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Okanagan Valley: Learn to say it, love to play it

Joel ZuckermanBy Joel Zuckerman,

KELOWNA, BRITISH COLUMBIA - You've never played golf there because you've never been. You've never been there because it's unlikely you've ever heard of it. You've not heard of it because it's hard to pronounce. So we begin with a brief pronunciation guide. The Okanagan Valley in the western Canadian province of British Columbia is pronounced as follows: Think of the popular southern vegetable okra. Now combine it with a slang expression for your head that's fallen out of popular usage in recent generations: noggin. Now put them together, but lose the 'r': Oka-nagan. You've just uttered the name of one of North America's little-known but truly delightful golf destinations.

The central city in the Okanagan Valley is called Kelowna, which merits yet another brief pronunciation guide. Don't stretch the word "clown" out to three syllables. Instead, think of the German city, or the ubiquitous Father's Day gift - cologne. Or even more simple, rhyme it with "Arizona." Kelowna is a small city of 100,000 fortunate souls, located some four hours inland from Vancouver and about two hours north of the U.S. border in central Washington State. The area is a treasure trove of lakes, mountains, vineyards and orchards. It's also home to an impressive collection of golf courses well worth exploring. One could vacation there for weeks at a time and never play the same hole, drink the same varietal or tour the same winery twice. Here's a 'tasting' of some of the best the region has to offer golf-wise. Call it the Okanagan's "Fantastic Four."

Must plays

Predator Ridge is distinctly different than the other golf offerings in the area. Located about 30 minutes north of Kelowna in the town of Vernon, this 27-hole Les Furber design has been created on a massive scale. Built in a huge valley that was once rangeland, the 1,200-acre property is a mile wide and a full two miles long. Unlike the other facilities closer to town, there's virtually no housing element on the playing fields. Two of the three nines, Osprey and Red Tail, are heath-land style courses bereft of trees, full of mounding, covered in wheatgrass, hard as calculus, enervating and exhilarating concurrently.

Peregrine is the nine that winds through the trees, with a few holes skirting some of the handsome condominiums sprouting on the property. The nascent real estate development has attracted buyers from well beyond Canada, including dozens of different U.S. states and foreign countries.Buoyed by the success of the Canadian Skins Game that was contested there a few years ago (two fast facts: Phil Mickelson orbited a 475-yard tee shot on the staircase-steep 8th hole on the Osprey nine and Sergio Garcia was soimpressed with the property he bought a condo for himself and one for his parents) visitors keep arriving and "discovering" this pristine and relatively remote parcel and want to own a little piece for themselves. A brand-new spa called Rituals just opened this summer and there's a luxury lodge under construction. The fourth nine is slated to open in a few years and will complement Peregrine, so there will be one wooded and one heath-land course on property. Predator Ridge is a great facility already but will improve and expand in the years to come.

Gallagher's Canyon is a golfer's thrill ride, the most exciting and visually stimulating of the region's many fine offerings. This Bill Robinson/Les Furber design is located on a bench of land adjacent to gaping and camera-worthy Gallagher's Canyon itself. It's crucial to remember that "bench" in this instance is a geographic term and, unlike a perfectly flat park or picnic bench, this "bench" bends uphill, downhill and side-hill,sometimes concurrently.

There are all sorts of variety on the golf course and the finest example of this fact is the quartet of par 3 holes. Over chasms, severely uphill, plunging downward from nosebleed distance, every one-shot hole on the course has its own story.

It's a theme throughout, as a downhill tee shot will follow an uphill one, or a severe dogleg will come after a hole that's runway-straight. The course is laid out in two loosely defined clockwise loops and the routing is such that there are virtually no parallel fairways on the premises. Each hole is a study unto itself, in its own private corridor. Beyond the canyon, which is just adjacent to the seventh tee, are Black Mountain and the lyrically named Layer Cake Mountain, offering even more memorable viewing opportunities to a facility that has no shortage. The canyon is a "Crown Property," meaning it's owned by the Canadian government. This sprawling area north of the golf course proper is agricultural in nature and contains the orchards that are endemic to the region, hiking trails and streams. Tradition has it that players will often launch a ball into the canyon for good luck but that practice has been discouraged as more and more hikers take to the trails below. Besides, who needs to intentionally lose a ball like that, when so many legitimate ball-losing opportunities abound on this beguiling track bracketed by woods, streams and vegetation?

