"Canada in summer?" I hear you mutter. "What the hell will you do in Canada in summer?" As I board the plane to a melted winter wonderland, secretly the same thought is burning in the back of my mind.
Friends wave me off like I am a mad woman. I talk half-convincingly about the bears, the wine, the mountains… without snow, with a half-assed smile. I flick through guide books and stare longingly at pictures of powdered peaks. Then I realise, Im not fooling anyone - even myself.
Go west in Canada in the peak of the chilly months and the place is swarming with JAFAs (just another f*****g Aussie), as they are non-affectionately known by Canadians. Hit the town in mid-August, and the villages have lost their mental appeal. And their Aussie backpacker arrogance.
We shuffle off the plane in to 30+ degree British Columbia heat.
Jumping in our left-hand drive Dodge we hit the rolling hills of the Okanagan.
I hum as we speed past browning fields, monster trucks, fried chicken stops and highway 99 signs with the dusty smell of pure Okanagan country clogging up my nose. You almost expect a gun-wielding cowboy to come strolling out of a service station door and shoot his pistols in the air.
But instead of cowboys, this region is known for its refined culture. So leave your whisky on the saloon counter and indulge in a glass of vino instead – and if you are not happy with just sipping on the grape juice, this is a place where you can bathe in it, smother yourself in it, and even get massaged in it.
In the Okanagan, grain-fed beef is so old school (much like the stereotypical gun-wielding wrangler) – it is now all about boozing the cows in their final months for some extra juicy flavour. Enter wine-fed beef.
This already sounds like my place in the world.
Sparkling Hill Resort
To kick it off, we indulge ourselves with two nights at Sparkling Hill Resort. An establishment entirely encrusted in crystals by an Austrian man who knows a thing or two about crystal - Gernot Langes-Swarovski a.k.a. the crystal king.
Unfortunately, it appears his crystal kingdom may be more suited to Britney Spears or Paris Hilton. Lots of bling with a splash of trashy magazine.Canadians in this affluent area apparently don’t do things in halves.
I spot the crystal palace by the structural eyesore shredding the mountain view in half and overpowering the quaint Switzerland-inspired lodges dotting the woods.
The scenery is ridiculous. The Sparkling Hill Resort is ridiculous. The mass of Swarovski crystals bouncing light as far as the eye can see is just…well…terribly ridiculous. Over three millions crystals? European spa? Five-star dining? I'll take it. Yes, please. I throw a couple of paper notes into the doorman’s hand and shuffle up to my revoltingly-opulent room. Sigh. I guess I can act like a spoilt heiress for a night.
Talk about destroying all my preconceived perceptions. Where am I? Living like the Okanagan is my playground is suddenly becoming very easy indeed.
The deep-etched valleys and monstrous mountains of the region are mind blowing. If you think the outdoors ain't your cup of tea – this is a place which will still get under your skin. Guaranteed.
Summer in the Okanagan is not something to be reckoned with – once the snow melts away and the crowds ease, a wonderland of beauty, animals and grapes ready for the picking await. I am already falling in love.
Dirty Laundry Winery
Before getting too ahead of ourselves, it is time to hunt down where the romance began.
Welcome to Dirty Laundry winery – where dirty little secrets entice your senses from the moment you step foot inside the hush-hush world.
In the early 1800s, a Chinese railway worker opened a laundry in Summerland. But the entrepreneur owner was quick to see there were some needs not being met in the town – so he secretly converted the second level into a gambling den and brothel. As the story goes, Summerland’s early settlers had some of the cleanest clothes and widest grins in the Valley.
Today it uses its history to create a winery with a sexy flair. With lingerie hanging from the roof and customers being pegged silent you could almost be mistaken for forgetting to taste the wine.
Fear not, I don’t let it slip my mind and I salvage every drop of their cheeky vino range from "A Girl in Every Port" (sweet and fruity, better enjoyed with a cigar – but that may be taking the good times too far) to their blushing "Hush" rose variety (an easy drink with a complicated, mixed-shelf under layer). The Pinot Gris won my affections hands down, even without the sexy namesake bestowed upon the other varieties. For $20 a pop, it is a summer friend perfect for enjoying at the Cove Lakeside Resort, where I am shacking up for the night.
