Winter wining 

click to enlarge Lovely Vernon's wall murals give it an unmatched urban aesthetic and humble charm, says Pique columnist Leslie Anthony. - PHOTO BY LESLIE ANTHONY
  • PHOTO by Leslie Anthony
  • Lovely Vernon's wall murals give it an unmatched urban aesthetic and humble charm, says Pique columnist Leslie Anthony.

Only steps from the village, we duck into snow-clad spires of hemlock and spruce, growing in that pointed, perfect, mountain way that look like spearheads propping up the sky. Such trees are the hallmark of SilverStar Mountain Resort in B.C.'s Thompson Okanagan region. You can experience them anyway you like—fat biking, cross-country skiing, alpine skiing—but for this short evening jaunt I've chosen snowshoes.

Snowshoeing delivers a slow-motion appreciation and intimacy that the speed of skis tends to blur. You see myriad animal tracks crisscrossing unbroken snow, tiny birds dashing between the trees' snowy skirts, moss-sicles swinging on pine-scented zephyrs. In this Interior snowbelt, winter starts early and is refreshed frequently with moderate amounts; the trees get flocked, then flocked again. As I wend my way through, sunset flares to the west, flushing the treetops amber as gunmetal gathers between them. 

Considering it's only my first hour of a four-day ski and wine tour in the North Okanagan, nature has done an exceptional job at arranging something worth toasting.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY LESLIE ANTHONY
  • photo by leslie anthony

Lauded as intimate and colourful, SilverStar's mid-mountain base is a jack-in-the-box sprung with accommodations, restaurants and amenities from ice rink, tube park and kids' snowmobile track, to the aforementioned snowshoe, fat bike and cross-country trails. It's a perfect place to base yourself if, during the winter season, you also want to enjoy the best of what the Okanagan has to offer in summer—that is to say, wine.

The link between these two solitudes is the town of Vernon, a mere 20-minute drive away. Circled by rolling hillsides, snowy parks and sizable lakes, Vernon has outgrown its role as a utilitarian hub for agriculture, forestry and mining to become a staging ground for fun and adventure, food and wine, skiing and spas.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY LESLIE ANTHONY
  • photo by leslie anthony

It's quite a story, as I soon learn on a walking tour with historian and storyteller Gabriel Newman, who traces the area's history and iconic characters, aided by dozens of wall murals that deliver both humble charm and an unmatched urban aesthetic. As it happens, the 58th Vernon Winter Carnival is underway, with the usual panoply of local arts, culture and sport events. A young guy in a hot-air balloon basket inflating his rig relates how growing up here fixated him on the town's longstanding carnival ballooning event. When I inquire if this instilled in him a desire to fly, he says not really, he's just into balloons.

Though Vernon's main drag features any number of innovative new restaurants, I aim for the Naked Pig Barbeque & Smokehouse, which specializes in low-and-slow, artisan-style smoked cooking. Leveraging its sister relationship with neighbouring Marten Brewing Co., the airy bistro also features German-style craft beers that pair perfectly with brisket, pulled pork and ribs.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY LESLIE ANTHONY
  • photo by leslie anthony

After lunch, I follow a recommendation to stop in for a tasting at Okanagan Spirits Craft Distillery, whose diverse portfolio includes Canada's first genuine fruit-based absinthe. Being a little tipsy proves to be a good way to arrive at Sparkling Hill Resort, the province's premier international destination for wellness travel. Set high on a bench above Okanagan Lake, the massive KurSpa built by the Austrian Swarovski Crystal company is the embodiment of Euro-inspired inexplicable architecture. The soaring, crystal-draped atrium leads into a spa area of seven unique steam and saunas, experiential showers, a Kneipp walkway (alternating hot-cold immersion for the lower limbs), outdoor infinity pool, hot pool, saltwater pool, serenity room, tea room, fitness studio and Wellness Clinic. As I cycle through the offerings of this futuristic facility, it feels like walking through a spa on another planet—or a hologram on the starship USS Enterprise. I fully expect the robed folks I pass to speak Klingon.

The next day is all about wine. The Chase Wines was opened in June of 2016 by winemaker Adrian Baker, a Kiwi with a knack for aromatic whites. In its Garden Bistro, I join a group for an amazing display of ad hoc cookery; given today's mix of dietary restrictions, the young chef is experimenting with a seven-course vegan feast—incredibly difficult when it comes to wine pairings that turn on fats and strong flavours—but he pulls it off with panache, linking delicious dishes and brilliant presentations with Riesling, Gewertzemeiner, rosé and chardonnay. Later, I'll find Intrigue Wines light on the palette but accessible in price—sort of an anti-wine-snobbery club—while Ex Nihilo ("from nothing") is the eponymous theme of a winery that offers big, bold reds and daring whites, the latter an area tradition pioneered by the place I finish at. Gray Monk Estate Winery has blazed the trail for winemaking in the Okanagan since 1972. With two generations working the vineyards, their legacy of excellence has created an entire wall at their tasting facility scaled with annual awards for their signature pinot gris.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY LESLIE ANTHONY
  • photo by leslie anthony

Back at Sparkling Hill, I ease into the outdoor infinity pool for a night-time dip. Moonlight pools with spikes of quicksilver on a distant mountaintop. It's an odd effect that doesn't make sense until I recognize why: it's those trees again, hogging all the alpine glory in a farewell salute.

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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