– Words and photography by Lia Crowe
As we begin our descent down the east side of the Okanagan Connector mountain pass, which runs from Merritt to Kelowna, the landscape quickly changes from a green forest of fir and aspen trees to a dryer landscape of pine and bunch grasses. My partner and I immediately feel the temperature warm up a few degrees. And then, like a majestic queen, Okanagan Lake suddenly appears in our view: blue, sparkling and impressive in its immensity.
Okanagan Lake is like a magnet around the centre of which Okanagan life orbits. The picturesque towns of Peachland, Summerland and Naramata dot its perimeter and the larger cities of Penticton and Kelowna hug its shores.
They are all connected by fruit-producing land with orchards and wineries that flow from the hills down to the fresh water. And as the summer temperatures start to creep up, the lake is the place to be—this is where valley residents and visitors get to play.
Winding along West Kelowna’s Boucherie Road, we pass numerous wineries that beckon with the promise of cool Chardonnay—with notes of honeycrisp apple and butterscotch—or bright pinot gris, refreshing in its minerality. But the wineries will have to wait because after our lengthy drive from Vancouver Island, our ultimate destination comes into view—Hotel Eldorado, Okanagan lakeside luxury at its finest.
Hotel Eldorado has been a hidden gem of Okanagan hospitality since 1926. Beautifully situated right on Okanagan Lake, “The El” has a private boardwalk that glows in the evening with twinkling lights, a luxury marina that offers boat and personal watercraft rentals, along with daily and weekly moorage for all in-house guests’ boats. It immediately sets the tone of stepping back in time to an era of luxurious elegance.
We open the door to our lavish lake-view suite and let out a big sigh as we flop onto the comfy king-sized bed. The sound of waves lapping the shore and a sweet breeze fill the room from the open window, and our nervous systems start a slow unwind.
Later that evening we have dinner in the Eldorado dining room, where an old-fashioned wooden rowboat suspended from the ceiling gives the room a lovely feeling of warmth against the backdrop of the blue lake that turns grey as the last light fades from the sky.
We sample buttery steelhead trout with burrata salad to start, and then dive into Cornish game hen and a vegetarian coconut curry, all paired with mouthwatering Okanagan wines.
Our server delights us by offering a bit of the history of The El, which was founded by Countess Bubna, an aristocratic English woman, who decades earlier had been married to an Austrian count.
But the highlight of the dinner for me—and my sweet tooth—is the pina colada dessert of compressed pineapple, passionfruit cremeux, coconut rum sorbet and almond financier.
The next morning at the West Kelowna Yacht Club, we meet Wes and Tara Swaren and their family, who are taking us out on the lake on their Starcraft pontoon boat—which is like a floating living room—for some fun in the sun. Wes and Tara regale us with stories about summer on the lake as we sip cold rosé. The lake bustles with life, and activity on it is essential, they say, as Okanagan summer temperatures can soar, hitting close to 50 degrees Celsius last summer.
The three Swaren daughters laugh and smile as their dad pushes the pontoon boat into high gear. I face the wind and look down the long lake and start to get what it’s all about. Suddenly my hat flies off, landing far away on the water’s surface. Tara’s husband turns the boat around and the girls jump into action as one assures me that this happens all the time. As I place my rescued and now soaking hat back on my head, I feel—just like that—I’m inducted into lake life.
Looking to join the fun? Here are some of the many ways to enjoy life on the lake in Kelowna.
To the beach
Okanagan Lake is home to over 30 beaches, and many of them have playgrounds, concessions and bathrooms. Five of the most popular beaches in Kelowna are Hot Sands Beach, Boyce-Gyro Beach, Rotary Beach, Sarsons Beach, and Strathcona Park.
On the lake:
There are many, many ways to have fun on the lake, where the summertime water temperature averages 19 to 23 degrees Celsius. Things you can rent include: stand-up paddleboards (SUPs), wakeboards, sailboats, houseboats, jet skis, pedal-boats, charter boats, flyboards, kayaks and canoes.
With a host of marinas, serene bays and isolated beaches, boating is a great way to explore the 135-kilometre-long lake that stretches north and south from Kelowna. Numerous marinas, yacht clubs, charters and rental companies dot the shoreline in both directions. Several marinas on the lake have gas bars with convenience stores.
Boaters can take their time on the lake in some sort of vessel, or try parasailing, wind-surfing or learning to wakeboard. Another opportunity? Finish the day with an evening dinner and dance on one of the local charter cruises.
If stand-up paddle boarding is your thing, Okanagan Lake offers a 27-kilometre SUP trail that runs from McKinley Beach to Bertram Creek Regional Park. Running along Kelowna’s shoreline, the trail has many buoys to guide paddlers along their way. Paddle by more than 20 beaches and parks, three waterfront resorts and two bird sanctuaries, as well as downtown Kelowna. Paddlers can choose to explore part of the trail or test their stamina by paddling the whole thing. Either way, it’s a great chance to take in the beautiful sights from the water.
Okanagan Lake offers scuba divers shore and boat dives, catering to all levels of expertise. The lake is 232 metres at its deepest and has shallower reaches too. Visibility is best in the spring, fall and winter months: explore rock formations, small caves, overhangs, shelves and drop-offs.
Explore a mystery
Okanagan Lake is welcoming and refreshing during the summer, but it also has its mysteries, such as mythical creatures, hidden coves and tombs. Search for Ogopogo, hike Paul’s Tomb trail at Knox Mountain or snorkel in the crystal clear water of the quiet, secluded bays.