This is the 2nd part of our two part blog series, An American in Canada: Traveling in the Okanagan Valley.
The Okanagan Valley is the perfect vacation spot for Americans not wanting to waste precious time traveling to foreign destinations. What follows is the second part of my detailed look at what an American travelling the Okanagan Valley can expect, and why it’s the perfect choice for travelers from the USA.
What are some of the hidden gems of the Okanagan Valley? Here are a few that Americans will love most.
Hidden Okanagan Valley
Kettle Valley Railway and Myra Canyon trestles
The Kettle Valley Trail was once the region’s rail corridor, connecting industrial supplies and workers along with residents across the area. The railroad itself was in operation between 1915 and 1989, and the railroad was later transformed into a multi-use recreational trail.
This is a hidden gem in the valley because there is truly something for everyone along this unique landmark; the scenery and wildlife are unparalleled, the recreational options are fantastic, the historical and cultural significance equates to fascinating activities, and various amenities connected to local wineries are also within reach along this passageway.
Myra Canyon is a beautifully maintained portion of 18 giant trestle bridges and two tunnels along the former Kettle Valley Railway. Hiking (or biking) the 12 kilometer section with the trestles offers fantastic views over the lake. And if you’re a history buff, join a historical tour that describes the century of history surrounding these trestles and the railway, including the major fires in 2003 and the rebuilding that followed.
Penticton Farmer’s Market
The British Columbia Association of Farmers’ Markets named the Penticton Farmers’ Market 2015 Farmer’s Market of the Year in the medium-sized market category and it is the largest in the Okanagan Valley. This hidden treasure of the valley features hand-crafted goods from hundreds of vendors, so visit for antiques, clothing, collectables, food, furniture, jewelry and more, not to mention lots of great live entertainment for the whole family.
The SS Sicamous began its life in May of 1914 as a luxury passenger vessel serving isolated communities along the Okanagan Lake. By 1936 the SS Sicamous was retired to the Okanagan Landing Ship Yards where it sat in silence until 1951 when it was purchased for the princely sum of $1.00 by the City of Penticton.
In 1952 the Penticton Gyro Club, hoping to preserve the vessel for posterity, fitted the SS Sicamous with running water, electricity and restorations. Between the 1950s and the 1980s, the boat was home to all manner of businesses and organizations from restaurants to beauty salons, but by the late 80s it had fallen into disrepair.
The final restoration process began in earnest in 1988, and today the SS Sicamous is a stunning reminder of Canada’s cultural heritage. The vessel is home to a museum and a fun visit for visitors to the Okanagan Valley.
Canadian culture for Americans
You may think that Canadian culture is too similar to US culture to care about taking it in, but you couldn’t be further off the mark. The Okanagan Valley is filled with unique, fun cultural experiences Americans should try while in the area.
The Okanagan Valley is a multicultural region and is in fact named for some of its first nation citizens. As a visitor to the valley you will be able to experience the rich history of the indigenous peoples in the area through their clothing, food, jewelry, historical landmarks, medicine, traditional events and tools. Visit the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre near Osoyoos or the Secwepemc Museum and Heritage Park near Kamloops to take in evidence of the original peoples of the valley such as the circular pit houses or kekulis they inhabited.
European immigrants in the 1800s
Europeans arrived in British Columbia in the 1800s as Simon Fraser and others mapped and explored the area. Today’s Kamloops is the site of the North West Company’s original fur-trading post which was established in 1812; this was the first non-native settlement in the region. Once gold was discovered in the late 1850s, the population boom of the era began and immigrants arrived in huge waves. To experience the Okanagan Valley of the gold rush era, visit Historic Hat Creek Ranch for a taste of the old road house life.
Orchards and vineyards
Father Charles Pandosy was the first arrival in the Okanagan Valley to seize upon the idea of planting orchards and vineyards; he is responsible for planting the first in BC. He also founded the first school in the region and the first Roman Catholic mission in 1860; this mission near Kelowna has been beautifully restored and can be toured today.
