Friday, October 17, 2008

B.C. Wineries Fly Drive! - Staff trip by Ruth Heymans

Sept 2008:
Flight to Calgary with Air Canada - we took off about 30 minutes late. The aircraft we boarded was new so we all had our individual screens fitted on the seat in front us with a great choice of films to watch and radio stations to listen to.

We landed into Calgary and Dave from Pure Travel Ltd welcomed us at the airport. He introduced himself and we walked to his very comfy minibus. Brand new vehicle, leather seats and DVD player. He had bought a large supply of water bottles which came very handy, especially when driving through the Okanagan. English guy who left the UK with his wife about 15 months ago to start a new life in Canada and set up his own transport company. Lovely chap!
The following is a brief and hopefully helpful description of the hotels we stayed at and visited as well as the different activities we did.

Emerald Lake Lodge: arrived at about 8:30-9pm. No cars allowed at the Lodge; guests have to leave their vehicle at the car park and ring the lobby for a bell man to come and pick them up as well as their luggage. It is a few minute away from the reception where you collect your keys. The bellman would take your luggage to your room/cabin.
We stayed in a double room, comfy, warm and welcoming. Beds are quite small though, anyone taller than me would have struggled. Would suggest upgraded to any room with queen/king size.
Next morning: we had quite an early start with a lovely buffet for breakfast (cold but hot breakfast available if ordered, which we did ). We just had time for a 10-15min stroll around the lake and marveled at the typical Canadian scenery around us: canoes on the shore, pine trees and mountains all around. It was a bit too early and cloudy for the lake to show off its unique and natural color but we could definitely notice the blue/green color (due to particles from the Glacier that ends up at the bottom of the lake when snow melts). Gorgeous! Walking from your room to the reception/restaurant, to and around the lake without any cars around is a bonus as well.

We then left and went zip lining in Revelstoke. I was not too sure what to expect from this adventure. It was a fun challenge! Got to say I wondered more than once why on earth I was doing going from trees to trees, hanging from a cable. Was praying throughout the whole thing that my harness was strong enough. It was. Sweet.

After this we made our way to our next accommodation.
Three Valley Lake Chateau in Three Valley Gap: Was quite surprised by how big this property is. They do have quite a few rooms and all seem to have a balcony with view over a beautifully maintained garden and lake. Room we stayed in was standard double rooms. Basic, simple room décor. I would say poor décor quite frankly though the bed was very comfy. Shame because it is beautifully located. They do great breakfasts. Also we could not drink or even use the tap water from the bathroom sink to wash out teeth. They provided us with a water bottle in each room. We were meant to visit the ghost town just next door but we run a bit late (too comfy beds). Well it looked like a replica of a western town. It is so next door that one might think it’s part of the accommodation. Spooky.

We left for the Thompson Okanagan region. We had a lovely stop at the Gatzke’s Farm. They grow numerous tree fruits (about 50). As the pigs’ bloods (type of plums) were ripe I could not resist but taste one. Yummy! I had the most amazing home made apple juice, fries and pies. They make everything from scratch and it sure does taste great. They do offer few accommodations (farm cabins, camping and RV sites. Although we were not shown any of them). I would strongly recommend anyone driving to stop for lunch or refreshments there providing it’s spring or summer. They do sell a wide range of fruits and have a lovely display.

After this came the so long waited high light of the whole trip. Wine tasting.
First winery we visited was Mission Hills. Interesting and unique architecture. The buildings looks quite ‘churchy’ and are inspired by roman architecture which gives the winery estate a ‘sacred’ atmosphere. It does look great but I personally thought it looks a bit impersonal and cold. We had a lovely guided tour of the property and finally… best to last: tasting white, red and ice wine. We were shown how to first sniff the wine, take a sip to rinse our mouth then give the glass a good twirl to release the aroma and then to taste it again. Yeap, it works. We tried with three different wines and I did these tasks wholeheartedly.
Red Wine was the winner. Unfortunately I forgot the name of it. I shall wander into Waitrose and M&S and see if I can find it.

Now off to Penticton. We stayed the night at the Penticton Lake Resort in a double room. Basic rooms. Simple but comfy. Dinner at the Hooded Merganser Restaurant just on the lake outside the hotel.

Next day: we drove to Summerland, to the Kettle Valley Steam Railway to enjoy a 1hr30min ride on an early 20th century steam train and restored locomotive. We had the most amazing view of the valley, the Okanagan Lake and canyon. One of the train staff was paying banjo and got passengers to sing along. The whole experience felt quite authentic. Lots of fun. Twas a lovely morning.

Had lunch in Summerland at the Zias Stonehouse Restaurant. Very colorful decoration/furniture in quite a spacious room. When commented on the vast and roomy restaurant I was told that it was 2 houses put together and one of them was haunted. Charming. Food was really nice; I opted for some chicken with apricot sauce. Not bad.
Off to the second winery: Burrowing Owl. My favorite. Located on a top of the hills, with vineyards all around, Burrowing Owl looks like an inviting, big Italian Villa. They also have 10 beautiful rooms with a balcony overlooking the hills and the pool. We saw a king size room with lovely rustic type of furniture, and an amazing bathroom (bath tub + walk in shower). Floor and walls were made of what looked like natural stones. They also had a penthouse suite on the top floor with 1 x king bedroom and 1 x double bedroom with a sofa bed. Definitely my favorite winery. Wine tasting as well of course. I was expecting to prefer red wine, as usual but had a soft spot for their white. Once again I cannot remember its name… And no it is not due to excess tasting but to my notoriously exceptional bad memory.

