Exploring Kelonwa & The Okanagan Valley – Canada

On Saturday morning I took a free walking tour through the Culltural District of Kelonwa.  Apparently the distance was only 2km but we saw a lot of things and the tour went for two hours!  Our tour guide Robin was originally from Adelaide but has lived in Kelonwa since 1968.  Throughout his working life he was a professional tour guide and he had bought many tours down to NZ, some were land tours and some were on the cruise ships.  He knew Napier well and said he loved to visit NZ. 

Kelowna is a situated on Okanagan Lake in the Okanagan Valley.  It serves as the head office of the Regional District of Central Okanagan. Its name derives from an Okanagan language term for “grizzly bear”.  Kelowna is the third largest metropolitan area in the province and ranks as the 22nd largest in Canada, with a population of 179,839 in 2011. 

The service industry employs the most people in Kelowna, the largest city in the tourist-oriented Okanagan Valley. In summer, boating, golf, hiking and biking are popular, and in winter, both Alpine skiing and Nordic skiing are favourite activities at the nearby Big White and Silver Star ski resorts.

Kelowna produces wines that have received international recognition.  Okanagan College and University of British Columbia are the predominant centres for post-secondary education. Over 5000 full-time students attend Okanagan College. 

With scenic lake vistas and a dry, mild climate, Kelowna has become one of the fastest growing cities in North America. The appropriate management of such rapid development (and its attendant consequences) is a source of significant debate within the community. Kelowna is the fourth least affordable housing market in Canada, currently maintaining the classification of “Severely Unaffordable”.  Because of the Okanagan’s climate and vineyard-filled scenery, it is often compared to Napa Valley, California.
The meeting point for the tour was the Laurel Packinghouse.  The Laurel Packinghouse was built in 1917, using bricks made locally from Knox Mountain clay. At that time, what is now Kelowna’s Cultural District was packed with fruit warehouses, packinghouses, canneries, and a sawmill. Horses, boxcars, and trucks jostled for position on tracks and dirt roads.

A fire in the 1960’s destroyed much of the industrial district, but the Laurel was a working packinghouse until the 1970s. When it was slated for demolition in 1982, members of the community rallied to save it, making it Kelowna’s first designated heritage building. The building was revitalized in 2010.

Today the Laurel is a unique and atmospheric rental space for events such as weddings, private functions, and community events. All proceeds from rentals help the Kelowna Museums Society support the preservation and presentation of Kelowna’ s heritage.  It houses a wine museum and an orchard industry museum.This region has many similarities to the Hawke’s Bay back in NZ with it’s orchard and wine industries.  The climate is also similar although it gets cooler in the winter which means they cannot grow citrus fruits.

Cultivated fruits have been grown in British Columbia since the early 1800’s, but the commercial orchard industry in the Okanagan Valley began just over a hundred years ago.  European explorers introduced many fruits to North America and the western world. Stocks of grafted fruit tress were transported across the America’s by wagon and transplanted in regions of the Pacific Northwest where they thrived in the mild climate.

In 1859, a French Catholic mission, Father Charles John Felex Adolphe Marie Pandosy, arrived in the Okanagan and established the first white settlement in the valley. In 1862, Father Pandosy planted the first Okanagan fruit trees, apple seedlings, which were brought from the St. Mary’s Mission in the Fraser.  Other early settlers in the Okanagan concentrated their agricultural efforts on growing grain and cattle ranching, but over time began to grow small plantings of fruit trees, mostly to supply themselves.

Although paying high prices for fruit that was brought in was difficult, the region wasn’t yet suited for growing commercial orchards. The absence of a needed railroad for rapid and gentle transportation of crops was a barrier to getting fruit to a larger market.  As time passed, the Pandosy mission expanded their crops with other fruits, and gave names to apple varieties such as ‘Fallawater’. They bought nursery stock at Olympia and transported it up the Columbia to the Okanagan Valley by canoe.  For several years, the Pandosy Mission was the only orchard in the area.

Father Pandosy died in Penticton in 1891, and in the same year, Lord Aberdeen (Sir John Campbell Hamilton Gordon, 7th Earl and 1st Marquess of Aberdeen and Temair), a Scottish born politician and colonial governor, purchased 13,000 acres of land in Coldstream BC (The Coldstream Ranch) and moved there to pioneer fruit farming.

Lord Aberdeen, former Governor General of Canada, and his wife purchased, sight unseen, 480 acres of land (The McDougall Ranch) near the Okanagan Mission, in 1890, while touring through Canada. This property was intended as a home for Lady Aberdeen’s brother. This ranch was named ‘Guisachan’, after the estate of Lady Aberdeen’s father.

