Grapes and Greens in the Thompson-Okanagan

The Thompson-Okanagan region, British Columbia

British Columbia’s Thompson-Okanagan features outstanding golf courses—and is renowned as Canada’s premier wine producing region. (Image: Tourism Kelowna)

Award-winning vineyards and superior golf—the irresistibly modern one-two tourism punch pioneered by California’s Napa and Sonoma valleys—has in less than two decades put the once largely overlooked Thompson-Okanagan region of British Columbia on the radar of discerning travellers.

Golf courses have sprouted like wildflowers on the rolling red hills and in the lushly forested mountain valleys. Tobiano near Kamloops, The Club at Sagebrush in Quilchena, The Ridge Course at Predator Ridge Resort in Vernon and other outstanding tracks have all enjoyed ballyhooed openings.

“Blockbuster mountain views, rolling grasslands and desert plains make the Thompson-Okanagan a spectacular canvas for golf-course design,” says Tom McBroom, the architect of Tobiano. “Add vineyards, water sports and all the other attractions and there’s almost no limit to the region’s potential as a tourist destination.”

Sagebrush Golf Course, Quilchena, British Columbia

The Club at Sagebrush is an acclaimed Rod Whitman design in Quilchena. (Image: Sagebrush)

Stretching from the U.S. border, where the northern tip of the Sonoran Desert snakes between the mountains into British Columbia, northeast to the town of Valemount near the Alberta border, the Thompson-Okanagan basks in an average of more than 2,000 hours of sunshine annually. Apples, peaches, plums, strawberries, cherries and raspberries grow in abundance. Also driving the tourist economy are fishing, boating, dude ranches, outdoor theatre, and jazz and country music festivals. Come winter, the marquee draw is Big White, the largest ski resort in the British Columbia interior.

Despite these other advantages, tourism officials agree that it’s the combination of fine wine and championship fairways that has propelled the Thompson-Okanagan into the spotlight. In Canada, only Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula is able to offer visitors a similarly attractive mix of grapes and greens.

Once the producers of the sort of plonk that came packaged in cartons and had “Ripple” or “Duck” in the name, local wineries finally got serious about their product after the enactment of the North American free trade agreement in 1989, which removed provincial legislation taxing B.C. wines at half the rate of imports. Guided by experienced winemakers hired from around the world, local vineyards soon began winning awards at prestigious wine fairs and attracting the attention of tourists.

Throughout the region, glitzy resorts rose to accommodate the influx of visitors. Property values soared. And top golf architects began sculpting courses throughout a northern oasis where rain delays are rare and the playing season, often stretching from late March to early November, is one of Canada’s longest.

Most of the early golf-course development centred on bustling Kelowna, on the eastern shore of Okanagan Lake, a theatrically steep-banked 110-kilometre-long waterway linking the city of 117,000 with the smaller communities of Penticton to the south and Vernon to the north.

Just across from Kelowna’s international airport is the Okanagan Golf Club, offering two 18-hole layouts that tumble through ponderosa pine forests. Other top courses in Kelowna or within an easy drive of the city include Gallagher’s Canyon Golf and Country Club, Harvest Golf Club, the Club at Tower Ranch and Black Mountain Golf Club.

Predator Ridge Resort, Vernon, British Columbia

Predator Ridge Resort in Vernon put the region on the map of Canadian golf. (Image: Predator Ridge)

Though Kelowna has long been the hub, it was the 1991 opening of Predator Ridge Resort near Vernon that put the Thompson-Okanagan on the map of Canadian golf. The 1,200-acre resort and real estate development offers a gorgeous landscape of clear lakes, fast-rushing mountain streams and wheatgrass meadows. There’s a central lodge, two- and three-bedroom cottages, and two championship golf courses. The older course, Predator, is a Les Furber design that wends through rolling hills and tall grasses. But the real star is The Ridge, a brilliant Doug Carrick mountainside creation named SCOREGolf’s best new Canadian course of 2010.

And a glamorous twin attraction to Predator Ridge Resort now glitters high on a cliff overlooking both the golf course and Okanagan Lake. Opened in 2010, Sparkling Hill Resort, a $122-million European-style wellness hotel financed by the Swarovski family and decorated with more than three million of their namesake crystals, is certain to draw even more visitors to the area.

Talking Rock Golf Course, Kamloops, British Columbia

The Wayne Carlton-designed Talking Rock Golf Course near Kamloops. (Image: Talking Rock)

Another golf hot spot is Kamloops, 163-kilometres northwest of Kelowna, where tourism is the fastest-growing sector of the local economy. Opened in 2008, Tobiano is one of Canada’s most beautiful courses, offering views of Kamloops Lake and the Columbia and Cascade Mountains from every hole. Soon after the launch of Tobiano came the opening of Dave Barr-designed Canoe Creek Golf Course, as well as Talking Rock Golf Course, a Wayne Carlton layout developed by the Little Shuswap First Nations.

The local wine industry signaled its own coming of age with the 2001 opening of Mission Hill Family Estate Winery, a $40-million hilltop showpiece just outside Kelowna. The Mediterranean-influenced complex designed by renowned Seattle-based architect Tom Kundig includes a 12-storey bell tower, a performing-arts amphitheatre, dramatically lit cellars and the outdoor Terrace restaurant, offering views of Okanagan Lake and hillsides covered in rows of pinot noir and chardonnay vines.

Terrace at Mission Hill Family Estate Winery (Image: Mission Hill Estate Winery)

The view from the terrace at Mission Hill Winery in Kelowna. (Image: Mission Hill)

Though tours and tastings are year-round attractions at most of the region’s more than 100 wineries, many oenophiles visit during the Okanagan Spring Wine Festival or during the even more popular Okanagan Fall Wine Festival.

Fine wine paired with outstanding golf—the ideal modern tourism mix.

 

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