Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Vernon an emerging attraction

Okanagan city's assortment of excellent amenities luring tourists

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Consider this an ode to Vernon, B.C., the underrated little sister in the Okanagan family.

Being a born and bred Thompson Okanagan kid, for me Vernon was always a quick stop in the summer on the way to bigger and better things in Kelowna or Penticton. In fact, the only reason my family even paused there was to visit with friends of my mom, who went to high school in the small lake community.

Well, times have changed and Vernon is not just a pit stop at a fruit stand or a dip in a lake anymore.

In fact, it may have more "world-class" destinations than anywhere else in the Okanagan -- whether your pleasure is excellent golf in an extended season, extreme biking, extreme skiing or knocking back with what could be called extreme spa-ing.

And while it may not be the wine centre of the Okanagan, it is growing with the advent of a world-class winemaker into the mix, boutique wineries that are scooping up national and international awards, along with a local distiller who stunned the liquor world by taking top honours at this year's world championships.

Michelle Jefferson, manager of tourism services for Vernon, says it is clear her city does not have to take a back seat to any other.

The reasons are numerous:

Sparkling Hill Resort (sparklinghill.com)

WHILE a week-long vacation at a luxury health and wellness retreat is a common occurrence in Europe, it is not so common in Canada. Enter Sparkling Hill, truly a top-class resort (149 rooms, three penthouses) perched on the hill above the Predator Ridge golf course community and overlooking Lake Okanagan. Part of the "sparkling" in the name comes from the amazing $10 million worth of Swarovski crystals in the $122-million complex.

When you aren't marvelling over the crystal chandeliers and the spectacular views, you can visit the KurSpa (in German, Kur means health or healing), a 40,000-square-foot facility and the largest spa in Canada. In addition to the seven unique aromatherapy steam and sauna rooms (you have to try the rose room or the only cryotherapy cold sauna in North America, which hits -110 C and is used in Europe to treat chronic pain and joint and muscle inflammation), KurSpa offers more than 100 therapies and treatments.

There are also the indoor and outdoor salt pools overlooking the lake; the serenity room where you can simply nap in absolute quiet or ponder life while looking at the lake outside the windows; and consultations with a psychiatrist, naturopath or massage therapist.

Guest rooms have the look of European, ultra-modern serenity, with windows overlooking spectacular views, and crystal fireplaces that cast their glow onto ensuite bathtubs. And let's not forget the delicious, locally-sourced food, led by an Austrian executive chef, in the PeakFine restaurant and the Barrique & Java café. Again, both have spectacular views, crystal art sculptures and pure relaxation. You can't use the spa and other facilities without being a resort guest, but there are special packages available.

Predator Ridge golf courses The Ridge and Predator (predatorridge.com)

THERE are a lot of great golf courses in the Okanagan, but these two combine challenging courses with incredible views and holes that take you through forest, over hills, alongside creeks and beside a variety of residential areas that are part of Predator Ridge.

Just after the course opened, SCOREGolf voted The Ridge Canada's best new golf course for 2010. And in 2012, the members of the B.C. Golf Association voted it the best B.C. golf course. A lot of Calgarians have second homes here and the golf courses are part of many good reasons.

Wineries

I know, I know. There are spectacular wineries in Oliver, Osoyoos, Naramata Bench, Kelowna... and in terms of sheer numbers, the Vernon area is no match. But you have to think things are going to shake up with the recent opening of winery 50th Parallel, which scooped up award-winning winemaker Grant Stanley from Quail's Gate in Westbank.

A partner in the winery, Stanley is focused primarily on pinot noir in the existing operation. Expansion plans include construction of not only a large production facility and tasting rooms but also an attached bistro with views of Okanagan Lake. And there are others worth noting in Lake Country, along what is known as the "Scenic Sip" route, including the Mediterranean-style winery Ex Nihilo; the well-known Gray Monk with its Grapevines restaurant overlooking sweeping vineyards down to the lake; Intrigue, which just this May won a gold and bronze at the All Canadian Wine Championship; and Arrowleaf, a double gold winner at the same championship.

Okanagan Spirits Craft Distillery (okanaganspirits.com)

WINE is not the only thing you can taste in the Vernon area. At this locally-owned distiller that uses 100 per cent B.C. fruit -- without additives, chemicals or artificial flavours -- you can tour the process and taste the results from a company that has been awarded the status of world class distillery and distillery of the year at the 2013 World Spirits Awards held in Klagenfurt, Austria. This small-town business competed against more than 100 distillers from more than 30 countries.

Okanagan Spirits, tucked away just off the main street of downtown, produces more than 25 varieties in traditional copper-pot stills. These include fruit brandies, liqueurs, marc (grappa), aquavit, gin, vodka, whisky and -- this you must try -- Taboo Genuine Absinthe. And don't be surprised if the person serving you is the distiller himself. Okanagan Spirits has now opened a second store in Kelowna.

Silver Star ski hill and bike park (skisilverstar.com)

The ski hill is top-notch and has invested a lot of money on the slopes and in the colourful village. There are 3,000 acres of terrain and 115 runs over three mountains on an average of seven metres of natural snow each winter, along with 100 kilometres for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and tubing. But this is a multi-season resort with the only bike park in the Okanagan.

And yes, while there is also disc golf and lots of hiking, it is the growing reputation of the trails that is attracting most of the 25,000 cross-country and downhill bikers that are showing up during the summer and fall seasons.

There are green runs for beginners up to double diamond for the most adventurous, chairlifts have bike carriers and there are 18 distinct trails with the longest going from the top of the mountain down seven kilometres into the village.

Europeans and Americans have discovered the park. It hosts a B.C. Tour event, and as summer manager Ian Galbraith puts it: "We just turned a winter paradise into a summer paradise."

Just 25 minutes from downtown Vernon, Silver Star also has lots of on-site accommodation including the luxury condos of Snowbird Lodge (some with vast decks and all with hot tubs), and restaurants and bars in the village.

It also hosts August's Mile High Wine Festival -- a big success this year that will be repeated next August. Tip: You will want to visit Bugaboos Café and try the Dutch owner's fantastic cinnamon buns and croissants.

6. Where else can you visit a tea plantation? The answer is nowhere in Canada since the Wildcraft Tea Plantation (wildcraftforest.com) outside Vernon is the only one in the country. It produces wild herb, fruit and berry flavoured tea blends from the B.C. wilderness. You can tour while having a cuppa.

-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2013

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 19, 2013 E3

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