This Small City Is One of Canada’s Best-Kept Secrets
AFAR Magazine, July 7, 2022
With outdoor adventure and wine tours galore, Kelowna is also one of the country’s most accessible cities.
Cycling past burbling Mission Creek, my teenage son maneuvers his purple trike on the wide, flat trail. We stop to look for wood ducks in the water, then pedal forward along the cottonwood-lined greenway. Bennett has autism, and he finds hills (and two wheels) a challenge.
In the five years our family has been living in Kelowna, a small city in British Columbia’s mountainous heart, we’ve noticed more opportunities for our son to get active outdoors in spite of his cognitive disability and delayed motor skills. In winter he’s skied downhill with adaptive ski programs that offer lessons to kids and adults with visual and hearing impairments, physical disabilities, and neurological disorders such as ADHD and autism. Last summer he also paddled with an adaptive adventure company in a tandem kayak, and I didn’t worry about them tipping over since the watercraft was kitted out with a pontoon outrigger. The instructor gave him paddling pointers while they floated past vineyards and orchards on scenic Okanagan Lake.
Many of these activities would previously have been out of reach for kids like Bennett or for those in a wheelchair. Recently, though, there’s been a focus on improving accessibility in hotels, at parks, and during activities like winetasting, to welcome multi-gen families, seniors, and those with disabilities.
“We want to create a tourism environment that’s inclusive of all people regardless of ability, age, culture, gender,” says Sonja Gaudet, regional access and inclusion liaison with the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association. “Everyone should have full access to different experiences.”
Gaudet, a wheelchair user, consults with businesses and suggests ways they can improve within their built environment and also in the experiences they provide. (Site visits and accessibility consultations are offered to businesses that are part of the region’s “Biosphere Commitment Program—Sustainable and Responsible Tourism.”) Wineries might move tastings from a high bar to a low table, for example, while hotels lower the height of their beds. It’s part of a larger trend across Canada; the country has a goal of becoming barrier free by 2040. My city of 222,000, located a four-hour drive east of Vancouver, is well on its way.
Here’s how to make the most of an accessible holiday in Kelowna.
Best things to do in Kelowna
With more than 40 wineries in town, sipping everything from auxerrois to zinfandel—with a view of sparkling Okanagan Lake—is a must. Many wineries have shifted to tableside tastings, a trend adopted during the pandemic to maintain distance between groups—a practice that happens to be inclusive.
“Generally speaking, wineries here are accessible in that they are often step-free,” says Kelowna resident Spring Hawes, a quadriplegic who uses a power wheelchair. “Most have accessible washrooms and many have a lowered counter area for tastings. They are usually quite spacious as well.”
Cedar Creek Winery installed a bar along the entrance doorway that can be pushed by a wheelchair to open it. At Gray Monk Estate Winery, seated tastings can be paired with charcuterie, and Sandhill Wines downtown offers a variety of table heights depending on accessibility needs. There are also several wine tour companies, including Cheers! Okanagan Tours, West Kelowna Wine Tours, and Uncorked Okanagan Wine Tours, that have vans with lifts and space for wheelchairs on board.
“We go that extra mile,” says Elizabeth Sutcliffe, a tour guide with Uncorked Okanagan Wine Tours. “Wineries are willing to do anything for guests regardless of their ability.”
Bike rentals and multi-use trails
Instead of lugging a heavy adapted bike on holiday, rent one from Kelowna Bike Rentals. Located downtown, the company lends out trikes, hand cycles, and upright and recumbent tandem bikes. This makes it easy for mobility-challenged tourists to get cycling the Waterfront Boardwalk or the city’s 186 miles of designated bike lanes.
The new Okanagan Rail Trail begins downtown and winds north 32 miles past three blue lakes and numerous sandy beaches all the way to the city of Vernon. The path, a former railway line, is paved in town, with flat-packed gravel the rest of the way. There are accessible washrooms along the route, plus interpretive signs that tell the region’s Indigenous history.
Myra Canyon, Kelowna’s flagship trail, follows another decommissioned rail line across 18 wooden train trestles and through two tunnels as it hugs steep canyon walls high above town. Riders can pedal as far as they like—it’s seven miles each way—and there are plenty of benches to stop and admire the view of rolling mountains across the lake.
Andrea Weeks and her wife, Cara Gerow, joined an adapted hike at the Johns Family Nature Conservancy with CRIS Adaptive Adventures, a company that offers hiking and cycling trips for people with disabilities. With Gerow in a TrailRider (a single-wheeled all-terrain chair) supported by two guides, they hiked past rock climbers ascending cliff walls and looked for wildlife in the pine-dotted hills.
“I would never have been able to see those sights if it wasn’t for the cool contraption they had me on,” says Gerow, a wheelchair user who has also kayaked with the company. “Being able to do all of those sports is huge.”
Note: The trestles all have railings, but the gravel pathway does not have a guardrail or Braille signage. However, CRIS Adaptive Adventures accommodates visually impaired guests on tandem bikes or kayaks where a guide will ride or paddle with them.
Lake adventures and accessible beaches
CRIS Adaptive also organizes guided kayaking and paddleboarding excursions for travelers. In addition to using pontoon outriggers for extra stability, some of the kayaks have extended cockpits so the seat is easier to enter and exit, and staff can add back and neck support if needed.
For stand-up paddleboarding, the company can adapt the board so one person can paddle while seated in a chair or with back support. CRIS also has oversized boards that can accommodate two people, with one sitting in a secure chair.
Rotary Beach Park and Gyro Beach Park are accessible beaches in town with pathways to the lake so wheelchairs won’t get stuck in the sand. Okanagan Beach Rentals offers a beach wheelchair at each location that can navigate sand and go into the water.
Where to eat, drink, and stay in Kelowna
The new Hyatt Place Kelowna gets top marks from Gerow, who praises the guest rooms’ bed height, wheel-under bathroom counters, and roll-in showers. The hotel has a lift into its pool, too.
Many of the city’s eclectic restaurants have maintained more distance between tables, another pandemic holdover appreciated by wheelchair users, says Gaudet. Try BNA Brewing, a craft brewery that serves up Asian fusion street food. For mushrooms on toast or wood-fired pizza, head to the Curious.
If you’re searching for more things to do in Kelowna, People in Motion has compiled a comprehensive accessibility guide, and Tourism Kelowna suggests options for vehicle and wheelchair rentals, transportation, and more. For a map of Kelowna with ratings from reviewers, check AccessNow.