Alaskan RED

A lifelong Alaskan learning about the world one backroad at a time


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A SilverCar Newbie Experience

I read a lot of blogs—everything from home décor to tech info—and travel blogs are near the top of my list due in large part to the amount of traveling we do.  An upcoming trip to the Seattle area was proving to be somewhat expensive given that it was summer time and coincided with the recent solar eclipse.  Finding a reasonably priced rental car seemed to be a pipe dream so when I read a blog about the new SilverCar location in Seattle, I was intrigued.

I knew absolutely nothing about SilverCar because they are only in larger US cities and we hadn’t had occasion to fly into any of those recently.  Reading the article and visiting their website turned up these facts:

  • They rent only silver Audi A4s – hence the name.
  • Reservations may be done online or in their app but for pickup you’ll need the app on your smartphone.
  • The cars are equipped with just about everything you need—navigation, Bluetooth, satellite radio, and wi-fi.
  • The price includes all the extras mentioned above as well as an additional driver.
  • If you return the car without filling up, they will charge you the actual receipt price for gas, plus a $5 fee.
  • If you encounter toll roads in your driving, you’ll be charged just those tolls, without another fee for processing.
  • They are usually off site but will pick you up and drop you back to the airport
  • They frequently have discount codes or you can find a referral code from someone who has rented from them in the past.

I already had a car rental set up and I’d used AutoSlash.com to find a decent deal (AutoSlash will continually check the rental car prices for your trip and notify you when it finds something less expensive).  For $329, we had a Nissan Sentra or similar rented for the five days we were going to be in the city.  I had joined the loyalty club so this included an additional driver.

To try SilverCar, I downloaded the app and set up an account then to test it, I logged in on their website and made my reservation.  The price was $369 after using the 30% discount code I’d found searching online. It was an easy choice to pay a little more for all the included options.

On the day of flight, I checked their website for how to pick up the car in Seattle but as it turned out, I didn’t need to.  I received a text from SilverCar telling me they were expecting me and that we would exit baggage claim to hop on the shuttle to the rental car facility.  At that point, I was to text that we were ready for pick up.  We did as instructed and on the shuttle, I opened the app and clicked on “Pick Me Up”.  This generated a text that said I was ready to be picked up.  Note – I missed that I had to click send on that text, likely because husband was talking to me and it was all new.  But once I got it sent, the reply I got was to proceed to the “Off Site Pickup” area at the rental car facility.  The signage for that area is exceedingly poor—SeaTac needs to do a better job with that—but we found it at the end of the facility where cars can pull in.  On this nice sunny day, it was lovely but on a rainy, windy day, you’ll be grateful for the limited shelter provided.

An Audi A4 pulled up after we’d been waiting about five minutes, but I’ll take the blame since I missed pushing send on the text message.  The driver put our luggage in the car (the trunk easily fit our two 21-inch cases, daypack and tote with room to spare) and asked if we’d mind picking up a third passenger who was also waiting which we of course agreed to.  On the short drive to their lot, he went through some of the car’s features including the navigation and phone menu.  There was a hang tag that showed how to shift the car – unlike the shifter in my truck, it’s a little lever that you push forward for reverse or pull back for drive.

At the facility, another agent asked if he had checked our driver’s licenses and when we said he hadn’t, she scanned them.  I’m not sure if this is because we were first time renters or if this happens every time but it only took a moment.  She told me to open the app and scan the car’s tag, located on the driver’s side windshield.  It would scan but it kept saying that the location services on my phone weren’t active even after turning them off and back on and rescanning but while I was trying that, she was processing it manually so we were ready to drive off in less than five minutes.  She told me to try uninstalling and reinstalling the app when we had a moment as she’d heard that fixed the problem.

I took a moment to check out the car – headlights, wipers, cruise – that stuff you need to know before you set off.  The navigation, phone, radio, backup camera and settings are all handled in a large, bright screen mounted in the center of the dash.  It sticks up above the dash a bit but doesn’t interfere with sight lines while driving.  The one thing we couldn’t figure out was how to turn the radio down or off – it’s a small button on the passenger side of the console – but we asked and then we were off!

