Golf in Canada’s Napa Valley: Kelowna, BC
It was on the eighth tee box at the Harvest Golf Club when I discovered a golf hat holds about a pound of cherries.
“We like to play here because it’s ‘all you can eat,’” a local player tells me as we pull off the cart path at Harvest, driving our golf carts a few yards into the orchard. We stop for a few minutes to pluck enough juicy cherries to fill our hats. In a few holes, we’ll stop again for apricots and nectarines. As summer gives way to fall, the stone fruits will be gone, replaced with apples and pears.
“That’s when we fill the golf bag instead of the hat,” my playing partner’s teenage son says.
Like a lot of real estate here in Kelowna, a golf-crazed town in the Okanagan (pronounced oak-a-NOG-in) Valley of British Columbia, the Harvest course was laid out inside a thriving hillside fruit orchard, cherry trees over here, apricot trees over there, pears and apples in between.
Who needs a snack bar when you can pick your own at the edge of the fairway?
As we round a crest, the cobalt-blue waters of Lake Okanagan stretch out to our west, filling a 70-mile glacier canyon between the Monashee and Cascade Ranges. Its craggy hillsides are covered with grapevines and fruit trees.
Orchards and vineyards are as much a part of the Kelowna landscape as tees and greens.
At the century-old Gatzke Orchards nearby, Al Gatzke tends to 60 species of fruit trees on his 10-acre roadside farm. A large, burly man with steely blue eyes, Gatzke walks between rows of apricot and peach trees, affirming that the long growing season here yields 90 percent more fruit than any other region in Canada. The Okanagan grows 20 percent of Canada’s peaches and 14 million pounds of cherries a year.
The golf season nearly parallels the harvest season, Gatzke explains, removing his white golf cap to wipe his brow with his thick fingers. A thin crescent of black earth stains the underside of his fingernails, just to prove he’s a farmer.
“From the first of June until mid-November, there’s always something somewhere in the orchard that you can pick and eat at perfect ripeness,” he said.
This is the heart of Canada’s fruit basket, a fertile valley of snow-fed streams, summer lake resorts, more than 120 wineries and nearly a dozen excellent golf courses. If you catch the sunset just right, late in the summer when the air is warm and still and perfumed with peaches, the sky will surrender with the deep wet color of a slice of watermelon before it disappears into the dark lavender of the lake.
Better than a trip to Napa, you come to Kelowna for equal parts golf, food and wine.
Up the road from Harvest is Gallagher’s Canyon Golf Course, a local favorite named for an enormous chasm that separates the course from a nearby ridge of rugged mountains. I join some local golfers, who are quick to offer course management tips and strategy.
“Don’t hit to the right,” says one. “Watch the trees on the left,” advises the other. My drive goes straight, but my partners aren’t so fortunate.
“That’s an evil, nasty place,” says the first, “but it’s not like you haven’t been there before,” adds the other, a 55-year-old named Tom. I know his name is Tom because it says so on one of the tags hanging from his golf bag, which also includes 20 wooden tees, a couple of pencils, a brush to clean the grooves of his irons and a variety of other doodads I don’t recognize.
“When I was a kid, we used to come on this land and there was nothing here but brush and pines,” says Tom, a semi-retired oilman from Calgary with bright gray hair and a sun-etched face. Now it’s golf and houses. “But really good golf,” he adds.
Acres of fruit trees and vineyards dot the surrounding hills that rise from nearby Lake Okanagan, though the fairways at Gallagher’s Canyon are trimmed with more Ponderosa pines than peaches. Some tee boxes require precise drives through narrow, tree-lined chutes. On other holes, diabolic, three-tiered greens can decimate your score like the pine bark beetles gnawing away at the Ponderosas, which leave the hills pockmarked with clumps of tall, dead trees.
