|Location:||Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada|
|Duration:||Two days/one night|
|Highlights:||A glorious walk in Wine Country
The Kettle Valley Railway (trail) heads up along the eastern shore of Okanagan Lake toward the village of Naramata and beyond. Climbing steadily, but never steeply, it takes you ever higher, until the views of the lake, vineyards, and orchards look increasingly as they do to the many eagles that fish the blue waters below.
View KVR Trail from Penticton airport Naramata in a larger map
To say that the 10-mile walk from Penticton to Naramata is lovely is an understatement. Penticton is a small city in Western Canada perched on a land bridge that separates two large lakes, and after leaving the banks of Skaha Lake to the South, the Kettle Valley Railway (trail) heads up along the eastern shore of Okanagan Lake toward the village of Naramata and beyond. Climbing steadily, but never steeply, it takes you ever higher, until the views of the lake, vineyards, and orchards look increasingly as they do to the many eagles that fish the blue waters below.
As beautiful as the Kettle Valley Railway is, we were tempted to walk instead along the roads to Naramata. There are no sidewalks (this is the country), but drivers are used to bikers and hikers in Western Canada. And there are wineries on those roads, more than twenty of them; wineries with tasting rooms that are open all day from mid-May through October. Free wine, even if you are a spitter-outer. This is Canada’s Napa and Sonoma, after all. But our plan is not to tipple today, but to take the high road – the KVR – from the Penticton bus station to Naramata, where there are inns and restaurants. We will have our wine with food, thank you. (Full disclosure: Taking the KVR route does not rule out a winery stop or two, as there are a couple of points at which the trail crosses winery roads!) We have water, sweatshirts, and some energy bars. And we have Kirby the beagle, who will end up doing twice the ten-mile distance given her penchant for going back and forth along any pathway.
This may be Canada, but the Greyhound station on Ellis Street in Penticton is exactly like bus stations in almost any city in North America. Whether bus stations dull the blocks around them, or whether Greyhound executives look for the dingiest sides of towns for their stations, I don’t know, but the reality seems to be that even in the prettiest of towns you’ll find the back-side of pretty at the bus station. So it is no surprise that the five minute walk from the small blue-edged station to Vancouver street is the only part of the day that is forgettable. We catch the KVR trail where it crosses Vancouver and heads into the vineyards, but not without stopping first at The Bench, a fabulous little coffee shop and market just below the crossing. These Canadian winery types don’t just savor their vintage grapes: They also value their fresh baked goods, their coffee, their cheeses and their free range meats. It all makes for excellent walking victuals and The Bench is a good place to load up on sandwiches. I, however, settle for an Americano, and with two quarts of water and a folding vinyl dog bowl in my pack we’re off.
Once on the KVR, I begin to feel the sense of adventure sneaking up. A gentle trail, a warm sun, a good jolt of caffeine, and a happy beagle. What could be finer? These clay banks, in the semi-arid climate of inland British Columbia, form the “Naramata Bench,” a landscape which turns out to be perfect for fruit trees and grape vines. The 24 (and counting) estate wineries of the Bench are winning international awards, and walking through the vineyards, and the apple, peach, cherry, pear and apricot orchards as the trail gradually climbs above the vast lake is stunning. The cherry and apricot blossoms have passed, and the peach and grape blossoms frill the orchards. The grapes are showing small blooms on muscular vines, the apples and pears are just getting started, and along the roads and hills, the lilacs are telling me that before standing sentry at driveway entries or doorways, they were once wild bushy trees that owned the spring.
The grade is almost imperceptibly upward here, and occasionally there are other walkers or runners but surprisingly few bikers on the day we are there. At a small yellow house nestled to the right down in an orchard a sign over the door says “The Trail Store.” It looks like a good stopping place for fresh-picked fruit (in season), cold drinks, and snacks. It’s got a lovely little patio to the side, shaded by fruit trees. The only problem is it’s not going to open for another few weeks. Only a few hundred feet further, we come to the first B&B option on the trail so far, the Whistle Stop Inn, in the middle of an apple and cherry orchard with a swimming pool and hot tubs. Not bad! But with only an hour’s walk under our soles, no way are we ready to stop.
The mostly pastoral environment of vineyards and orchards starts to wane, and the trail gets a tad more rugged as it climbs above the vineyards, wineries, and orchards. Two golden eagles are riding the thermals just above us and while I’m sure that they have no interest in me, I’m not so sure about their long-eyed view of my dog companion. About the size of a large rabbit? Later on we pass under a supremely disinterested mature bald eagle perched at the top of a large pine. In each case we are probably just temporary irritants, like someone passing in front of the projector at the movie theater. It is more likely to be the yellow-bellied marmots going about their furry business in the rock piles emerging on either side of the trail that hold the raptors’ attention. Or the silly California quails, who insist on running in pairs out into the open, and running back again, their feather tiaras bouncing. What bonanza they expect to find out on the pavement or gravel, away from the insects, seeds, grubs, and protective cover, is a mystery.