I’ve never driven an Audi before but it was quite comfortable – or as comfortable as a smaller car can be for someone used to driving full size trucks.  It has enough pep to easily merge onto the freeway and the road noise was minimal.  The sunroof was a great feature as we’ve had a very cold, wet summer in Alaska this year and it was sunny and warm in Seattle.  As is normal on I-5, we encountered some slowdowns but fortunately we didn’t have any complete standstills until we were off on the side streets hitting traffic lights.  I say fortunately, because the Audi has an automatic feature that turns the engine off when its idling and turns it back on when you release the brake.  I HATED that feature and worked through all the different settings to figure out how to turn it off.  More on that later.

When we reached our destination, I couldn’t figure out how to put it in park. No, really – the shifter has Reverse and Drive and pops back to the middle position after you’ve engaged either one, but I couldn’t find Park.  When I turned the car off, it told me that I needed to put it in Park by stepping on the brake and using the Park button.  There is a lever type button flat on the console with a P on it.  Apparently, that is the Parking brake.  Looking closer, I saw the P button on the front side of the shifter, hit that and we were good to go.  The doors automatically unlock when you put it in Park so you know you’ve done it correctly.  (Not sure how I feel about that feature; my truck unlocks the door only when I pull on the handle and the rest remain locked which seems more secure.)  I can’t tell you how many times I pushed the shifter forward to put the car in Park just as I do in my truck before I’d remember to hit that Park button.

As our time in Seattle progressed, there were things I really appreciated about the car.  The peppy engine was great, it’s small enough to park easily, and it got great gas mileage.  But during a half hour stop and go session in Seattle’s notorious traffic one day, I grew to hate the auto shutdown during idle more and more.  I found a button near the bottom of the dash where you can turn that feature off but every time you turn the car off, it resets to the default of auto shutdown. The navigation is solely voice controlled and I had a heck of a time getting it to recognize the address but that may be just a learning curve on how it likes to hear things.  On the upside, the navigation appears both on the screen and as a heads-up display in the center of the dash in front of the driver.  Hubby could see the navigation to be helpful but I could also see it easily, albeit in a smaller form.   I missed the full set of backup cameras my truck has to show exactly where each corner of the car is in relation to the things around it – especially one night when the only spot left in the parking garage was pretty skinny even for an Audi. And a small thing – there is a trunk button on the key fob but it just unlocks the trunk rather than popping open the lid which is so much handier when you have a handful of shopping or luggage.

When it came time to head back to the SilverCar base, we knew where we were going but they thoughtfully program the address into the Favorites so you can easily find the address.  And they texted me that morning with my expected return time and a note to call their concierge if I needed more time.  Once at the facility, they scanned in the car and we boarded a shuttle bus that took us right to the airport, skipping the rental car facility altogether. It could not have been smoother.  I hope that in the future, they may use this option for pickup as well.  I would rather be picked up in a shuttle and taken straight to their lot than have to shuttle to the rental car facility for pick up.

They emailed me a receipt that matched my reservation and included the gas charge.  We’d purposefully left the tank unfilled to see how well that worked.  It showed the ten gallons they’d pumped at $3.49 per gallon, for a total of $34.90 plus a $5 fee.  We noted the gas prices were less expensive away from the airport so if you are looking to save a few bucks, fill it up yourself.  But if you are in a hurry or don’t want to mess with finding a gas station, this is a great convenience option.

And I guess that sums up my SilverCar experience—they make it as convenient as possible for you to rent a car and include all the options so you don’t get nickel and dimed during your rental.  You know exactly what car you’re getting and it’s a first class drive.  Would I rent from them again?  Absolutely!

If you want to try SilverCar, I’d encourage you to search online for “SilverCar discount code”.  You can also use my referral code, WDNZFLIB, to save $25.  Full disclosure – I’ll save the same on my next rental if you use the code but honestly, I’d rent from them anyway.

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Four Nights In Tofino

When I first read a magazine piece on Tofino, I knew I had to go there. Big beaches to walk, good food, a casual atmosphere, fishing, and surfing if you have more balance and coordination than I do.  Occasionally, Tofino would rise to the top of my list after seeing another article or a mention from a friend.

Then two years ago, we had a housesit on Vancouver Island and a stretch of good weather. I looked up the distance from the house in Parksville and decided that if we got an early start, we could go out and back in one day; a sort of recon mission for a future trip. So we loaded up our petsit charge, a lovely springer spaniel, put on our beach walking shoes, grabbed drinks and snacks and headed Vancouver Island Housesit January2015 (316).jpgout.