We then drove to Osoyos and went to the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre. Running behind schedule we only had time for a 45 min visit which consisted of a guided walk through the desert and a replica of first nation’s habitation. Tourists are showed a winter and summer ‘tipi’ where they would be explained how the Nk’Mip first nation would live. We were showed some utensils that they would use to cook food, saw etc. We also watched a 10 min animated movie relating a famous first nation legend about how a coyote saved a whole village. The guides are of course natives. Very insightful visit.

Third winery: Nk’Mip Cellars. Started, managed and operated by Nk’Mip natives, first of its kind in North America. The guy who gave us a tour was not a native though. This is the only winery where the guide explained how wine is made, the difference in red and white wine making. They buy barrels made from US oak and other from French oak. French oak barrels can last longer and gives its wine a nicer, more ‘bodied’ taste. Of course... It also costs few thousand CAN dollars for only one barrel. The Nk’Mip Cellars has a lovely restaurant with the most amazing view on the Lake Osoyos.

Had dinner at the Passatempo at the Spirit Ridge Resort. Didn’t have a chance to view the hotel, just their restaurant. We had an unplanned outing after dinner to a festival where 6 local chefs competing for the best dessert. Locals wineries were also promoting their wines and we had tickets for 6 x wine tasting max. Don’t think I could have used all my vouchers even if I wanted to! After 2 wineries it was just what the doctor ordered. Desserts were just so lovely, especially the chocolate one! A group of 4 natives kids performed some aboriginal dances in traditional clothing. Quite impressive.

Well after a long day at work we headed to the Walnut Beach Resort. We stayed in a 2-bedroom – fully equipped kitchen with a great view on the lake and the pool’s resort. Each room is named after a wine: Chardonnay Studio Suite, Sauvignon 1-bedroom suite etc… The bigger suite is the Sommelier Penthouse who can sleep 6-8 guests max. Absolutely outstanding resort. One of my favorite. It just opened this summer.

Early start next morning and by 8:30am we arrived at the Crowsnest Winery in Cawston for a short visit and some more wine testing. Crowsnest Winery was like a small farm: welcoming, not as big and touristy as the previous wineries we visited. They had hotel rooms rated 3 ½ star but we didn’t have a chance to visit as they were full (if my memory is correct).
Next on our trip was a stop at Hell’s Gate in the Fraser Canyon: 200 million gallons of water per minute run through a 33 meters wide narrow passage. The air tram ride 150m above the river was quite magical. They have a ‘first settlers’ village’ attraction where you can pan for gold, enjoy food at their cafeteria (they do great salmon burgers!)… It’s also known to be haunted by ghosts!

We then departed for the Hills Health and Guest Ranch and arrived at about 6-630pm. Room we stayed in was a double standard room. The decoration/furniture looked very out dated. It was a bit of a let down. But there is definitely a family spirit among the staff; Pat and his wife are really warm and welcoming. We had dinner at the 108 miles room; nothing like a fondue to bring people together!
Lovely secluded resort with lots to do: horse riding for all levels, horse whispering, numerous hiking trails, fishing in their dozens lakes, mountain biking… About 150 kms of trails in the forest. The resort does also lots of spa treatments for men and women.
They are open all year around and some guests are loyally coming back every year for about 2 months. During winter, guests can go cross country skiing, snow shoeing, skating on the outdoor rink and enjoy a hot drink by the fire in the bar area.

Off to another ranch in the morning: Ten-ee-ah Lodge. We had to drive about 30-45min off the main road to access the ranch. Very remote location in the middle of the forest, on the shore of the Spout Lake. It’s the only property located on 7 miles along the lake. It gives a definite sense of tranquillity. As we drove in the resort there were about 5 horses walking freely in the ranch. Guest rooms are located just next to the restaurant/reception. The rest of the accommodations are individual log cabins, all facing the lake. Our cabin had a lovely living/dining room, wood fire place, fully equipped kitchen, 2 bedrooms plus loft. It looked very ‘Canadian’ inside out. This is what I visualise when thinking about holidaying in Canada: a wood cabin by a lake.
All cabins had woods and an axe outside; guests can cut their own logs and enjoy the lovely wood fire. As well as horse riding, tourists can go canoeing, biking and hiking. The resort has also about 10 allocated RV camp sites on the other side of the restaurant/reception.
The only down point was that there was no electricity between 1230am and 630am. All cabins have a torch inside but I guess when you have very small children it’s not that fun. (Nappy change at night…) Also the iron is very high in the area and the water does smell funny when you shower etc…
Overall this was a great experience. I had time to go on a canoe and it was just … so quiet and relaxing! Well the guys were paddling and I was just sitting there, enjoying the ride. Loved it. The location/view is definitely the resort greatest bonus. My favourite among all the accommodations we visited. Would gladly return.