In 1892, two 100 acre lots of orchards were planted on the two Aberdeen estates. Okanagan fruit trees included apricots, peaches, apples, crabapples, prunes, cherries, plums, raspberry canes and strawberries.  Lord Aberdeen was appointed Governor General of Canada in 1893 and held this position for five years. The Aberdeen’s built a jam factory at Vernon to process the much anticipated crops of the small berry fruits, and subdivided a portion of their Coldstream property, selling 900 acres in just a year.

The Aberdeen’s grew the Coldstream Ranch into one of the largest producers of fruit in the British Empire. But not without it’s difficulties. Improper care, and other factors, caused problems with the hundreds of acres of Okanagan fruit planted on the Guisachan and Coldstream estates, and by 1896 the entire Guisachan planting was pulled, as well as most of the Coldstream orchard, delaying fruit producing crops for another number of years.  Following the Aberdeen’s early footsteps other commercial growers began planting large orchards, while other ranchers and farmers planted smaller orchards.

As the economic depression began to ease after the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898, the Okanagan fruit industry began to flourish.  John Moore (JM) Robinson, a prairie farmer from Manitoba traveled to the Okanagan on a gold mine venture near Lake Okanagan in 1897. This venture failed, however Mr. Robinson saw the potential of the fruit industry and began selling land to interested prospects in an area he called ‘Peachland’.

He then expanded his developments to include the Summerland (1906), and Naramata (1907) settlements, setting up irrigation and enticing settlers into fruit farming in the communities of Peachland, Summerland and Naramata.

In 1910 Penticton heard news that it would be the headquarters for the new Kettle Valley Railway, and the rail would finally link transportation between the coast and the Kootenays. The railway would provide a much needed form of efficient transportation for local products, opening the entire Okanagan fruit orchard industry to more distant markets.  With Penticton’s economic future secure, the railway’s arrival brought multitudes of jobs and the town’s population more than doubled by the time the line was finished in 1914.

With some successful, and some not so successful, Okanagan fruit growing came innovation, technology, and horticultural research.  The Dominion Experimental Farm, also known as the Summerland Research Station, was established in the Summerland ‘dry belt’ area in 1914 for trialing different fruit varieties, and studying fruit growing methods such as fertilization, pruning, disease resistance and hardiness.  The first apple breeding program began in 1924 by R.C. Plamer.

Over the years, apple varieties produced included Sinta, Spartan and Summerred apples, as well as cherry varieties including Star, Van cherries, Lapins, Stella and the Sam cherry. The Skaha apricot was also the product of the Summerland Research Station.  Today, the Agriculture Canada’s Pacific Agri-Food Research Station, scientists are continuing to develop new varieties of apples, cherries, grapes and other fruits.

The woman pictured in this photo were known as the apple wrapper flappers – each Apple was wrapped in tissue paper and then artfully loaded into boxes maximising the numbers in the box

This is the size of the ladders they used to use to pick the apples – they now grow trees that are a lot smaller so no ladder is required making it less time consuming.  The smaller trees produce more fruit than the larger trees too.

The history of winemaking in the Okanagan Valley is long and storied and began with Father Charles Pandosy, who was also instrumental in the development of the orchard industry in the region, in 1859.  Pandosy planted the first vines in the region, with the wine earmarked for Church sacramental purposes. 

Father Pandosy planted vines of the labrusca variety and while the wine produced from the grapes was suitable for sacramental purposes, it did not produce high-quality wines – the likes of which are now associated with the valley. Nevertheless, following Father Pandosy, a number of small wineries emerged. However, prohibition forced the wineries to remove their vines and plant other crops instead.

The next significant development came in 1925 when Charles Casorso planted vines in Rutland. 1930 saw Pete and Louis Casorso, Charles’ brothers, plant vines just off what is now Casorso Road in Kelowna. That vineyard presently supplies Sperling Vineyards.  The Casorsos were influential in launching Kelowna’s Calona Vineyards, which opened in the early 1930s. Calona Vineyards is British Columbia’s oldest continuously operating winery. Another significant event occurred in 1966, as that is the year that Mission Hill winery opened.

As the twentieth century progressed, Okanagan wineries started experimenting with hybrid grape varieties and eventually vinifera vines (vinifera meaning common grape vine which is a species of Vitis, native to the Mediterranean region, central Europe, and southwestern Asia, from Morocco and Portugal north to southern Germany and east to northern Iran.  There are currently between 5,000 and 10,000 varieties of Vitis vinifera grapes though only a few are of commercial significance for wine and table grape production allowing them to produce much better wines).  The vinifera grapes produce wine of a high-quality and it is this development that has allowed the Okanagan to compete for wine awards on the world stage. However, it wasn’t until the latter part of the 1980s that vinifera vines really took hold in the Okanagan. This was thanks, in part, to the North American Free Trade Agreement and the influx of American wines on the Canadian market. As a result, the Canadian government introduced a vine pulling scheme where they paid growers to remove non-vinifera crops and replace them with vinifera vines.