What followed was a five hour round trip on some narrow, twisty roads through beautiful forest, a five mile walk on a beach that seemed to go on forever, and a great lunch overlooking the town and water.

As I drove us back, hubby and pup both sound asleep, I vowed to come back when we could spend more time.

Fast forward to this January and the opportunity to return to Vancouver Island to care for the springer wonderdog came around. This time, we planned for an extra bit of time at the end of the sit to make a run to Tofino. I had read much about the Wickaninnish Inn over the years and had thought to spoil ourselves with a couple nights there but found it closes in January for annual cleaning and maintenance. There are many other options for lodging in Tofino, from budget to luxury, but I couldn’t pass up a Rewards member deal at the Best Western Tin Wis Resort so I booked two nights.

The drive out to Tofino runs through Port Alberni and along Sproat Lake, then becomes narrower as it cuts through the rainforest before dumping you out at the coast. It is a 2.5 hour drive on a good day and our day just that, sunny and temperate. As we went, I marked a few places I wanted to pull over for photos on our way back. Once at the coast, a left turn will take you into Ucluelet and a right turn will take you to Tofino, taking you through the Pacific Rim park and passing many beaches along the way.

We found the Tin Wis, a native phrase for “calm waters”, without too much trouble. It sits right on Mackenzie Beach and is more of a motel style in that the “hallways” are open to the elements facing the parking.  This also means every room faces the beach. We snagged a room on the second floor, which had us carrying our suitcases up two flights of stairs as there is no elevator, but also gave us an elevated view of the beach from our balcony.

After settling in, we drove into Tofino for lunch. It’s a short 2-3 mile drive. A recommendation from a bartender in Vancouver sent us to the Wolf and the Fog. They have a smallish bar area downstairs for lunch and a larger restaurant upstairs for dinner. Hubby ordered the burger and a brew on tap.  I had a shrimp po-boy with big prawns lightly battered and stuffed in a roll with amazing Asian-inspired slaw.

I washed it down with one of their specialty cocktails, a Cedar Sour made with cedar-infused rye.  It was quite unique with a definite woody flavor that left a bit of a tannic dryness in my mouth.

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After lunch, we strolled through town, poking into the shops carrying trinkets, clothes suited to the area, and of course, surfing equipment.

Needing more steps to walk off the lunch, we headed back to the hotel, changed into our beach shoes, and walked out on Mackenzie Beach. It’s a nice curved. sandy beach, small by Tofino standards but big anywhere else.

We walked from end to end, exploring the tide pools in the rocks at either end.

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Back in the hotel, we decided that dinner wasn’t in the cards after our big lunch so we spent the evening enjoying the sunset and a glass of wine on our balcony.

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The next morning, we decided breakfast would be a good idea before we set out for the day. The restaurant at the hotel is nicely appointed and it has a sunroom/patio area that looked to be quite nice for summertime use. The food was basic but done well and the service was decent. Then it was off to the beach – but which one? We chose Long Beach where we had walked two years before. And it is long – stretching off into the distance in either direction from the parking area. We walked and walked and finally decided we should turn back while we still had the energy for the return trip.

Back at the hotel, we cleaned up and decided to head to The Schooner for dinner. We 20150128_121614.jpghad been here for lunch on our first trip and it also came recommended by the Vancouver bartender. It’s upstairs and has a lovely view of the Tofino and Clayoquot Sound. We started with a sampler of oysters – classic Rockafeller, Robatta with miso, ginger and lime, and my favorite, Nami Nori, which are fried and finished with honey wasabi mayo and tobiko. Then we shared Halibut Bawden Bay stuffed with shrimp, crab and brie. Good thing we split the meal!

The next morning, we headed into Ucluelet, about 35 miles from Tofino. Much of it is built on black rock so there aren’t beaches to walk but I was more interested in the Amphritite lighthouse and its section of the Wild Pacific Trail. It did not disappoint. The lighthouse is a short downhill walk from the parking area and the trail perches on the rocks above beautiful blue green ocean.

The walk is pretty flat with just a little up and down, mostly dirt, and has several places to stop for a break or a picture.  We could have walked much more on the Wild Pacific Trail but we had some other things to explore.