The Doukhobor pacifist culture
Another cultural feature that is unique to the region is the Doukhobors. This pacifist sect originated in Russia but fled persecution in the early twentieth century. Settling near Grand Forks, the Doukhobors became a prominent cultural force in the Okanagan Valley between 1909 and 1913, a location perfect for farming and their goal of being self-sufficient. The cultural influence of the sect remains today, and as you travel locally you can visit the Doukhobor flour mill and the Hardy Mountain Douhkobor Village Historic Site—and stop for lunch in a local eatery and get some wonderful borscht and blintzes.
After the gold rush, the railroad industry, and the coal mining towns of yesteryear all waned, various mining and industrial towns that dotted the Okanagan Valley dried up and turned into ghost towns. Take the Dewdney Trail beginning in Princeton to visit them, and don’t miss Blakeburn and Granite City.
The smallest city in Canada with a fascinating history
Greenwood, Canada is the smallest city in the country with only 625 citizens, and this alone makes it an interesting visit. But more than that, its historic importance should keep Greenwood on your list. Greenwood was the site of a World War II internment camp, and with approximately 1,000 internees flooding the tiny town during the war, the town changed significantly.
Many internees stayed in Greenwood permanently after the war, changing the face of the town forever and transforming it culturally in a totally unique way. The 1998 Oscar-nominated film Snow Falling on Cedars, which told the story of Japanese-American internees, was shot in Greenwood.
Napa 2.0: A new wine country experience for Americans
Napa Valley gets all of the press when it comes to wine country, but Okanagan Valley gives Napa a run for its money.
Okanagan Lake stretches through the valley for 70 miles between the Monashee and Cascade ranges. The valley’s walls rise around the lake, and they are almost completely covered with orchards and vineyards—the fruit basket of Canada. Visiting from spring, through summer and into the beginning of autumn, the air itself smells of fruit.
The entire Okanagan Valley is filled with small-batch wineries run by true aficionados who man the grounds and tasting rooms themselves—more than 200 of them. The wines in the region express the land and weather where they are produced.
Towards the northern end of Okanagan Valley the orchards are situated and the temperatures are cooler; these conditions produce fresh, crisp white wines. In the southern portion of the valley, where it is drier and warmer, more reds such as cabernet sauvignons and merlots are produced.
As has happened in California, Okanagan Valley growers have replaced native American vines with high-quality European varietals, further improving their wines. Local wineries such as Cedar Creek have even won multiple gold medals at prestigious American wine competitions like the Los Angeles County Fair Wines of the World.
One of the best ways to enjoy the wine and wineries of the Okanagan Valley is to take a cycle-to-winery tour. There are multiple versions of this kind of tour in the area, and all allow you to experience a huge range of products, take in breathtaking scenery, and finish with a gourmet meal in a stunning setting.
And the place where the Okanagan Valley clearly takes the lead over Napa Valley? Price and value. Okanagan Valley is a younger wine region and the prices reflect that. And with a current exchange rate of about 1 US dollar for every 1.26 Canadian, you’re saving a lot of money there, too.
Wineries to visit in the Okanagan Valley:
For a list of wineries: http://www.winebc.com/discover-bc/okanagan-valley
For some critics’ picks: http://www.winespectator.com/wct/region/rid/101
Nightlife, arts, and music to suit the American sense of taste and style
Arts and entertainment are widely expressed in the Okanagan Valley, and performing arts centres in the region share a common mission of artistic, creative, and cultural development. Locals, travelers, and artists from all over the world converge here for drumming and jam sessions, creative arts workshops; performances and Indigenous events.
Great events are showcased in the many fine Okanagan Valley theatres. A huge range of events come through the area, and between the South Okanagan Performing Arts Centre, Ballet Kelowna, the Many Hats Theatre, the Vernon Performing Arts Theatre, the Cleland Theatre, the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra, the Sunshine Theatre Company and many other venues and troupes, there is almost always a range of nightlife and cultural options to suit almost anyone.
Penticton and Kelowna are the arts and nightlife hubs in the Okanagan Valley. The Soundstage Productions annual musical theatre show at the Penticton Lakeside Resort draws lots of excited crowds, as do the Penticton Art and Tumbleweed Galleries.
