Sunshine, shoreline and smiling faces characterize the Canadian town of Kelowna (pronounced kil-o-nuh), British Columbia. Not far from the U.S. border just above Washington state, this charming town rests at the edge of Lake Okanagan, a pristine body of water just begging sailors and water skiers to ruffle its glassy surface. The area is so lush and teeming with foliage and the climate so temperate, folks have remarked that they feel like they're in the tropics instead of one of the world's northern-most countries. One look at this pseudo-tropical paradise and it's easy to see why visitors to laid-back Kelowna sometimes never leave.
What's It Like to Live Here?
Kelowna offers residents the best of both worlds-a bustling city atmosphere combined with breathtaking countryside just minutes outside of town. With its orchards, vineyards and spectacular mountain and lake views, new residents are drawn to the area each year.
And Kelowna isn't for the couch potato. Whether you're a classical music aficionado, wine connoisseur or simply a nature-lover, you're sure to find an activity to match your passion. The Okanagan Valley has a thriving cultural community that includes numerous museums specializing in natural, native and local history, including the Orchard Industry Museum, which chronicles the Valley's transformation from wide-open cattle range to fruit-producing powerhouse. A number of local historical parks, preserves and theater groups also dot the region, as do a symphony orchestra and a variety of art galleries. And it's all-aboard for vino, when you tour the region's magnificent wine country from the nostalgic Okanagan Valley Wine Train.
How's the Weather?
The Okanagan Valley provides ideal conditions for its booming agriculture business. With a little more than a foot of precipitation annually, Kelowna boasts a semi-arid climate similar to the Southwest that allows foliage such as ponderosa pine, sagebrush and even cactus to grow this far north.
The summers are warm, with highs in July and August reaching the mid-80s. And one-third of the days are considered downright balmy. "It's cookin' in the summer," says Dave Gardiner of Unique Log & Timber Homes. "We can grow peaches, apricots and cherries; fruits that you won't normally find this far north."
Winters are mild compared to most northern locales; highs are just around the freezing mark, with lows in the teens. These conditions are ideal for producing "ice wine," an exceptionally sweet dessert wine resulting from the high sugar content in the frozen grapes, for which the Okanagan Valley is world-renown.
A Little History
Even though Native Americans inhabited the Okanagan Valley for centuries, European explorers didn't discover scenic British Columbia until the 1700s. Then, in 1859, three missionaries came to the valley and, recognizing its value and settlement potential, established themselves in what was then called L'Anse au Sable, or Sandy Cove.
The town's new, modern name came just a few years later in a rather amusing way. In the 1860s, a group of Okanagan Indians passing by the underground shelter of early settler August Gillard saw the very hairy man crawling out of his dwelling and cried out to him, laughing, "kemxtœs," or "black bear's face." Decades later when the town was being designed, this story was remembered, and the town was given the new, easier-to-pronounce name of Kelowna, the Okanagan word for 'grizzly bear."
With the introduction of the railroad linking Kelowna with the rest of North America, the export of fruit from the region's plentiful orchards began in earnest, and the town flourished as a center for commerce.
To encourage growth in this new region, WWII veterans were given property around Kelowna through the Veteran's Resettlement Committee, causing the area to grow rapidly. To accommodate its new population, the Okanagan Lake Bridge, the largest floating bridge on the continent, was built in 1958 and provided an easier way for traffic to navigate the lake. Today, visitors flock to the area for its climate and wealth of outdoor activities.
Meet the Neighbors
There are great stories behind the log homes that dot the Kelowna area. The Hitching Post is a bed and breakfast nestled on 12 acres in the Monashee foothills. It has genuine log cabins to rent and provides families with a ranch experience, including horseback-riding lessons.
Another spectacular home belongs to well-known Kelowna artist Vivian Kuhn and her husband, Al. A skilled woodworker, Al built the log home that now doubles as a studio and Vivian's Blueberry Hill Gallery.
But perhaps your most famous neighbor will be Ogopogo, a snake-like creature that reportedly lives on the bottom of Lake Okanagan. The natives of the Okanagan Valley named him N'haitik, and when travelers crossed the lake, they carried gifts in case they came across this Òmonster of the lake." While the legend remains a little shaky, sightings have been reported around the Kelowna area for centuries.
What to Do, What to Do
Log home and wine enthusiasts alike will want to spend an afternoon at Quails' Gate Estate Winery, just down shore from Kelowna. Its wine shop is located in a log cabin built in 1873 for the Allison family, one of the first pioneers to settle in the Okanagan Valley. But in the heart of Kelowna, be sure to stop at The Wine Museum, located in the old Laurel Pack-inghouse, the city's first designated heritage building. Here you'll get a look at the winemaking industry of the region and also enjoy exhibits such as rare bottles and labels and a wine press from the 1930s. There are also orchard tours of the Valley that will give you a behind-the-scenes look at the region's agricultural heritage.
Summer activities on Lake Okanagan abound. With 75 miles of shoreline, visitors and residents enjoy boating, swimming, fishing, water skiing and kayaking.
For land-lovers, Kelowna's famous Myra Canyon bike route follows an abandoned railway bed. Perched 2,300 feet above lake level, the trail offers some of the most incredible scenery in the area. Hikers will enjoy Okanagan Mountain Park, as well as the Kettle Valley route.
To experience the Canadian winter, snow bunnies have a variety of locations to choose from. Whether it's cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, ice fishing or even dog sledding, there are a number of resorts and ski lodges in the area catering to these pursuits, including Silver Star, Beaver Lake Resort and Apex.
Location, Location, Location
"This is truly an undiscovered region," says Dave Gardiner. "We're seeing more people coming from Alberta to build second homes in the area, but the land is still reasonably priced, especially by U.S. standards." However, as the 2010 Winter Olympics draw near, expect housing and land prices to climb, especially lakefront property, which, like anywhere else in the world, is prime real estate in the Okanagan Valley.
Log home lovers may wish to travel to the Northern Okanagan Valley where The Ridge at Silver Star boasts an exclusive log and timber community. "We have a large number of environmentally certified forests," Dave says. "And British Columbia has the only full log-building apprenticeship program, so we have one the most highly skilled work forces in North America." Kelowna is home to Del Ramoske's Okanagan School of Log Building, attracting students worldwide to learn the fine art of log home construction.
As the Okanagan Valley grows in prosperity and popularity, the transformation is reflected in the area's architecture. "It's been interesting to see how home styles are changing," Dave says. "There are more log and timber structures being built to reflect mountain and lakeside living. Previously such homes have been rather uninspired, but today's architecture tends to be professionally designed and has interesting architectural elements. We feel our final products enhance the area's appeal."
|Just the Facts: Kelowna, British Columbia
Residential property tax rate: CAN $1.12/$100 of value
Average income per household: CAN $70,590
Price and size of a recent, typical sale of vacant acreage:
Central Okanagan - $175,000; Northern Okanagan - $145,000
Price and size of a recent, typical sale of acreage with house: Central Okanagan - $450,000; Northern Okanagan - $275,000
Closest airport: Kelowna International Airport
Closest medical service: Kelowna General Hospital
Educational facilities: Thirteen elementary, five middle and six secondary schools; Okanagan University College with two campuses in Kelowna; Okanagan Regional Library
Joanne Poesch is a freelance travel writer from Ashburn, Virginia. While her specialty has been international locales, she is thrilled to discover all the “Great Places” North America has to offer.
Information on living in Canada was featured in the October 2004 issue of Log Home Living.
Story by Joanne Poesch