      

Back in Uke, as Ucluelet is known, we stopped by Pina, a print shop that specializes in Pacific Northwest inspired designs. We had stopped in their boutique in Tofino and admired the designs but when the gal there said we could have them custom made at the Uke store for the same price, we knew we must stop there. Soon we were leaving with our first souvenirs – two hooded sweatshirts (we wear a lot of hoodies in Alaska) with designs on the front and sleeves that we’d chosen from books of many. Not only did we have a memento of our trip but these became our new “dress hoodies”, a concept from Alaska where you have a hoodie or two that are worthy of a casual evening out.

We had to check out Wickaninnish Beach on our way back.   It’s a bit of a drive in from the highway which ends in several parking areas.  A short walk through the trees brings you to a relatively steep beach popular with surfers.

Even in January, they are donning wetsuits in the parking lot.  We were fortunate to catch several of them showing off their skills.  Wickanninish Beach Surfers (29)

We also saw a pair of eagles on the sand and upon further investigation, found they were making a meal of a dead seal that had washed up.

Dead critters aside, this is a big beach with plenty of room to walk.  There is also Kwistis Visitor Centre at the south end of the beach but we spent too long on the beach and missed it.  Next time!

We arrived home just in time for sunset on Mackenzie Beach – best observed with a glass of wine in hand as we had discovered on our first night here.

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Are you surprised that we headed out to the beach again the next day?  This time we headed to Incinerator Rock at the north end of Long Beach. We walked north and the beach curved around a point and we were able to check out the tidepools around a little “island” on the way.  It was definitely the quieter end of the beach.

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Back at the parking area, we watched others climb up Incinerator Rock for a picture.  Then we zipped back towards town so we could get lunch at the last of our recommended spots.  Tacofino has their original taco truck (they are also in Vancouver and Victoria) at back of a complex that includes Chocolate Tofino and Wildside Grill.  Hubby got a huge basket of ling cod and chips from Wildside and I got fish tacos  and a bowl of tortilla soup for us to share from Tacofino – both excellent choices that we enjoyed at the outdoor tables next to Tacofino.  Of course before we left, we had to grab some chocolates at Chocolate Tofino and promise ourselves we’d make it back for their gelato.  (Sadly, we never did as they close quite early so weren’t open when the dessert craving hit)

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For our final night’s dinner, we headed to Long Beach Lodge.  This resort consists of individual cabins lining the road to the lodge which sits above a small but popular surfing beach.  The lodge is beautiful – very open, northwest decor, with a nice view.  The bartender did a great job at making gin fizzes (a rare find these days) and then we shared our way through the menu.  We started with Venison Carpaccio – smoked venison & foraged salad with cherries & local Tofino coffee oil.  Then we shared a 22-day aged rib eye that was cooked to perfection and finished with a giant French macaron for dessert. It was the perfect ending to a fabulous trip.

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As you can tell, we had extended our stay by a couple of days since we were having so much beach and foodie fun but we decided would leave Friday and drive into Victoria for the weekend.  We awoke to muffled surf sounds and looking out the window, saw that a couple inches of snow had fallen.

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It was coming down hard but we had reservations in town and we are, after all, Alaskans with a 4WD truck so we packed up and checked out.  By this time, there were 5-6 inches and still coming down.  The desk clerk said she’d seen the RCMP Mountie rig in the ditch that morning and urged me to take coffee and snacks for the long drive.  And it was long – 5.5 hours long – with the first 3.5 hours at 25-35 miles an hour as we wended our way along that narrow road with 4-12 inches of wet snow packing into ice.  Needless to say, those spots I marked for pictures were passed by.  It was a relief to turn our keys over to the valet at the Magnolia Hotel with instructions to park the truck for three days.

As we settled in, the memory of the long drive fading in the glow of the fireplace, we looked back at our little runaway to the outer coast.  Tofino and Ucluelet are small places but their backyard is huge and we have enough things left undone that I can imagine a return trip is likely in the cards!

 


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The Day We Saw the Cherries

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating – as an Alaska girl, nothing impresses me more than seeing where food, produce specifically, comes from. In Juneau, with the exception of fresh seafood, most of our food is barged or flown in. Lately, there is more interest in vegetable gardening to supplement the veggies we can buy at the store, at least during our short growing season.