We are slowly climbing the ridge above Naramata Village, and the views down to the orchards and lake are breathtaking. Naramata lies on a creek delta that juts out into the lake from the white clay banks that form the base of impressive mountains ringing the whole Okanagan valley, and the name means “smile of the Manitou,” though the story of how the village came by its name epitomizes the romantic silliness and arrogant appropriation of Victorian-era English land-claimers.
It goes like this. British land speculator and village founder John Moore Robinson thought to name the fledgling settlement Brighton Beach after his childhood home in the UK. He no doubt would have done it had the postmaster’s wife not held a séance. She was a leading figure in the American Spiritualist Church in the area, and according to the Okanagan Archive Trust Society, Robinson wrote in a 1931 letter that “Mrs. Gillespie, during a spiritualistic trance, was entered by the spirit of a great Sioux Indian Chief named Big Moose. Big Moose spoke of his dearly loved wife in the most endearing terms and called her by the name Nar-ra-mat-tah, as she was the 'Smile of Manitou'. I was so struck by this that I decided this was a good name for our Village. We talked of it and it was thought to drop the extra letters and call the town 'Naramata'."
The name has stuck, apologies to the Sioux (who never inhabited this area) and more so to the Salish Okanagan and Osooyos Bands (who did and do, and whose original name for the spot sounded nothing like Naramata and meant, I am told, “Eagle’s Rest”). Although the historical archive account strikes a sincere tone about the source of the current name, locals have been known to smirk over Mrs. Gillespie and her spiritual Big Moose.
The miles flow by when you hit your stride, and we are surprised to reach our endpoint as soon as we do. We’ve only been walking for a few hours when we emerge at the parking area above Naramata Village, at the old rail crossing high on the ridge at Smethurst Road. We could go on further from this point to the glorious Little Tunnel, just three miles on, but ten miles feels like an appropriate day, and our power bars are just a memory. So we turn onto the road from the parking area and welcome the steep down grade toward the lake, back into orchards.
It’s a gorgeous day for a walk, and a good bed with local wine and cider waiting at the other end, what else could we want? Who knows? Who cares? Maybe tomorrow we’ll return via the low road, and tipple our way back to Penticton.
Plan: The Trans-Canada Trail has the world's longest network of trails.
British Columbia Trails and Maps
Britsh Columbia Tourism
British Columbia Adventure
Kettle Valley Railway
British Columbia Bed and Breakfasts
British Columbia Lodges
Access to the KVR trail from the airport or the greyhound bus station could not be easier as it skirts the edge of the airport at the top of Skaha Lake to the south, and passes just a block or so away from the bus station on the north side of town. There are great places to stay and eat in both Penticton and Naramata.
In Penticton, in addition to The Bench for breakfast or lunch, there is the funky Dream Café on Front Street, where you can get fresh homestyle food all day long along with local musical talent. For a more upscale meal, try Bogner’s Restaurant on Eckhardt, or the Reserve Alberta steaks at the Black Iron Grill on Riverside. And if you’re in the mood for Asian, try Saigon on Main. The Saigon wonton bowl is excellent, fresh, and filling. It’s a small city, so there are plenty of places to stay. If you arrive late in the day and want to stay in town, the Beachside motel is near the airport on Parkview, as is the Best Western on Skaha Lake Road. Closer to the bus station there’s the Black Forest Motel on Westminster or the Black Sea Motel and Restaurant on Lakeside. If you aren’t desperate for a bed, however, getting out of town along the road to Naramata opens up a number of B&B possibilities, including the Vineyard View B&B at the D’Angelo estate winery.
In Naramata itself it is best to get reservations if you want to stay at any of B&B’s. The beautifully situated Country Hideaway overlooking orchards on Boothe has two rooms. Arta, Unique, and D’Vine Dreams scattered across the village are also options. Down on the lake itself, the Heritage Inn and Spa is a lovely historic establishment that was recently restored. Schedule a massage in the spa to ease out the kinks from your walk, and don’t neglect the inn’s cozy Cobblestone wine bar and restaurant for meals. The manager Quentin is your man there for estate wine and microbrewery pairings.
The Naramata Centre, a retreat and educational organization spread over the lakefront just south of the Heritage Inn also welcomes short-term travelers. Book a cabin, or a campsite, or a hotel-style room, walk the labyrinth or hang out on the beach. And there’s always the BC Motel, an old-fashioned strip motel just up Robinson Road from the Heritage Inn, with the added benefit of being right across the street from Naramata’s fabulous coffee shop, The Village Grounds, where owners Mandy and Eva brew up 49th Parallel coffees and offer their own to-die-for baked goods (the pear muffins are addictive), sandwiches on homemade bread, and fresh soups.
A partial list of the 24 estate wineries along the roads between Penticton and Naramata is included on this map. Very few are large enough to export out of BC, and Canadians flock to the valley each year to stock up. The climate seems to be best for whites, Gewűrtztraminers and other dessert wines (ice wines are a specialty), but a few of the wineries make self-respecting reds as well. The Kettle Valley Brakeman’s Red, for example, is excellent with lamb or beef. And at Hillside Estate Winery’s Barrel Room Bistro we had an absolutely delicious Cab-Franc.
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