When off-season is on 

click to flip through (8) PHOTO BY LESLIE ANTHONY - Late season wine: Larch Hills Winery revels in fall colours. It is the highest altitude winery in Canada.
  • Photo by leslie anthony
  • Late season wine: Larch Hills Winery revels in fall colours. It is the highest altitude winery in Canada.
 

Some folks say we live in a bubble here in Whistler, happily ensconced or, at least partially, insulated from the rest of the world. Perhaps a few, but most Whistlerites I know seem more worldly than many city acquaintances, a character rooted in a predilection for wanderlust and travel — mostly to exotic locales. Ironically, this latter trait is the reason Whistler bubblers, and travellers alike, are often unaware of some of the mountain experiences available right under our noses, within reasonable driving distance of the mothership. And while these are, of course, typically thronged by tourists in the summer, the post-Labour Day off-season is a great time to check some of them out.

My trip to the Adams River to catch this year's high point of the four-year sockeye cycle ("Breath of the Salmon," Pique, October 23) is case in point, but that same trip also delivered an introduction to the gastronomie and other activities of a region I've passed through on innumerable occasions and been blithely unaware of.

Heading east, the late-season revelations began during a lunch stop in Kamloops at the Noble Pig Brewhouse. Beneath a charmingly hoser-esque chandelier rendered from an inverted chestnut canoe, we enjoyed flights of top-notch craft-brewed house lager, IPA, and eye-opening — or popping — Belgian pepper ale. The now-standard B.C. pub fare of soggy, over-battered, deep-fried pickles was here replaced by an inspired version featuring crisp dills under a light, Cajun-spiced breading. The "boom" that went off in our mouths with that appetizer lasted the rest of the meal. Kamloops: who knew? I immediately added the Noble Pig to the thoroughly excellent Hello Toast on my list of Kamloops go-tos.

Just past Chase, we dug our lakeview suites at the Quaaout Lodge at Talking Rock Golf Resort as a base for salmon-watching forays, but also enjoyed the spa and restaurant featuring local Shuswap cuisine and face-filling breakfasts. Lest we be shocked by how packed the golf course was, it's obvious the weather here is nicer for longer than on the coast (it was pouring at home), as ascertained from the other Whistler groups piling in, not only for salmon watching, but as a stopover on a road-cycling safari — something the area is great for at this reduced-traffic time of year. Dudes we met were actually circuiting from Vancouver up and through the Okanagan, then west through the 'Loops and over the Duffey back down to the coast. Impressive.

Another eye opener was the Salmon Arm Wharf and Bird Sanctuary, featuring Canada's largest inland curved wooden wharf. I'm not even a birdwatcher (though I like pointing out that phylogenetically, birds are merely a filthy type of flying reptile), but photo-worthy closeups of herons, and scoters, and grebes and a dozen species of gull and duck weren't lost on me — possibly because there were also cavorting otters and a brightly hued Western painted turtle to keep my attention.

The biggest treat of the day, however, came when we hoofed it back into town for lunch at the Shuswap Pie Company. Proprietor Tovah Shantz proved shockingly young but as charming and lovely as her pies. Everything is made from scratch on site the old fashioned way, in small batches using local ingredients, sans preservatives, mixes, lard and edible oil products. The taste and quality of the food literally blew my fragile mind — the kind of place you leave and immediately start scheming when to return. (In our case, it was on the way home to score frozen versions of our favourites — rhubarb raspberry and chicken curry.)

October is wine season in the Okanagan but guess what — the Shusawp has awesome wines, too. We picnicked one day under late-season sun in the lovely garden fronting the tasting room at Jake and Margaret Ootes' Celista Estate Winery, the 160-acre retirement dream of these former Yellowknifers on the north shore of Shuswap Lake. After planting their first vines in only 2002, they're proud operators of the multi-award-winning northernmost winery in North America. They grow grapes, sell wine, operate a small art gallery, rent cabins and maintain a farm with a few charismatic Icelandic horses. Like all Shuswap growers, the focus is on cooler-weather grapes like ortega — a German varietal propagated after WWII — and marechal foch, the only red to grow well this far north.

There were more superlatives down the road at Larch Hills, the highest altitude winery in Canada. Owned by Jack and Hazel Manser, even more so than Celista, Larch Hills specializes in cool-climate grapes, with varieties generally not available in other parts of B.C. making several of their wines unique — and equally award-winning. Over plates of Terroir Cheese, a local artisan brand that reflects the North Okanagan/Shuswap climate, flora, fauna, geography and soil, we happily sipped away while Helen spun hilarious tales of she and Jack's tribulations as a hands-on, two-person crew, hammering home what really goes into a bottle of wine. Larch's Ortega was so good we grabbed a few bottles for our final adventure: the thing every Shuswap visitor wants to try, but which I am convinced is best experienced on the serene and empty lakes of autumn — a houseboat adventure.

With more than 100 houseboats between marinas in Sicamous and Salmon Arm, houseboat pioneer Twin Anchors has been hosting guests here since 1977. The boat we found ourselves on was the largest in its fleet — a 25-metre CruiseCraft V. This ultimate floating resort slept 24 and featured three decks with a hot tub, bar and covered dining area with BBQ up top. The spacious main deck entertainment centre was outfitted with full kitchen complete with bar fridge, trash compactor, wine cooler and large work island. Every stateroom had its own flatscreen TV and DVD player — styling! We steamed down Shuswap Lake on a bulebird afternoon, pulling up to a gravel beach where it was game on with the hot tub, interspersed with aerial plunges from the second-storey slide into a lake that was surprisingly comfortable for October. I'd call it a Woohoo! moment

Like many houseboaters, we had our first dinner on board catered by Bahama John's Sicamous dockside restaurant — outstanding fare that featured barbeque and jerk everything, as well as a ton of local grilled veggies and all the wine and cheese we'd accumulated over the past few days.

By this point I was sure we were firmly outside the bubble, and figuring that off-season would be my new on-season for exploring B.C.

Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.

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