When Canadians want to experience arid sunny weather, they head for British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, a 125-long crevasse of shimmering lakes, rolling pasturelands and dramatic vistas. Vineyards drape themselves across gentle hillsides, tucked into imposing mountainsides of forests and sagebrush. Peach, apple and cherry orchards, once the agricultural “fruit basket” of BC, nestle small hillsides with fruit stands at every turn. What was once a formidable “desert” of rattlesnakes, small cacti and unbroken landscapes now serves as Western Canada’s favorite summer getaway.

The southern tip of this oasis is home to Canada’s “pocket desert,” a 24-mile strip of dramatic rock faces and gently sloping hills of sparse forests and sagebrush terrain that frames the town of Osoyoos (Oh-soo-yoos).  It’s also home to the Southern Okanagan’s most unusual travel destination: Nk’mip Resort.

Tucked into the eastern hillsides that overlook Canada’s warmest freshwater lake, the resort was developed by the Osoyoos Indian Band in the 1990s, and in recent years has become a model example of community ingenuity and spirit. The resort, which is designed to meet the vacation interests of just about every traveler, features luxury accommodations, an award-winning winery, an RV park, an Aboriginal cultural center and a golf course with dramatic views. 

But it’s also garnered international attention for its success in educating visitors about Native Canadian history through displays, interactive attractions and opportunities to learn about and appreciate the Osoyoos Indian Band’s history and culture.

The resort was officially launched in 1998 under the leadership of Chief Clarence Louie, who believed that his community’s economic challenges could be overcome with careful planning and investment. Like many of Canada’s Aboriginal communities, the Osoyoos Indian Band had faced poverty and unemployment for decades. It was also hampered by restrictive federal laws that prohibited Aboriginal communities from mortgaging their own land on reserves, so coming up with ways to create jobs and sustain economic development was challenging. Chief Louie’s vision was to change that. And the Band did.

In January, Chief Louie was appointed to the Order of Canada in recognition of his leadership and ingenuity in transforming the Band’s economic future.

Nk’mip Cellars: Canada’s First Aboriginal-Owned Winery

One of Nk’mip’s most celebrated accomplishments is its winery, which is run in partnership with wine producer Vincor Canada. Although the onsite vineyard is small (24 acres), the Band’s success in creating award-winning vintages from its 243-acre vineyard on the outskirts of Osoyoos has helped to give Canada’s first Aboriginal-owned winery international acclaim.

During the summer, visitors can enjoy lunch on Nk’mip Cellars’ terrace patio or sample and purchase wines (tastings include five vintages for $5 CAD; fee is waived if you purchase a bottle).  Visitors can enjoy a glass while taking in Osoyoos’ stunning sunsets from the lounge.

Nk’mip RV Park

The Nk’mip RV Park, set on the shores of Lake Osoyoos, has been around for decades, a hidden secret dating back to when Osoyoos was still a small village and RVing in Arizona-like summer weather was an unheard of novelty in Canada.

“The RV Park has been around since the 1960s,” said Katrina Baptiste, the RV Park and Campground’s general manager. But it was several decades before the owners realized they had a real gem that was worth expanding.

“[The Band] really started to develop [the RV park] back in ‘97,” said Baptiste. One of its additions was a “snowbird-friendly” area for winter RVers there for the colder months, close to clubhouses and a pool. 

“There are some people who have been with us for 12 or 13 years—every summer. It’s become their summer vacation,” and those who return each year often bring their families and friends, building a yearly cadre of regular RVers.

Today, the park features 389 RV and camping sites, including more than 100 sites near the lakeshore. A snack bar is open in the summer, and a pool and numerous walking trails are available year round.

Spirit Ridge

For many, it’s Nk’mip’s Southwestern-style luxury accommodations that make the resort a success. Crowning the top of the hillside and overlooking Nk’mip’s vineyards is Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort & Spa, a tasteful collection of both short-term and long-term accommodations.

Guests have access to a variety of amenities, including a spa, restaurants, riding stables and an onsite golf course.

They also have the option to purchase a residence that offers them the same quiet ambiance and stunning views, yet is set apart from Osoyoos’ busy seasonal attractions.

Nk’mip Desert Cultural Centre

One of the Band’s goals is to protect the last vestiges of the pocket desert and its delicate ecology. One way it is doing that is by educating visitors about the culture and history of the area.

Scientists continue to debate whether Osoyoos is really surrounded by a desert. Some maintain that the area’s 300 millimeters of rain and snow disqualifies that classification. Yet others point to the area’s desert-friendly wildlife and unique terrain as proof.

So researchers now call this arid pocket a shrub-steppe: a name that is less attractive, but more accurate in explaining why Nk’mip’s famous winery, for example, is so successful in carving a niche out of a desert-like environment that isn’t really a desert: it’s dry, hot (90 to 104 F) in the summer and often has the ambiance of Arizona’s or Western Washington’s summer-baked resorts.

That dry climate also has helped to define the customs and way of life of the local Aboriginal community. At the Nk’mip Desert Cultural Centre, visitors can learn about the many ways the region’s first residents learned to survive and thrive in the arid Okanagan. They can also learn about the cultural traditions that were passed down, and the huge societal, cultural and educational challenges that residents faced as Canada developed as a nation. Visitors can also pay a visit to Spirit Lake, a sacred spiritual location that is available for viewing from the distance.

Nk’mip and Osoyoos Attractions

The town of Osoyoos has its own recreational opportunities as well. Lake Osoyoos, Canada’s warmest freshwater lake, is a favorite destination for boaters, swimmers and fishermen alike. Numerous trails snake along the shoreline and in the hillsides, offering plenty of photo opportunities and gardens to enjoy. A local waterside park and amusement park offer added family enjoyment on hot summer days.

Visitors can also learn about the city’s innovative efforts to keep the lake healthy and free of overgrowth. During the fall, a brightly colored “paddlewheel” boat rototills the milfoil growing in the lake. In the summer, another boat harvests it, keeping the water and its unique ecology healthy.

Coffee houses, a gourmand’s selection of restaurants, art galleries, nearby music venues, parks and shops are all available to travelers during the summer and fall, rounding out opportunities to experience Canada’s most unique pocket desert oasis.

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