It's not just the wine that sparkles in Canada's Okanagan Valley.
They're the places that tend to resonate when the words British Columbia are mentioned: Vancouver, Whistler, Victoria, the Okanagan Valley … Hang on. The Okanagan what? OK, so the Okanagan Valley may not be familiar to many, if most, Australians. But tell a typical Canadian you're going to be visiting this corner of BC and you're likely to receive an envious reply. The Okanagan, after all, is Canada's great wine hope in a country not known for its fine wines aside for its quasi-novelty ice-wines created under the notoriously cold conditions of the Canadian winter. Nowadays, the Okanagan Valley is rated as one of North America's leading emerging wine regions with a dizzying range of climatic zones suited to wine-making. Enter the 152-room Sparkling Hill Resort which is perfectly-located right in the midst of it all.
The 212 kilometres-long Okanagan Valley, leading right to the US border, is an easy one hour or so by air south-east from Vancouver with Sparkling Hill Resort, in turn, located a short drive from Kelowna airport. Kelowna's the main point of entry to the region, which shares the same latitude as more famous wine regions such as Germany's Rhine and France's Champagne. The resort itself, as its name suggests, is built atop a commanding hill – or granite bluff, to be precise – inside a gated golf resort community overlooking scenic Lake Okanagan, which dissects the valley for 135 kilometres.
Sparkling, in a word, and all too true to its name. This ultra-modern spa resort "celebrating whole body wellness" was the vision of Gernot Langes-Swarovski, patriarch of the eponymous Austrian crystals clan. There are no fewer than 3.5 million Swarovski crystals embedded throughout the resort, designed to create a sense of calm and serenity. It succeeds in its aim, though it can also render the place just a tad soulless. However, the famously easy-going Canadians, who of course form the core Sparkling Hill Resort's clientele, hardly ooze stress. Nonetheless, the spa, at a whopping 12,000 square metres in size, is the centrepiece of the resort and includes no fewer than seven aromatherapy steam rooms and saunas, four "experiential showers" and an indoor salt water pool, a hot pool and an outdoor infinity pool.
The twinkling crystal theme extends to my spacious and luxuriously-appointed room with spectacular views of the lake and the surrounding mountains. There's a two-person "crystal-shaped" soaker tub from which you can admire the lake and mountain vistas, reminiscent of parts of New Zealand's South Island Otago region. By night the ceiling of the room becomes a "starry sky" designed to mirror the pattern of above the resort itself.
Wine, of course, is the main catalyst for a visit to Okanagan Valley, with cellar door visits a popular pastime for visitors. But where's there's good wine good food inevitably follows. Beyond Sparkling Hill decent main restaurant and cafe, book lunch at the popular restaurant at the Gray Monk Winery, preceded or followed by a full wine-tasting. In a region where wine-making origins can be traced only to the 1970s, Gray Monk's one of the oldest, having been founded by George and Trudy Heiss, who brought a selection of vines to British Columbia from Alsace including pinot auxerrois, gewurtztraminer and the first pinot gris planted in Canada.
The best way to gain a sense of the region's wines is take a tour with an experienced and knowledgeable local operator such as Mojo Tours. It offers guided tours of some of the Okanagan's 120 or so wineries, many of which are close to Sparkling Hill Resort. For a break from all of that quaffing, take a drive up the valley to Summerland for a ride on the historic, early 20th century Kettle Valley Steam Railway, once part of the legendary Canadian Pacific Railway. The 10-kilometre ride traverses orchard and vineyard country through the Prairie Valley from which stunning views of Lake Okanagan can be enjoyed. You may even spot a black bear from the train, as this passenger did on his journey.
Sparkling Hill Resort, what with its imposingly contemporary architecture and elaborate crystal theme, can initially feel like the grandiose headquarters of some new age Canadian religious sect. But in a still evolving region for wine tourism it remains one of the best accommodation choices.
Doubles start from $C241.50 for a standard mountain view king room. 888 Sparkling Place, Vernon, British Columbia, Canada. Ph: + 1 250 275 1556. See sparklinghill.com
In a country not known for its fine drops, Sparkling Hill Resort is a salubrious base from which to explore the up-and-coming Okanagan Valley and its wineries.
The pervasive crystal theme, while impressive and distinctive, does tend to deny the resort a certain degree of warmth and snugness.
Anthony Dennis travelled to Canada as a guest of Destination British Columbia. See hellobc.com