After discussing the history of the orchard and wine industries we went out to explore the Cultural District.  Robin is very passionate about the culture and is on the Board of the Rotary Centre for the Arts.  The building that houses the Rotary Centre for the Arts is actually built around and over the old Growers Supply agriculture warehouse.  Beams, walls and flooring from the original building are still evident.  This multi purpose facility openings in 2002.  It houses a 326 seat theatre, rehearsal hall, eight artist studios, an art gallery, a dance studio, rentable space and a bistro.  It brings together the performing arts and the creative arts.

The Cultural District was borne out of the defunct industrial zone which was previously home to packing houses, canneries, railways, shipping wharves, a sawmill and even a cigar factory.  The city planners have done a fabulous job and there are some 16 spots or buildings to see in a six block area.  This major initiative started in 2000 and as well as all the points of interest there are year round arts, entertainment, outdoor festivals, classes and workshops.  The city is extremely clean with Robin picking up the only couple of peices of rubbish we saw.  They also have an anti graffiti initiative where the service and  ultities boxes are covered with a silicone based coating that repels everything.

A utilities box covered in anti graffiti silicone – they have also made clever use of it putting some historical information on it

This is a bicycle locker provided by the city – you can lock your bike in here for free

They area also very big on public art with many pieces around the city.  Property developers are usually required to contribute to the public art scene when they build a new building.
Running Man

Bear is a tribute to Kelonwa’s settlement on the shores of Lake Okanagan.  The theme of the artwork is a Grizzly Bear – “Kelonwa” being an English translation of the Okanagan / Syilx First Nation word for “Femal Grizzly Bear”.  Within the Bears body are symbols that represent periods of Kelonwa’s history.

The Kasugai Gardens – co designed by Kelonwa and their sister city in Japan, Kasugai

William Andrew Cecil Bennett, a Kelowna resident, was British Columbia’s longest-serving premier. The 20 spires on the tower represent Bennett’s 20 years as premier, and 7 steps on either side of the clock represent the number of his terms in office.

There were beautifully panted gardens all over the city

There is also a small canal that winds its way around a couple of the high rise accomodation blocks – you can park your boat right outside your condo.  There is a lock that joins the canal system with the lake.
We visited the Okanagan Heritage Museum which had quite an array of stuffed animals.  I also learnt where the Mad Hatter reference came from.  Beaver fur predisposes it to the felting process due to it’s strength and malleability.  The milners or hatters used a solution containing mercuric nitrate as a smoothing agent.  Prolonged exposure to mercury vapours caused these hatters to go mad.

After the tour my energy levels were feeling a little depleted so I sampled the coffee and some of the goodies at Bliss Bakery.

On the way back to Predator Ridge where we are staying I called in at Gray Monk Estate Winery where I did a wine tasting.   The Heiss family moved to the Okanagan Valley from Europe via Edmonton, Alberta with dreams of owning a successful vineyard. In 1972, George & Trudy Heiss were at the front of the line presenting their request to be allowed to make (and sell) wine from their own grapes. That began the Estate Winery program – which many believe was the turning point for British Columbia Wines.  The winery’s name, Gray Monk, is the English translation of the Austrian name for Pinot Gris. The winery is appropriately named as George & Trudy sourced 50 plants of Pinot Gris from a nursery in Colmar, Alsace in 1976. These 50 vines are recognized as the first plantings of Pinot Gris in Canada.

In the early 1980’s, the BC provincial government defined three types of wineries that were regulated under these separate categories:

Farm Winery – could only use their own grapes; required ten acres of land and had a production limit of 5,000 gallons (19,000 litres) annually.

Estate Winery – first known as “cottage wineries”, but soon changed, required 20 acres of land; could contract up to fifty per cent of what they owned; had a production limit of 30,000 gallons (114,000 litres) annually.

Commercial Winery – basically had no restrictions.

When Gray Monk was first started, they began as an Estate Winery as defined by the regulations at that time.  Today, the rules have changed – there is no more distinction between a farm, estate or commercial winery – wineries need only to have a license. However, Gray Monk chose to keep the name of Estate Winery because of its importance in their history and the volume of their production.

The family now own and farm 75 acres in the Okanagan Valley.

After my big day out I needed to have a bit of a lie down when I got home : )


This blog was originally set up to share our 9 month adventure around Europe and the USA with friends and family in 2014. On returning to NZ in January 2015 I decided to carry it on so I could continue to share any future travel adventures - it has become my electronic travel diary. I hope you enjoy and get inspired to visit some of the wonderful places we have visited.
This entry was posted in Canada, Okanagan Valley. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Exploring Kelonwa & The Okanagan Valley – Canada

  1. Catherine Lamb says:

    Looks a very pretty country. Love the Big Bears

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s