Astride the 49th parallel runs the unique pocket desert of Osoyoos. (That it's the northernmost extension of the Sonora Desert is a misconception.) Visit once and its distinctive scrubby benchlands and ubiquitous fields and orchards will grab your imagination. In winter, 5,000 people call the town home; in summer that swells tenfold. Our recommendation: wait for shoulder season to explore the South Okanagan.
WHERE TO STAY IN OSOYOOS
Campsites and RV parks, once area staples, have been muscled aside by a new generation of desirable resorts. Go all-in at Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort and Spa, a partnership between Calgary-owned Bellstar Resorts and the Osoyoos Indian Band. The main building offers
one-, two-, and three-bedroom suites from a rental pool, but you're there for one of the whimsically named villas (from $931 a week) featuring four-posters, full kitchens, and gas fireplaces. The biggest deal is out the window: wake up to vineyards rolling down to the lake and town beyond. When it's time to get moving, roll into town yourself, or just stay put: on-site amenities include a working winery, spa, two outdoor pools (one for kids, one for canoodlers), restaurant, conference centre, golf course, and—under construction—a year-round residential development.
Closer to town sits Walnut Beach Resort, a more traditional hotel-style destination with appealing family-oriented rooms (read: a happy mix of beachy pastels and smart tallboys and trunks you'd happily take home) and suites (from $329 a night) looking across the courtyard pool to the star attraction: Walnut Beach's private stretch of sand, the only licensed beachfront in Canada. Dabble your toes in the country's warmest lake while servers trot by with umbrella drinks and local wines. The area's third resort, Watermark Beach Resort, sits at the foot of Main Street with a mix of cityscape rooms and (infinitely preferable) lake-facing townhouses. The best of them sprawl smartly along the top floor (around $1,500 a night in summer) with killer views from private decks begging for late-morning starts with just-picked fruit kicking off a day of strenuous wine touring.
WHERE TO DRINK IN OSOYOOS
Start at LaStella Winery, where Severine Pinte (formerly chief winemaker at the Languedoc's five-million-bottle Vignoble des Deux Terres) is dramatically remaking the profile of the wines. Take the Lastellina Rosato ($25); the 2011 was 100 percent merlot; her 2012, just released, has lifts of cabernet franc and pinot nero and, crucially, half the sugar but an abundance of fresh fruit and crisp structure. Down the road, Robert Summers has really stepped up the program at Hester Creek. The former national winemaker for Peller has improved the winery's facilities and the quality of its wines; not insensible to market forces, this year marks his first rosé ($20). Nk'mip Cellars Winery is a joint venture between the Osoyoos Indian Band and major player Constellation. The offerings include a nicely petrolly 2010 Riesling (only $18!), and the powerhouse meritage Mer'r'iym ($50), complex wines that all punch well above their class.
Half the charm, though, is the smaller operations, often producing a tiny volume available only at the winery. The best by far is Stoneboat Vineyards, named for the sledge that cleared fields of stones. The Martiniuk family bought the land in 1949, first planting grapes in 1984. The latest generation continues excellence in their Chorus white blend (including eccentric grapes like muller thurgau and schoenburger; $18) and a balanced, cellarable pinot noir ($25). On the idiosyncratic side, visit one-of-a-kind Rustico Farm & Cellars, which is a Wild West theme park of a winery with tasting saloon. Try the Doc's Buggy pinot, $25, and Saloon Sally shake: a half-bottle of rosé with three scoops of ice cream.
WHERE TO EAT IN OSOYOOS
The great dining here happens at wineries. Chief among them is Miradoro Restaurant at Tinhorn Creek, home to accomplished chef Jeff Van Geest. A recent visit to the stunning, light-suffused room afloat over the vines saw a long-table night featuring just-foraged snails, nettles and cattails and finished with hay ice cream and catnip tea. Also grand is Terrafina at Hester Creek, newly reopened with a simplified Italian menu nicely handled by chef Natasha Schooten, who makes some of the area's best pizza and her housemade meatballs and vegetable pavé are both miles ahead of the usual. While you're in the area, make time for dramatic vineyard setting of the Sonora Room at Burrowing Owl, where new exec chef Brock Bowes is making terrific use of area farms, and Mica Restaurant at Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort & Spa, which has swapped formal setting (and pricing) for more accessible, family-focused fare.
Off the wineries, absolutely stop at doLci Deli & Catering, where Swiss expats Annina and Jörg Hoffmeister run an excellent kitchen (both are experienced pastry chefs), smokehouse (their applewood-smoked bacon glorifies pigs everywhere), and, in summer, a vine-draped patio made for good times with new friends.
WHAT TO DO IN OSOYOOS
Osoyoos means "the place where two lakes meet," and the water is the spot all summer, for Sea-Doos, stand-up paddleboards, and beachside blankets. (You can spot the visitors because the three-minute summertime storms send tourists scrambling; the locals just shrug and roll over.) Bestir yourself for some exploring on area trails, like the steepish 1.5-km Stamp Mill Trail loop above Tinhorn Creek to the now-crumbling mill (1895); the trail is part of the 10-km Golden Mile Trail. Do visit Osoyoos Desert Centre, which maintains a sizable acreage of untrammelled desert with observation boardwalks for tours by knowledgeable guides. (One-third of all B.C. at-risk species can be found in this region.) And NK'MIP Desert Cultural Centre, a gorgeous rammed-earth facility designed by Bruce Haden, presents the region's history through the eyes of its first stewards, the Osoyoos nation. Genuinely moving films, museum-style exhibitions (including memories of the white teacher who kept Osoyoos children out of residential schools), new guided fishing excursions thorugh August, and guided walks through the neighbouring scrub bring the millennia-old history of this deceptively quiet area to life. wl
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