5 min

Kelowna, BC

Wineries and watersports in Britsh Columbia's thawing Bible Belt

Picturesque Kelowna boasts downtown beaches. Credit: Tourism Kelowna

Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver’s Prides may argue over who had the biggest (crowd), longest (parade) and hardest (to get into parties), but nestled in the heart of BC’s Bible Belt, Kelowna’s Pride was sealed with a kiss.

Fifteen years ago, Kelowna Mayor Walter Gray refused to sign a Pride proclamation, landing him on the losing side of a BC Human Rights Tribunal decision. Offered the option to sign the gay proclamation along with all other requests, or to grant no requests at all, Gray opted to stop making proclamations altogether to avoid making any gay ones.

Fast forward to Aug 18, 2012: flanked by representatives from all levels of government, and before an audience of picnicking families and friends, the co-chair of the Okanagan Rainbow Coalition settled the 15-year dispute with a peck on the cheek. Gray, mayor again after an eight-year hiatus, then proclaimed Pride Week 2012 — a proclamation similar to the one he refused to sign in 1997.

How times change.

When I arrived in Kelowna on the eve of Pride, I found a city eager to show itself as more progressive, more diverse and more inclusive.

Plus, it also has great beaches.

Though its population barely crests 117,000, Kelowna boasts no fewer than 22 beachfront parks.

My favourite in-town plage, just a Frisbee’s toss from city hall and the downtown core, was the City Park and Hot Sands Beach (1600 Abbott St). If you’re a water sports enthusiast, the 110-mile-long Okanagan Lake offers canoeing, windsurfing, tubing and house-boating. You can even rent jet skis. If you’re one of those people.

And I have it on good authority (based on the thoroughness of my source’s tan and the scarcity of tan-lines) that it was warm enough this past year to start sunbathing in April.

Forgot your bathing suit? Not to worry. Just a short walk into town is skivvies emporium Behind the Fly (543 Bernard Ave). Strappingly handsome owner Ryan Hunter moved to Kelowna with his girlfriend in 2005 to start his own business. As an electrician. Thankfully, he changed career paths.

Forgot your bathing suit on purpose? That’s fine, too. Clothing-optional Three Mile Beach is an hour’s journey southwest around the lake, through Penticton and up the other side. At the bottom of Three Mile Road, head for the beach on your right.

But don’t get starkers until after the Big Willow Tree (you really can’t miss it). That’s where it gets naked. And the further north you venture, the gayer (and rockier) it gets. Up the slope overlooking the beach, you’ll find enticing and cruisy trails meandering through the tall grass and silvery Russian olive trees.

It’s a day trip but worth it. I spent an eternity in Penticton one spring, contracted to a newborn (and thankfully short-lived) theatre company to play Schroeder in what has become known as The Charlie Brown of Which We Do Not Speak. Had it not been for Three Mile Beach and the delights of a local grape crusher and a couple of itinerant French Canadian fruit pickers, the theatre company might not have been the only thing short-lived that spring.

Also saving my sanity that infamous summer was the Okanagan’s bounty of wineries. And now is the perfect time to get thee to a winery! The Fall Wine Festival, centred in Kelowna, runs from Sept 28 to Oct 7. Within a 10-kilometre radius of downtown, there are five wine trails encompassing 23 vineyards. The 10-day festival boasts 165 events, almost all with the word “tasting” in the title.

Summerhill Pyramid Wineries (4870 Chute Lake Rd) is perhaps the most unique winery in the world. For 20 years, its wines, and especially its sparkling wines (and what self-respecting gay boy doesn’t appreciate good bubbles?), have been aged beneath the sacred geometry of a pyramid of perfect Egyptian proportions. Fanciful as this may sound, Summerhill can boast a 20-year history of international gold medals.

Personally, I give them a gold medal for their Sunset Organic Bistro, offering a mouth-watering organic menu and a jaw-dropping view of the valley. Time your dessert (a merlot ice-wine float) to coincide with the sunset, and you’ll think you’ve died and gone wherever Egyptians go when they die.

The best way to enjoy a weekend of wine tasting is with a fistful of girlfriends and a rented car, allowing for a rotating designated driver. Of course, if you’re smart like me and never learned to drive, you are by default the de facto sot.   

You’ll need a place to stay (and sleep off the wine tasting), and Kelowna has a handful of queer-run/friendly B&Bs. Check for a full list, but I can recommend Clarance House (839 Clarance Ave). Perched on the side of Kuipers’ Peak at the south end of town, it offers beds so comfortable the only thing that will get you up in the morning is the delicious breakfast prepared by your host, Wilber Turner (co-chair of the Okanagan Rainbow Coalition and planter of the famous mayoral peck).

Kelowna is also home to the Farmers’ and Crafters’ Market, BC’s largest, Wednesdays and Saturdays from mid-April to the end of October at the corner of Springfield Road and Dilworth Drive. Market manager Bob Callioux moved to Kelowna from Edmonton with his boyfriend 20 years ago. In faultless city-mouse fashion, I asked, “Why Kelowna?”  Callioux swept the burning blue sky with his sun-kissed arms and all but roared, “Look at it!”

Seek out some of the market’s queer vendors, including artist Marc Hourde and his alluring cowboy portraits. And don’t miss the engaging James Mullan, the Allergic Chef. Mullan’s products are gluten-, nut- and soy-free. And his pumpkin-seed brittle is to die for.

If you’re looking for more high-brow adventures, head for the centrally located Culture District. Numerous galleries are tucked into this three-block area, including the Kelowna Art Gallery (1315 Water St), which houses nearly 700 works by contemporary Canadian artists.

For something a little edgier, check out the Alternator Gallery, inside the Rotary Centre for the Arts (421 Cawston Ave). Its queer exhibit, Seldom Seen, included Kevin Jesuino’s XY* Series, a grouping of six stylized cum-shots (collected from volunteers) enlarged to gargantuan magnitude to investigate “queerality and the male identity, regardless of orientation.” I loved it. But I have a soft spot for seminal work. 

Around the corner, you’ll find the Kelowna Actors Studio, housed in a 104-year-old apple-crating factory. Driven by the seemingly indefatigable partnership of Randy Leslie and Nathan Flavel, KAS is celebrating its 10th season with an ambitious lineup, including 9 to 5: The Musical, and La Cage aux Folles. I recently had the great good fortune to play Albin, the leading lady in La Cage, and the role Leslie will be tackling in KAS’s upcoming production. Discovering this commonality, we instantly became blood sisters. Check for the full season.

While there are no strictly gay bars in Kelowna, The Centre (1476 Water St) hosts Saturday Socials. Doors open at 9pm, the bar starts pouring at 10pm, and the club hits spin from 11pm to 2am. Local queer-friendly clubs include Level, Habitat and Hannah’s.

Wherever you go to dance the night away, you can satisfy the inevitable late-night snack attack at DunnEnzies, colloquially referred to as Lesbian Pizza in honour of convivial owners Deb Dunnigan and Karen MacKenzie (1559 Ellis St).

Finally, if you’re looking for a unique souvenir of your trip (apart from the jeroboam of your favourite new bubbly), visit the affable yet discriminating Chantal Couture, proprietress of Funktional (447 Bernard Ave, More than a home décor shop, Couture curates a collection of hand-crafted works by local artists, including the whimsically macabre paintings of Shauna Oddleifson, the vintage fibre-art jewellery of Jodi Reed, and the laser-cut wood trinkets of Ugly Bunny.