At our house, we divided our space into the front garden of flowers and shrubs and the back which houses our teeny greenhouse of tomatoes, raised beds of greens and root veggies, an herb garden, and tubs of potatoes. This year, we were thrilled with the apples ripening on our very small tree in the backyard. Hubby was concerned the bears might discover them but so far, they’ve not found their way.
All this to say that when we travel, I love finding local produce and products but true happiness is being able to wander through an orchard when the fruit is ripening. We are fortunate to have family friends with orchards in Omak, Washington, who let us stop by on our travels and take the time to explain the process of getting from tree to table. This year, we decided to housesit in the summer – a rare event for us as we prefer to be home fishing and tending our own gardens –so we made a point to include a visit our friends during cherry season. omak-cherry-orchards-8

Cherries are a precious commodity in Juneau. They are one of the more expensive fruits we buy and have a very limited season. It’s a happy day when we see our favorite, Rainier cherries, at the store. To see them growing on trees, to be able to pick and eat them right there was truly amazing.omak-cherry-orchards-48

Walking among the cherry trees was just as wonderful as walking through the apple and pear orchards – even if it was 95 degrees which is way too hot for a Juneau girl.  I love seeing the ladders that seem to beckon you to climb up and pick.

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Some things I learned about cherries:

  • There are so many different kinds of cherries that never make it to our stores or even to the roadside markets – I love them all!
  • They use helicopters to dry the cherries after a rain. It’s a very dangerous job as the helicopter fly very low. You can imagine how very expensive it is for the orchard owner and of course, that cost is directly translated to the price of cherries in the market.
  • Cherries are placed into bins similar to those used for apples but much smaller and the bins are hauled by tractors, just like the apples are.

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  • If you’re lucky, you have a guy with one of these trucks that backs right over the row of stacked cherry bins and picks them up all at once and off they go.

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  • The bruises on unpicked cherries can be caused by wind causing the fruit to bump into other. I know people who have ready access to cherries are put off by this but frankly, lifelong Alaskans are less picky about their produce. I had no problem picking that bruised fruit and popping it straight in my mouth.
  • A rain before harvest can cause the cherries to split at the stem; another blemish that makes them less marketable.
  • Bruised or blemished fruit could be made into juice, etc. but the cost of picking is so much more than the price they sell for so they are frequently left on the trees.

Neglected fruit makes me sad! So we quickly accepted the invitation and took our little bag to the orchards and rescued a few pounds for our trip up the AlCan Highway home.

Nothing beats a hot summer day spitting cherry pits out the window!  Now how am I going to get a cherry tree into the backyard?


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Klondike Highway – A Surprise at the Robinson Flag Stop

On our last day of our summer roadtrip, we were headed from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, to Skagway, Alaska on the Klondike Highway.  It’s one of my favorite drives and one I’ve made many times.  There is so much wonderful scenery and historic significance from the Gold Rush.  It still feels almost novel to me because I remember when this highway didn’t exist. There was so much talk around building the road and what a treacherous mountain pass it would be but the economics of transporting ore by road made it feasible.

Before the road was built, there was a railroad that traveled the entire distance – the White Pass Yukon Route, a narrow gauge railroad.  It now runs only as far as Lake Bennett for tourists and and to pick up hikers following the Gold Rush route on the Chilkoot Trail.  Mom and I took the train the year before I graduated from high school and as it happened, the year before the road was built. But the story of the train is for another day.

Inevitably on our roadtrips, we make our first stop not long after we’ve gotten underway – a symptom of drinking lots of water and coffee while we are packing up the truck to head out!  On this day, our morning rest stop was at the site of the Robinson Flag Station, a whistle stop on the original railroad line.  It closed in 1983 after the train quit running the full distance into Whitehorse.   It was a nice day and I grabbed my camera to walk the short easy trail.

I saw this little guy not steps from our truck.  It’s a gray jay but we just call them camp robbers, a name well deserved as they are always on the lookout for food and will steal anything they can find in your camp.  All About Birds by Cornell University calls them “deceptively cute”.

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There are some great signs about the history of the area and I walked slowly along reading each of them.  There is also a lot of discarded stuff,  various remnants of the flag station here and there, including this old stove about halfway down the trail.

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I emerged from the brush next to the railroad tracks and was rewarded with this view of the original building.