Downtown Penticton puts on the annual sunshine cabaret summer concert series in Gyro Park that includes the night market. The Barking Parrot Bar has a large patio just steps from Okanagan Lake and offers entertainment throughout the year including summer patio music. The Mule Night Club is open late for those wishing to hit the dance floor for most of the night.
The Kiwanis Music and Speech Arts Festival is an Okanagan Valley spring tradition for amateur performing artists. Each year in March and April participants compete in brass, dance, piano, speech arts, vocals, woodwinds, and other areas just before the Kelowna Kiwanis Music Festival.
The Pacific NW Elvis Festival, also called the Penticton Elvis Festival, is a three day long Elvis celebration—and what could be more American than that?! Elvis impersonators come from all over the world for this event, but there can be only one winner each year in Penticton on the shores of Okanagan Lake. And you can take in the Elvis mania on the same weekend as the Peach City Beach Cruise, right at the start of summer in early June.
Speaking of things uniquely American, you can attend some amazing jazz festivals in the Okanagan Valley. The annual BC Interior Jazz Festival is in Kelowna in April each year and has been in existence for more than 35 years.
The Salmon Arm Roots and Blues Festival is a summertime jazz offering, taking place in August of each year at the Salmon Arm BC Fair Grounds.
For more fun arts and culture that Americans can relate to, check out the Summerland Bluegrass Festival in June at the Summerland BC Rodeo Grounds. And if you like to play, bring your instrument and join in!
Or, if dancing is more your thing, wait until August and the Penticton Square Dance Festival during the Penticton Peach Festival; there you can square dance for four solid days with 800 other enthusiasts.
The Funtastic Sport and Music Festival in Vernon is home to Canada’s biggest slow pitch softball tournament. For the last 25 years the event has taken place in early July over the long Canada Day weekend, and Americans will love this four day long softball and music party.
Family time in the Okanagan Valley
The family vacation is an American tradition and the Okanagan Valley is the perfect place to carry on with it. Here are just a few of the awesome family-friendly things to do in the valley.
Ice skating and skateboarding
For your boarding buddies, Penticton is home to a huge skate park alongside Riverside Park. Admission is free, the park has lots of events during the summer months, and it is supervised. Bonus: Loco Landing Mini Golf Mini golf is right next door, and it also has bumper boats, bungee bouncing, go karts and rock wall climbing. During the winter months head over to Kelowna for outdoor ice skating at Stuart Park on Water Street. It’s a pretty, well-groomed rink near the lake and a fun place to hang out with some cocoa, too.
If you have a need for speed, hit the Penticton Speedway for some family-friendly oval track auto racing. On the weekends there are both day and night races and lots of fun entertainment.
Head south to the desert region of the Okanagan Valley and visit the Osoyoos Desert Center. There you can explore the unique desert ecosystem and its flora and fauna. This is also the perfect trip for a stop at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory for a look into a massive radio telescope.
Kelowna isn’t a huge metropolis, but they’ve got the market cornered on parks. Visit the Hot Sands Beach and City Park for water sports rentals and beach fun as well as a boardwalk and playground with zipline and waterpark.
The Mission Creek Park has a great playground and rope pyramid as well as an indoor Environment Educational Center (EECO) where you can observe Kokanee salmon spawning right there in town from late September to early October.
There are lots of opportunities for picking your own fruit in the Okanagan Valley (as long as it’s not winter). It’s a wonderful experience for kids, and a tasty one!
Family-friendly wineries and distilleries
Believe it or not, there are lots of family-friendly wineries in the Okanagan Valley! Most offer interesting educational activities for kids as well as lots of fun. If you’ve been wondering how to get some wine time in with your kids in tow, you can do it here.
If distilled spirits are more your thing, visit the Okanagan Spirits Distillery. Your kids will be fascinated by the gigantic, bubbling copper distiller and it’s right near the park, the marina and ice cream.
Have you packed your bags yet? The Okanagan Valley is the perfect trip for an American on the go. There is literally something for everyone here, yet it’s only a quick, cheap flight away. You’ll love the experience of doing new, exciting things without breaking the bank or needing a translator, too!