Next visit: Whistler. It was a jolly good drive, about 6 hrs. Time for a good DVD, a good snooze and enjoying the scenery.
We checked in at the Hilton Whistler. Lovely double standard room. Their entrance/corridor is quite big, which gives plenty of space to put suitcases, throw your shoes around or your skis and boots in winter. Very comfy rooms, the largest standard rooms in Whistler: 2 x double rooms plus a big comfy armchair by the window. Andrew showed us few rooms/suites: very warm, modern and really spacious 1-bedroom and 2-bedroom suites. Great for families with kids or group of friends: living/dining room offers plenty of space for kids to run around. Hilton is located in the village, they have an entrance/exit that takes you right in the middle of bars, restaurants but it is also a very short walk from the mountains (30sec). Dinner was a 5 course feast with marvellous wine (red, got to be red). Staff are very, very friendly.

Next morning: Delta Whistler Village Suites. We had a lovely breakfast. Very homey and inviting lobby just like the rooms. Warm and comfy furniture/décor.

ATV Tour: 2 hrs tour up and down the mountains with Canadian Snowmobile & All Terrain Adventures. We saw a wild grizzly bear feeding on grass. Very exciting! I had a moment of intense self hatred: I’d left my camera in the changing room! Only lasted for a moment. Went back to loving my great self again shortly after. Twas a great tour. Hint: if you ever go on one, do avoid being the last driver; my face was very dusty and the smell of gas sort of spoilt the mountain fresh air experience…

Then off to Pan Pacific Village Centre for another site inspection and had lunch in a lovely Irish pub, Dubh Linn Gate. I love pubs. Pan Pacific does offer great view of the mountains and village in modern and elegant rooms. Their have the biggest windows ever. The penthouse is just … great!
Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre: new, just opened in July, this center introduces the Squamish and Lil’Wat native tribes to visitors and celebrates its customs, cultures. Both tribes used to live in the land covering north of Whistler to Vancouver. Every half hour, staff, all First Nation, would sing a couple a songs in their native language and with native instruments. Quite mesmerizing. They also ask the audience to participate; great fun for kids for everyone. They have lots of old photographs, utensils etc showing how Squamish and Lil’ Wat nations used to live, eat, hunt, marry, trade etc. They also have activities where visitors can make their own bracelets etc. Unfortunately we didn’t have time for it… It’s definitely worth a visit (about 5-10min walk max from the village).

Then off to Vancouver. Our last transfer with Pure Travel Limited. We got to spend the whole week plus few days with Dave and we got to know him quite well. Very friendly and offers class service. It’s only him and another driver at the moment. They are based in Golden and offer transfers between Calgary and Kicking Horse.

We arrived at Grouse Mountain. Dinner at Altitudes, at the peak of Grouse. Beautiful view of Vancouver by night. Quite a sensational view on the gondola.
Fairmont Waterfront: located just by the harbour, and about 15min from Robson Street. Best view is rooms overlooking Stanley Park. We stayed in a Portside Deluxe with a view over the harbour. They also have standard rooms with a patio on the garden where the hotel is growing its own veggies and herbs. Guests’ rooms have huge windows from floor to ceiling, maximizing the view. My favorite room is the Signature room, or corner room, it has 180 degree view of both the Burrard Inlet and Stanley Park.

Next morning: breakfast at the Westin Bayshore Hotel. Best breakfast I ever had. A huge range of cereals, fruits, pastries, bread and of course a hot buffet with eggs, sausages, bacon, waffles, pancakes etc… We also had our names written in chocolate on our plate… How thoughtful.
Hotel is located just opposite Stanley Park. You can come out of the hotel and walk along the Harbour where all the floatplane land and take off.

Vancouver Aquarium: sea otters, belugas, all kinds of fishes, frogs, jelly fishes, spiders… Really worth a visit! Pictures on the next page.

Capilano Suspension Bridge: a very wobbly bridge. Once on the other side, the tree tops ‘promenade’ among the cedar rain forest is a fun adventure. Ghosts are also known to be appearing from time to time… Canadians love their ghost stories.

Granville Market: fresh vegetables and fruits market. Lovely little boutique shops as well. Definitely a nice spot to hang out.
Went back to mainland with Aquabus. Cutest little boats I’ve ever seen; looks like a toy. Takes about 15 passengers and it’s a great and practical way for sightseeing.

Fairmont Vancouver: splendid décor from early 20th Century. It was the first hotel to be built in Vancouver. Boutique type of hotel. Very British. Has more ‘character’ than H2O but maybe not as casual. The Gold Fairmont Room is worth the upgrade: separate check-in area, free hors d’oeuvres in late afternoon etc. My favorite hotel in Vancouver.

Pan Pacific Hotel: not on the itinerary but went there to have a drink and it’s very… corporate. Lots of the guests look like professionals on a business trip. Not a very ‘relaxed’ atmosphere. Reception desk is on the 1st floor. Kind of awkward to get to. Lovely view from the bar/restaurant though!
Landsea Tours: transport company offering city tours etc. Very knowledgeable and friendly drivers.