Bring On The Heat: Okanagan Oasis

When many people think of British Columbia they imagine a place where rain falls constantly on towering forests and where mountains reach to the sky.  Not often do they think of an arid landscape where vineyards flourish and recreational activities centres on golf courses and lakes.  While it can’t be denied that the former does exist, you just have to travel to the right part of the province to find the latter.  That oasis is the Thompson-Okanagan area, one of the warmest regions in all of Canada and a place that has a blossoming tourism industry.

Visiting the Thompson-Okanagan region for the first time is a surreal experience.  A desert-like climate in the south sharply contrasts the climate in the north that is more reminiscent of a tropical rain forest.  You also have two significant mountain ranges thrown into the mix.  The varied landscape is a big attraction for any visitor to the area; you can’t help but be drawn to the striking topography.  Of course, the golf courses can be pretty distracting themselves so that just makes it even better.

This easily accessible area is located approximately 350 km northeast of Vancouver and can be reached by plane, train, automobile, or bus.  The recommended airport is in Kelowna, a terminal that serves various major airlines.  Ground transport from Vancouver is via a very scenic route and is a vacation adventure in itself.

Sonoran Extension

The southern reaches of the Okanagan-Thomson region is dominated by the Okanagan Valley.  Surprising to many people is the fact that this area represents the northern tip of the Sonoran Desert that originates in Mexico far to the south.  The result is an ecosystem unique in Canada where searing hit temperatures can be found throughout the summer season.

This phenomenon is most prominent in the southern Okanagan Valley where you can find the towns of Osoyoos and Oliver.  Like you will find in much of the region, this area boasts a very warm winter season that comes late and an early spring to match.  It all extends he outdoor recreation season, especially for activities like golf.

If you start your adventure near Oliver there is no better place to begin golfing than at the Fairview Mountain Golf Club.  The members of the British Columbia Zone of the Canadian PGA voted this semi-private golf club the Golf Facility of the Year in 2004 and it is easy to see why.  It has a healthy history dating back to 1925 and has undergone several transformations to be the club it is today.  Their 18 holes of rolling fairways are nothing but enhanced by the spectacular panoramas.

Massive elevation changes are the most notable feature at Fairview Mountain, as you would expect by the club’s name.  Eight holes have at least 60 feet in elevation changes whether up or down.  The ninth hole is unbelievable as it drops more than 120 as you move the 360 yards from tee to green along this dogleg hole.  Add in a modern clubhouse and reasonable green fees and you have a true winner.  As an added bonus there are more than 20 minutes within 30 kilometres of the golf course for your exploring pleasure.

Now 27 holes, but moving to have 36 open in 2006 is the Osoyoos Golf & Country Club.  Perched high above the city of Osoyoos in the southern Okanagan Valley, this semi-private course celebrates a 35 anniversary this year.  For all those season members and guests alike have enjoyed its mix of great holes accompanied by stunning vistas of mountain, lakes, desert and valleys.  Here you will find a strong test of golf that is open almost all year long.  The Latin themed clubhouse blends appropriately with the desert environment leaving you wondering at some times (especially during the dry summer weather) if you have been transported to Cabo Del Sol for the day.

Lakeside

Moving north up the Okanagan Valley will bring you to the most populous and significant city on the area, Kelowna.  This city that borders Okanagan Lake is a famed summer retreat and has grown steadily in population over the last two decades as people put greater emphasis on their recreation time.  At 105,000 people Kelowna has all the amenities of a major city but has still retained its small town feel.  Friendly faces meet you everywhere making you feel like more like a BC Interior native then an interloping tourist.

The feeling continues to ring true are the golf courses of Kelowna where service seems to be paramount their operations.  It is hard to play favourites but sometimes you can’t help it.  The first golf course I ever played in the Okanagan Valley was Gallagher’s Canyon and it continues to impress me after almost two decades since that first visit.

In that time, Gallagher’s has grown from being just a golf course to a full residential community found juts 15 minutes drive from downtown.  The core though, is still the golf course, often renowned as one of the best in the province and often rated in the top rankings fro Canada by various publications.  There are 27 golf holes at the facility, eighteen composing the Canyon course while the extra nine holes can be found on the mid-length Pinnacle course.

Located on the edge of canyon, Gallagher’s main golf course has some spectacular hole settings.  The opening holes are fairly sedate but that changes on the 3rd hole where you have to carry a large gully on this mid-length par three to reach the green.  The first par 5, hole #6, is a stunner with a green located directly adjacent to a canyon, creating some very distracting views.  The distractions only continue through the balance of the holes, proving easily why this layout is revered and a must play for any Okanagan visitor.

Blending the traits of a fine vineyard with a top-notch golf club and a working fruit orchard, The Harvest Club can clearly say it is without peers in all of Canada.  It is situated on an almost 300 acre tract of land in the southeast part of Kelowna.  Eighty seven acres are devoted to a working orchard featuring 9 varieties of apples including: Spartan, Macintosh, Red Delicious, Braeburn, Royal Gala, Shamrock, Sunrise, Granny Smith and Fuji.  An additional 10 acres of land produce Ehrenfelser, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wine grapes, used exclusively by Calona Wines to produce numerous award winning wine products.  Appropriately it is located on KLO Road – KLO standing for “Kelowna Land and Orchard.”

