I admit I’m not much for buddy trips and, given my plan to combine an unusual minus-166-degree spa treatment with golf and wine tasting, I wasn’t sure if any “buddy” would volunteer to come along for the ride.
Feeling more fastidious than Paul Giamatti’s “Miles” character in the movie Sideways, I decided my Sideways sidekick must be able to strike a golf ball decently yet be high-five averse, feel comfortable exploring an eclectic set of saunas during the (clothing optional) “European hours,” and appreciate chatting up winemakers about grapes and microclimates without going overboard into vinospeak.
Not an easy personal ad, to be sure.
Still, my friend Simon seemed a worthy invite. A biweekly lunch mate who could adroitly discuss a mellow pinot gris and the English Premier League in the same spoken paragraph, we’d already road-tested our “paldom” romping around New York City together last spring.
Simon is also a self-declared non-buddy type, so off we set from Seattle for Kelowna, British Columbia, comfortable in the knowledge of separate rooms, evenly matched golf games, and plenty of decidedly non-bonding, solo time.
The Canadian Okanagan suits several itineraries: romantic weekend, oenophile’s retreat, golf nut’s nirvana. Throw in soft adventure on the 60-mile long Okanagan Lake, several multifaceted resorts, as well as numerous mountain bike trails, and this broad area spanning from Osoyoos to Vernon invites family travel as well. But with spa, golf, and wine on our agenda, Simon and I remain kidless in Kelowna.
The Okanagan Valley has long served as my go-to destination for the Pacific Northwest’s best golf, but this time it was the opening of Sparkling Hill Spa Wellness Resort that caught my attention. Designed as a Austrian-style wellness center by Swarovski Crystal patriarch, Gernot Langes-Swarovski, Sparkling Hill contains a half dozen unique saunas, including aromatherapy and spring rain environments, athletic massage therapy and, most intriguing of all, North America’s first cryotherapy spa.
Early in the morning, we steel ourselves to enter the cold sauna’s first chamber, step boldly into the second frigid room, then arrive in the final chamber, where our therapist guides usmind you, we’re clothed only in shoes, socks, gloves, headbands, and bathing suitsfor a three-minute literal chill-out.
The therapy is intended to treat chronic arthritis (guests receive two sessions a day for five days) and is also known to provide energy rejuvenation, a feeling both Simon and I acknowledge later that evening while dining at PeakFine Restaurant high above Lake Okanagan, which glistens as if reflecting Sparkling Hill’s 3.5 million crystals.
I wish I could say my golf game shined as effortlessly, but once a bogey golfer...Simon and I play Predator Ridge Resort’s year-old Ridge Course, a Doug Carrick design that takes complete advantage of its location above the lake. Resort courses should forgive rather than punish the casual golfer and the 7,123-yard layout doesn’t disappoint, with most of our drives finding the broad fairways and our putts traveling greens that read true and go easy on the speed.
Even though Simon and I have a casual match going, the scenery disrupts my competitive concentration. Fourteen of the holes are beautiful, and four are breathtaking, including the Par 4 6th that yawns for 400-plus yards toward the ridge’s crest and terminates with what may best be described as an infinity green.
In a region where I’ve played half of the two-dozen courses, I’ve found my new favorite, both for its Northwest natural design and becausewhile hardly easythe setup allows me to feel pretty good about my rusty game—and about my victory over Simon, who hasn’t touched a club in months.
Simon and I also hack around the local favorite Gallagher’s Canyon, a perfect example of what the region offers as the 18th hole rises from the arid landscape to wend its way through a forest of ponderosa pines before sneaking through an historical orchardthe latter environment a testament to this region’s reputation as one of the “fruit baskets” of Canada.
There’s still fruit for the picking here, of course: grapes, glorious grapes. Limited by time to the north lake region, Simon and I check out rock-and-roll start-up Ex Nihilo Vineyards, where owner Jeff Harder tells tales of creating his special label for the Rolling Stones.
Like most of the tasting-room experiences here, our spontaneous conversation with Harder becomes a lengthy, yet casual, discourse on wine, culture, and why his relocation to the Okanagan was the best move he ever made.
If I was excited to show off one locale in the Okanagan to Simon it is Mission Hill Family Estate, the most majestic winery in the entire Northwest, from the softly illumined barrel cellar with its wall of ancient wine vessels, to the exquisite Terrace, declared one of the “Top 5 Winery Restaurants on the Planet” by Travel + Leisure.
Of course, we’ve also left plenty of time to sample several of the very wines that put the Okanagan Valley on the oenophile’s map at the beginning of this century. I’m hardly surprised when, after sampling Mission Hill’s signature Oculus 2006 while surveying Nathalie Decoster’s whimsical sculptures that grace the grounds, Simon asks our host about real estate in the region.
The Okanagan has this effect on people, and Simon’s a make-stuff-happen kind of guy, so a property purchase up here may happen for him, or maybe not. For the moment though, I smile patiently, allowing Simon to dream. After all, what are friends, I mean buddies, for?