A few miles north of Gallagher’s Canyon, Predator Ridge Golf Resort unwinds across 1,200 acres of wheatgrass fields and pine-covered ridges. Out in this corner of Kelowna, houses and cattle outnumber fruit trees. From the elevated entrance to the property, three nines spread out like spilled green paint, jutting in and out of fescue, and trailing off between pines. In a few months, though, golf architect Doug Carrick will have finished transforming a large forested tract of land and one of the nines into a solid 18-hole course. The other two nines will be linked as a single track, creating two regulation courses. The resort also encompasses a residential development with guest cottages and hotel lodging, a spa, a steakhouse and home sites.
Predator Ridge hosts the Telus Skins game, a Canadian favorite. Local gossip says that Sergio Garcia purchased two lots here for his private residence. Real estate sells at a fast clip at Predator Ridge, funded by Calgary oil money and NHL players with deep pockets and even deeper Canadian roots.
The tee sheet is usually full, but the new owner who purchased the resort last year aims to emphasize the real estate and resort aspects of the development, says director of golf Shawn Paduano. Another nine holes will improve both the golf experience and the land sales.
“Even in Canada, golf is no longer an economically feasible venture without real estate sales,” says Paduano. “Underpromising and overdelivering: that’s what will keep us ahead.”
Paduano and I have barely started our round when two mule deer walk across our fairway. One scurries into the forest, but the other strides up to the green, stopping only a few feet away from me while I putt out.
Humans usually spook mule deer. Not here. It seems the deer have no predators in Predator Ridge, which was named not for hunters but for the birds of prey that stalk the smaller wildlife in the area.
Real estate sales play an important role at another new course nearby. Tower Ranch is a former cattle ranch-turned-residential development that opened only weeks ago, and I think it’s among British Columbia’s best. Tom McBroom, one of Canada’s golf architect stars, designed the layout. Tower Ranch uncoils along rolling bluffs and canyon-cut ravines with wild elevation changes, white sand bunkers, tall native grasses and thick fescue rough. The opening hole is one of the most intimidating in North America, a long downhill drive to a narrow landing zone mined with bunkers that guard a small green complex just beyond.
More than once, I watched golfer after golfer slice or hook the ball off the fairway, but in reality, the hole plays easier than it looks from the tee. On the back nine, the better of the halves, even my gas-powered cart hesitated on a series of switchbacks that climb to the peak of the mountain.
Since Tower Ranch is new, not many homes have popped up to spoil the open vistas. Apple and pear orchards and vineyards heavy with clusters of purple grapes border some of the fairways. Your reward for reaching the summit of the course is an unobstructed panorama of nearly all of Kelowna and most of the front nine holes. The fairways and greens are generous but challenging, though it’s the roller coaster terrain that will hook you, tempting you to play the course more than once.
But before you do, head to the Okanagan Golf Club and play Jack Nicklaus’ Bear course. The 1998 project is another local favorite. The Bear is a classic, conquerable design with a few challenging holes, attractive green fees and the most forested routing of all the golf courses in Kelowna. The Ponderosa-lined fairways are wide and forgiving. The greens are generous and often tiered. The property is immaculately maintained, as is usually true with golf courses managed by BC Golf, with close-cropped fairways and thick fescue in all the right places.
Whether you choose the mountainous Tower Ranch, Okanagan Golf Club, the orchard-lined fairways of Harvest Golf Club or one of Kelowna’s other gems, the golf here will delight you with its variety. The Okanagan region is often called the northern tip of the Sonoran desert, which means cool nights, warm days and daylight that tempts you to play 36 holes a day.
If your passions are food, wine and golf, then Kelowna is for you.
Just the Facts
Harvest Golf Club
2725 K.L.O. Road, Kelowna, BC
Gatzke Farm Market
Highway 97 North, Oyama, BC
301 Village Centre Place, Vernon, BC
Gallagher’s Canyon Golf Club
4320 Gallagher’s Drive West, Kelowna, BC
2300 Day Road, Kelowna, BC
Okanagan Golf Club
3200 Via Centrale, Kelowna, BC
Waterfront Wines Urban Wine Bar
103-1180 Sunset Drive, Kelowna, British Columbia
1730 Mission Hill Road, Kelowna, BC, V4T 2E4