As for the golf at the Harvest Club, is equal is quality to the orchard and vineyard.  The 7109 yard Graham Cooke designed layout is friendly with wide fairways and large greens.  While it does not have as dramatic elevation changes as Gallagher’s, the land does roll along the hillside and the turf conditions are impeccable.  As an amusing side note, I would have loved to play this golf course in 1986 when I played in a BC High School provincial volleyball championship at KLO Secondary just down the road in 1986 but alas, the golf course was still more than a decade from its arrival.  But it is there now, and a course worthy of your attention, no matter your reason for visiting Kelowna.

Like Gallagher’s Canyon, another Kelowna area golf club, The Okanagan Golf Club, is owned and operated by a group known as GolfBC.  Despite their name, GolfBC now operates several golf courses in Hawaii as well.

The Okanagan Club is easily found, with a location right across from the Kelowna airport making it hard to miss.  Vancouverites can jump a flight and be on the club’s doorstep in just over an hour, if they should be so inclined.  The club is home to two eighteen hole tracks.  The first, the Quail Course was designed by Les Furber and opened in 1994.  The Bear course followed in 1998 and appropriate to its name, was the creation of the Jack Nicklaus Design Company.

Multi-tiered fairways are the signature on the Quail course as it winds its way around a large rock bluff.  At 6891 yards it is not massively long for the top player but there are enough trees and narrow tee shots to get your attention and to make you think about just hitting driver off every tee.  Elevated views on holes like #2 and #6 leave you wanting to never leave.  Both holes are par fives and combine great vistas, with strong design to make for a lot of fun.

The Bear course at The Okanagan club, despite opening later may have gotten the best part of the 374-acre property.  Located on a ridge, the Bear has some very theatrical holes that can either end in euphoric success or grim disaster with not much needed to separate the two outcomes.  Bring your camera for the view from the third tee box.  As the highest pint on the course it also create a stunning starting pint for a monster of a par 4 that stretches to over 450 yards.  The elevation evens out slightly on the back nine, giving more chances for birdies but overall, it will test your skills the entire way.

At least two other notable golf facilities deserve your attention while in the Kelowna area.  The Kelowna Springs Golf Club has a solid 18 hole course opened in 1990 and designed by Les Furber but it is their putting course that is the most fun.  Also laid out by Furber, this all grass course is played with a putter only.  Great attention was given to the layout that looks a full size golf course in miniature.  It is fun for everyone, whether they are a golfer or not.  A great place for any non-golfers in your group to spend time while you play the big course although you should consider joining them, it’s that good.

Taking the floating bridge across Okanagan Lake will bring you to the appropriately named town of Westbank.  Here the Vintage Hills Golf Course & Academy uses the lake as a vivid backdrop.  At 4661, this is not a full-length course but it has all the characteristics of c championship layout.  Five lakes and 72 bunkers add to the challenge.  The facility also has a very complete teaching facility if you want to brush up on your skills.  You can even catch a lesson there with former LPGA Tour winner Gail Graham.

Mountain Retreat

You may need all the help you can get if you head to the northern reaches of the Okanagan Valley and just south of the town of Vernon.  Here the Predator Ridge Golf Club waits to test you as it did four of the best players in the world when it hosted the Canadian Skins Game in 2000.

Opened in 1991 as an 18-hole course, nine more holes were added in 2000.  On top of the Skins Game, the course has also hosted various top-level professional and amateur tournaments.  It is often rated as one of the best courses and resorts in Canada in golf publication and newspaper polls.

Tall pines, varied topography and a thoughtful design all make each of the three nines at Predator a joy to play.  It is not a course that any golfer would bore of easily.  You know it has to be special when the club touts that there are three rules to playing golf there with number one being that, “you bring your camera.”  Wise advice but even without a camera that images of these golf holes will stay with you for a long time after you leave.  They are that good.

More Than Golf

People wouldn’t gush about the Okanagan if there were nothing else to do but golf (although some might) so what else can you expect will fill your days with during a visit?  As much fun as you want is the short answer.

One of the greatest attractions for visitors to the Okanagan (besides the golf) is the more than 120 wineries that call the region home.  This industry started some 20 years ago and now stakes a strong claim as the trademark for the Okanagan region for the rest of the world.  The real strength is fruity white wines, ice wines, and late harvest wines.  Almost all the wineries offer public tours and tasting and provide you with a great way to while away a few days in picturesque vineyard settings.

Looking for more?  Outdoor enthusiast will be delighted.  You can mountain bike all sorts of places including the Kettle Valley Railway Trail or even make the trek to Mt. Robson to climb the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies.  If that is a little too industrious you may want to try your hand at fishing or houseboating on Lake Shuswap, a huge clear lake known as the houseboating capital of the world.

The people of the Okanagan-Thompson Region clearly revere the outdoor way of life so be prepared for a busy stay, no matter your activity of choice.

Great golf courses, spectacular natural environments, friendly people, and a long golf season make the Okanagan an ideal domestic oasis where you can chase the sunshine.

As fantastic as Vancouver and the coastal region of British Columbia are, you may want to look a little more “Interior” for you next west coat adventure.