Posh Spice. She instructs us to take another 8 steps into the outdoor patio amidst trees and orchards. Not only does Elephant Island offer the novelty of outdoor patio tastings, they also don’t rush us out, and the first 6 tastings are complimentary.
12 year-old Elephant Island specializes in patio fruit wines and its Crab Apple wine has recently grabbed the attention of The James Beard House in New York which serves it with a sweet brioche. Good luck trying to find their wines anywhere else in the US. Elephant Island, along with many of the other wineries on the Bench, do not export outside of Canada.
If I had to map wineries to Seattle neighborhoods, Elephant Island would be the Fremont of wineries
definitely reminds me of Seattle’s Capitol Hill – a swankier, hip vibe with a friendly characteristic of all Bench wineries. The winery is owned by a couple who left their Wall Street jobs to get into the wine business. Their bottles and marketing are a spoof on Wall Street. We purchased their cleverly named 2008 Portfolio wine, a Bordeaux-style blend which has won a number of awards.
Outdoor patio at Laughing Stock winery - Set above all of the other wineries..
I have yet to eat bad food at any winery and as a bonus, I always love the suggested wine pairings. On the Bench, Hillside Estate Winery and Lake Breeze Winery serve lunch and dinner.
We pick Hillside Estate Winery
for lunch and the joint reminds me of Ballard: somewhat unassuming and disjointed, but the warmest staff. We choose wisely.
The confit duck leg grilled cheese sandwich with cherry relish and caramelized onions is a decadent treat awakening all of my palate’s sweet and savory needs. Paired nicely with the suggested Cabernet Merlot to soak up the duck fat, I am in heaven.
Spiced carrot and apple soup with a fennel seed profiterole
In addition to the sandwich, the star was the tuna salad.
Seared albacore tuna salad with miso aioli
Among wine connoisseurs, Poplar Grove
is one of the Bench’s most talked about with its reputable Cabernet Franc (widely loved by Vancouver locals) and other full body reds. The Grove just opened 4 days ago in their tricked-out new location. The old spot is also on the Bench and located on Poplar Grove Road.
Poplar Grove’s new digs stick out among the small boutique wineries. This is the Mercer Island of wineries – chic, done-up and high-end. The place felt a bit more distant and sterile with its high ceilings and concrete floors. I was disappointed to learn the Grove’s acclaimed fromagerie would not be open until Friday as they are still in transition between the old and new location.
This Porsche fits in perfectly with the vibe at Poplar Grove
The tasting room associate had a Vancouver-exported cosmopolitan look with a trendy cut and Diane von Furstenberg dress. I am not surprised to learn this well-styled 30-something chick spends her summers on the Naramata Bench and spends the rest of the year in Vancouver.
The principal owner happens to be there and excitedly tells us about his grand plans for Poplar Grove to be a premier destination winery, attracting big wigs from Vancouver and abroad.
- Do I think Poplar Grove is a bit overworked and overstyled? Yes.
- Does it fit the decor of the rest of the bench? No.
- Does that bug me? Yes, a little, but I think they are shooting for a high-end market and their reputation and chic spot will likely bring more people and well-deserved prestige to the Bench.
So, if Poplar Grove’s presence gives my elephant-loving friends at Elephant Island more business, then I am happy.
Tasting room at Poplar Grove. At the far end, there is a door leading you to the grand picnic deck and restaurant
Poplar Grove's new winery towers over the rest of the wineries in size and presence