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I thought I might be able to get a good picture from the railroad tracks and once up there, I turned west but the view was mostly of an overgrown rail line.  Still hopeful for a good picture, I turned around to look down the tracks towards the east and there it was:

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I was surprised to see him and from this look on his face, apparently he was surprised to see me too.  How long had he been watching me?  Fortunately, the bear wasn’t too close and he wasn’t moving at all – just standing there staring at me.  I zoomed in and snapped a couple more pictures before backing off the tracks and heading down the trail towards the truck.

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I hollered for hubby to let him know there was a bear in the area and at first he thought I meant a black bear which we see all the time both at home and on the highway, in fact we saw a baker’s dozen alongside the highway in just two hours a couple nights before.

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When I told him it was a brown bear,  we had to walk back to the tracks so he could see it for himself.  Surprisingly, it was standing in the very same place and looked back at us again before ambling off into the brush.

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We’d been talking just the day before about all the wildlife we’ve seen on our recent Alcan Highway drives and realized one thing we had yet to see was a brownie.  They are pretty rare in Juneau proper so we only see them when we are outside of town or traveling.

Happy we’d seen some wildlife, we returned to the truck and got back on the road.  Not too far along, we came across these two.

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Not as exciting as a brownie, but a couple of nice deer who thoughtfully posed for my pictures.  What a great end to another fabulous drive on the Alaska Canada Highway!


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THE SERENDIPITY OF OKANAGAN WINE TASTING

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We spent a couple days in Banff doing all the touristy stuff – visiting Bow Falls, taking pictures of the Fairmont Chateau, walking in the pine forest, and pretending we were twelve years old racing through the streets of downtown on bicycles on loan from the hotel. But it felt like time to move on so we drove back to Lake Louise, across through Revelstoke and on Vernon where we rested up for the wine country to come.  We were fortified by a visit to the Okanagan Distillery where Peter shared with us the workings of the copper still and some very fine spirits and liqueurs. Do not miss this place if you get to Vernon or Kelowna where they have a second location.
The next day we began wine tasting in earnest. Anyone who knows me knows I like wine so the hundreds of wineries stretching from Vernon to the border seemed like heaven. We visited several on the drive from Vernon to Penticton where we decided to spend the night so we could venture up onto the Naramata Bench before winding down to Osoyoos for a last bit before we crossed back into the U.S.
When touring wine country where the options are vast, it is often difficult to choose where to stop. Recommendations from friends or locals help and a stop by the local visitor center can net a map and a few ideas. I’ve asked hotel clerks and restaurant waitstaff for ideas and I’ve had strangers offer up a suggestion. But sometimes the best thing is to drive through an area, stopping where the whim strikes – a neat logo, a funny name, or a beautiful property. But our favorite experience tasting in the Naramata Bench area of the Okanagan, northeast of Penticton can only be described as Serendipitous.
While we had recommendations, we attempted some other wineries that looked inviting only to find they were not open. Then we spied the sign…Serendipity…and I knew we had to stop. It looked small, my favorite kind of tasting room, and the name was perfect. When we hopped out of the truck, a woman walked out of the vines – we’d obviously disturbed her at work and apologized but she brushed it off saying that it was her job to both work the vines and to serve tastings.
Now what most people don’t know about me is that the part I like most about wine tasting is finding a small operation and learning the story. And the story of Serendipity was no exception and the owner was happy to indulge me.
She had been a lawyer in eastern Canada but has hesitations about returning to work after a bad car accident. She loves food and cooking but was physically unable to be a chef. On vacation in Kelowna, she saw an apple and pear orchard for sale, made an offer on it while at the airport for her return flight and by the time she reached home, she was the new owner. She went to farm school, ripped up the fruit trees, planted grapevines and started making wine, the kind of wine that goes well with food. If she couldn’t be a chef, she could provide the wine that went with the meal. Every bottle had a picture and a quotation that meant something to her. A picture of Sir Isaac Newton’s apple and gravity moment, the inclusion of Alice and her Wonderland companions, a wine named Devils Advocate, and intriguing Red-Handed, bearing the quote “Don’t regret the things you do, regret getting caught.”
She named the winery Serendipity because that is how she came to trade her life as a married lawyer for that of a strong woman running her own business, owning a winery, sharing that experience with her children.And indeed it was serendipity that brought us to her door and had us packing several bottles of her wine in our truck and that has kept this story in my head.