Solid seconds

Okanagan Golf Club offers 36 unique holes of golf and is literally five minutes from the airport. It's the best choice in the area for those who want to get a peg in the ground as soon as possible, or are looking for one final round on "getaway day."

The Les Furber designed Quail Course is all about placement. Power is of secondary concern, as from the middle tee box the distances on the par 4holes are mostly in the 330-yard range. Even the championship markers at6,800 yards feature a quartet of par 4s that are 340 yards or less.

The Bear Course by contrast is more driver friendly. This Nicklaus Design Company creation is roomier, a bit flatter and offers several different looks throughout the round. Like The Quail, it's also routed predominantly through a wooded hillside and in typical mountain golf fashion, tee shots need to find their way between imposing stands of hardwoods. But in addition to the woodsy flavor, there are also several holes that run on the ridgeline at the far eastern edge of the property. From the tee at the par-3 sixth, the green at the ninth, the length of holes 10 and 11, golfers have wonderful long vistas of the Okanagan Valley below, with clouds hanging below the mountain tops in the distance.

The third characteristic of the routing is a trio of lakeside holes midway through the inward nine, on the western edge of the property. Thethree-shot 13th, short 14th and par-4 15th make a horseshoe around El's Lake. There's some serious mounding surrounding several of the greens and a lineup of Tuscan-style villas with clay-tiled roofs that are part of thereal estate component of the golf course. Either course at the Okanagan Golf Club makes for an eminently worthwhile afternoon on the links. But why play one? Take the whole day, take them in tandem and tour the whole "menagerie."

Harvest Golf Club's most endearing attribute is that it winds through 80 acres of fruit orchards and vineyards. Beyond standard fare like birdies and bogeys, here peaches, cherries, apricots, apples and grapes grow alongside or close by the manicured fairways. From tee to green, the Graham Cooke-designed course is a beautiful but mostly benign test of golf. The greens are a different story. They are massive in scope, many with more levels than a parking garage. Gilles Dufort has been general manager and executive professional since the club opened in 1994. "There are a number of reasons why we're among the more popular choices in this region, besides this wonderfully pristine setting," he said.

Dufort believes Harvest Golf Club is the most representative course of the Okanagan region. "When people think of this area, they think of mountains, lakes and orchards. Well, here we are playing among the orchards, looking down at the beautiful lake, with mountains as the backdrop. It pretty much says it all." Harvest Golf Club is an extremely pleasant ramble, with a singular feature rarely seen in modern golf. You're not beholden to the cart girl for sustenance, nor do you need to wait for the snack shack at the turn. Just reach up to the fruit-bearing trees while making your way round and grab a crisp McIntosh or Gala apple fresh off the vine. It's an experience to savor, in more ways than one.

Things to do

If your love of the links and/or the lake precludes all extraneous activities save one, be sure to make that singular excursion a visit to Mission Hill Winery. The owner has funneled much of the profits he's made as the inventor of Mike's Hard Lemonade into this striking enterprise, complete with an authentic bell tower on a high bluff overlooking Lake Okanagan. It's part utilitarian wine factory, part gourmet restaurant. The entire experience, from the immaculate courtyard, one-of-a-kind Chagall artwork, historically significant collection of wine vessels, elegantly formal dining room and of course, the ubiquitous tasting room, is not to be missed.

Dining out

Dozens of worthwhile options exist. A small sampling would include Wild Apple Grill at the Manteo Resort for gourmet continental cuisine, Christopher's Steak & Seafood, The Teahouse for its orchard setting, Yamas Taverna for Greek specialties or The Vintage Room for seafood.

Stay and play

Amongst the best full-service choices are the aforementioned Manteo Resort in town, with wonderful lake views, swimming pool, health club and a variety of different accommodations. Thirty minutes away in the town of Vernon is rustic Predator's Ridge, with a lodge, stand-alone condominiums and brand-new Rituals spa.

Now that you can pronounce it, be sure to tell your friends. Call your travel agent, too. The Okanagan Valley isn't all that hard to say and with direct service from Seattle, isn't that hard to access, either. Hole up in one of the full-service resorts such as Manteo or Predator's Ridge. Play some golf, enjoy the beauty of the lake, indulge in some of the fine local wine, and tour a couple of the 60 area vineyards. It's one of the best vacation spots you've never heard of. Until now.

Joel Zuckerman is based in Savannah, Georgia and Park City, Utah. He is the author of five books, and his golf and travel stories have appeared in more than 100 publications around the world, including Sports Illustrated, Golfweek, Travel+Leisure Golf, Continental and Golf International.

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