Family orientated with a Coffs-Harbour-childhood-holiday feel, the Cove Lakeside in West Kelowna is buzzing with kiddies hitting the waterslide (yes, I did have a sneaky ride down the half pipe). To top off the cheeky feeling, treat yourself after a tough day in the vineyards with one of renowned chef Glenn Monk’s mouthwatering tapas-style desserts. Bliss.
Wrapture Day Spa
Waking with a hazy head, I predict you'll need a morning off the vino. So pop over to Debra at Beyond Wrapture Day Spa and get smothered in it instead.
'Red or white?' she asks me, like rubbing wine into someone's body is a normal activity. Having a fear of emerging grape-stained I take the white option. So I pull my hair back, take a deep breath and prepare to be drenched in the good stuff.
But instead of liquid being sloshed across my bare skin as expected, a wine-based cream is massaged into my back. Saves the staff from indulging, I presume, and close my eyes as I smile at my new-found wine habit.
Who knew grapes could be so versatile?
Poplar Grove Cheesery
The only thing I am missing on my journey through wine country – cheese. Next stop, Penticton. Poplar Grove Cheesery. Cheese heaven? On a block right next door to wine heaven? I pinch myself. And try to cancel my flight.
The lovely Gitta from Denmark prances down the hill to greet us. On her tail is a little red-headed boy named Erich. A bunch of American tourists gather on the one picnic table overlooking the valley, so Gitta ushers us into her backyard. How lovely, I think.
Sitting under a red umbrella in the midday sun, it feels more like France than Penticton. Wherever we are, Gitta makes it feel like home – and provides copious amounts of cheese to accompany a glass of Monster wine.
I eye a triangle of blue cheese cautiously, working out how to stop it infecting the platter, when our host catches my eye.
'Blue?' she asks.
I pause as I consider the best way to tell a cheese shop owner I can’t possibly go near her product. There is little I dislike more than blue cheese. The smell is worse than the bite, but to be honest, I would rather eat a damp, dirty sock.
'It's mild,' she continues.
'One for beginners,' she edges closer.
I purse my lips and shake my head. But sweet Gitta could sell cheese to a lactose-intolerant vegan. A minute later, I am sampling Poplar Grove's finest.
Did she convert me? Not quite, but when in a cheesery…
While staying in God's country, it is only natural to plan a feast decorated with a sunset on God's mountain. If there is one experience you have while visiting British Columbia, make this it. Just out of Penticton, the unmarked drive hints something unique is perched at the top.
Every Sunday evening, a meal inspired by a local winemaker's goods is prepared and served to a random dinner table crowd of thirty. Sitting pretty the communal table is in the open air high above Shaka Lake and as the sun sets and reflects off hanging pots and lamps, newly-mingled guests indulge in a four course culinary adventure prepared by Joy Road catering.
Our table is a mix of eccentric characters all bursting at the pockets with new money discovered in the burgeoning wine-making business of the Okanagan. Beside me, locals share stories of opportunity perfect for the wealthy set – sensational conditions, vineyards for sale in amazing scenery, taking a gamble, a lucky break and the wine… oh, the wine.To complement the Tantalus Riesling 2010 we are served a dish of sizzling pork belly. The combination of oil and popping citrus exploding in my mouth is a sensation I will not forget. The romance of Okanagan wine has taken hold.
Throw those New Zealand sav blancs down the sink. The new kids in town are Gewürztraminer, Riesling and ice wine. I become obsessed with BC (local slang for British Columbia) wine, scouring bottle shops for Tantalus Riesling to prove to the doubters back home that Canada is up there with the best.
Then I realize that is a school kid error and keep my dirty secret all to myself.
Still asking: 'Why summer?'
Yes, I may have missed out on epic powder, making angels in the snow and undeniable Après-ski adventures (Then again, I could always stay on for the season).
But let's be honest – do I want sub-zero conditions, thousands of egotistical Aussie tourists and ice fishing on my holiday? Sometimes you just can't compete with wineries on tap, a board only used for cheese and enough diamonds to swim in.
Feel free to join the tourist trail, but I know what I'll be doing this August. And it isn't coming to a bottle shop near you.
For further information on visiting British Columbia see www.britishcolumbia.travel
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