Road Trip: Soaking in the sun (and spirits) in the Okanagan
The 2018 GMC Yukon Denali remains a truck-based workhorse that can haul campers just as well as it can pack wine boxes.
The Okanagan wine region, nestled in picturesque central British Columbia and surrounded by lakes and rolling hills, is a real treasure on the Canadian landscape. Thing of it is, while you’ll find all manner of top-drawer wineries with names like “Liquidity” and “Mission Hill”, a proper visit to the area’s 120+ wineries should definitely include stops at some of the more rustic parts of the area. It’s a tantalizing mix of the old and the new, and it makes for the perfect backdrop to test the 2018 GMC Yukon Denali SUV.
Like the region, the Yukon – especially in Denali form – is a proper luxury SUV with the features to match. At the same time, it remains a truck-based workhorse that can haul campers just as well as it can pack wine boxes.
Gateway to the Okanagan
While this is the 2018 model, it has to be said that with an all-new version of the Sierra pickup—with which the Yukon shares its platform—on the way, it’s likely that an all-new Yukon will soon follow. That’s not to say that this current model doesn’t have some chips with which it can play to compete in the modern luxury SUV game – far from it – but with the likes of Ford coming out with an all-new Expedition and Nissan doing its thing with the fairly new Armada and Infiniti QX80 cousins, the Yukon is in the thick of some heated competition.
Thing is, people love their Yukons, as well as its Chevrolet Tahoe cousin. From dignitaries to rappers, from family men to construction crews, the Yukon has served a vast array of people and GM has spent years perfecting the formula.
For 2018, all that work has resulted in tech like cylinder deactivation (watch as the “V8” graphic in your gauge cluster switches to “V4”), five-link rear suspension, magnetic ride control, Intellilink infotainment, rear seat entertainment and plenty more. It would all come in handy as we started our journey out of Vancouver to our eventual destination of Summerland, BC, right in the heart of the Okanagan region.
There are two main ways to get from our home base in Vancouver, BC to the Okanagan area: a scenic route through Hope, BC on the Highway 3 Crowsnest, and a slightly less scenic route through the Coquihalla Pass, though both have their fair share of vistas. Ours was to be the more scenic of the two, taking us from Vancouver, through Hope, on to Hedley (looks like a ghost town, sounds like a band – is neither, in this case) and the crown jewel of our ride—also the main reason we chose this route—Keremos, BC.
It may not look like much on a map, but Keremeos is essentially the epicentre and bread basket (well, fruit basket) of the region. The main drag into the city – part of the Highway 3 – is lined on both sides by farms, fronted by fruit stands to sell said farm’s wares. Apricots, peaches, cherries, about five plum varieties – it’s the healthiest candy store you’ll ever see, only natural and perhaps even more colourful. There’s corn, garlic and other savoury stuff, too, but the fruit is why you go to Keremeos. Bring an extra cooler.
Luckily, even in non-XL “regular” configuration, the Yukon can fit a couple of coolers as it packs a lot of cargo. The squared-off styling means little space is wasted due to swoopy curved wall panels and the like, so it’s very easy to stuff it to the gills to the tune of 2,681 L with the back two rows folded. Keep the second row deployed, and the 1,464 L provided was still fine for my family.
There’s even a fairly generous underfloor storage bay that, while shallow, extends the width of the cargo area. It’s wide enough to fit items such as tent poles (we were camping) or, in the case of my family, the legs for my daughter’s portable high chair. I’m also a big fan of the dual tailgate; you can open just the rear window, if you wish, providing quick access to top loaded items.
There is a third row of seating, and although you don’t lose much space there to the Yukon XL, it’s still not a place I’d want to spend too much time as an adult. Headroom is fine, but it comes as no surprise that legroom is at a premium. Best leave them flat folded as we did, an operation controlled by buttons mounted on our truck’s cargo bay walls. The second row, for its part, is properly roomy and given a touch of luxury thanks to dual captain’s chairs. They serve a dual purpose: more supportive for their occupants, and you can reach the third row without having to drop them. We also easily attached a rear-facing baby seat thanks to fairly shallow ISO-FIX latches.
Wine, and so much more
That’s the preview, really; another hour or so up the 3A out of Keremeos gets you to Summerland. If Keremeos is the fruit capital of the region, then Summerland is just outside of one of the other main Okanagan draws—wineries. Vineyards as far as the eye can see; across lake Okanagan and up the hill on the Naramata Bench, just outside of Penticton, over in Oliver – they keep coming and coming, and it’s no surprise that they have more than 200 of these. They range from the massively corporate – Mission Hill, Quail’s Gate, Sumac Ridge – to the nicely dainty and specialized, with names like “Dirty Laundry”, “Poplar Grove” and “See Ya Later Ranch”. The nomenclature is as varied and opaque as the starting field of the Kentucky Derby, but that’s all part of the charm.
Of course, you could spend weeks—nay, months—visiting them all, but with just a couple of days (and a very young daughter in tow) we had to be picky. Luckily, it’s an area we’d visited many times before and we had our “must-sees”.
Before we descended upon any of them, however, we visited The Bench Market and Delicatessen; fantastic, well-priced sandwiches and salads can be taken away or served on the restaurant’s excellent patio. Inside, charming 1950’s-era posters dot the walls. A Multitude of wares are for sale, ranging from house-made granola, to jams, to other Okanagan-and wine-themed art and souvenirs. Try the Bench Club or Sicilian sandwiches, they do not disappoint and they cost little more than a footlong sub from Subway.
The first winery we stopped at was “Ruby Blues”, a quaint little place on the Naramata bench that any car aficionado would get a kick out of. Especially if their particular interest runs the way of the hippie van and VW Beetle.
You know it as soon as you round the bend on Naramata Road out of Penticton – many wineries have signs that sit on the main road even if they are pretty far recessed from it, but Ruby Blues has an entire VW Bus, all hippie-fied by local artist Glen Clark, right there on the corner.
There’s another—less solitary—version outside the tasting room, which sits on Evans Road about 50 meters down from Naramata, BC. Inside, surrounded by bottles of their signature Stilletto varietal (Syrah base, with Merlot, Cab Sav and Pinot flavours) is a collection of VW paraphernalia ranging from die cast models, to t-shirts, notebooks and coffee mugs. It’s fantastic, and in true Okanagan winery form, there’s a story behind it – just not what you may think.
You’d likely think—as I did—that Ruby’s theme comes from the owner being a big VW fan; maybe they’d driven across Canada, or through the Nappa Valley in one once, and the vibe had stuck. In fact, that’s not at all the case; turns out, it’s a legal issue. You see, “Ruby Blues” was originally conceived as “Ruby Tuesday” winery, and that raised the ire not of The Rolling Stones, but of the US restaurant chain by the same name. So, they purchased the bus—because everyone loves VW busses—painted it and gave birth to “Ruby Blues”, a colourful, playful winery in the heart of Canadian wine scene. Groovy.
The Yukon, of course, looks a little out of place parked next to the van, but remember: the latter was originally conceived to move people easily from town to town, and you could say that these days, that’s what Yukons are mostly used for, too. Plus, you kind of get a sense that even with all its blinginess and big wheels, the Yukon must respect its elders.
Moving on from Ruby Blues, we make our way to Liquidity, and a decidedly different take on the winery. All decked out in white—white walls, white floors, tables, counters—it could be a Mac store, but is actually a bit of an art gallery as paintings tend to jump off white walls better than they would brown or beige. You see, President Ian MacDonald is a bit of an art collector, and a rotating showcase of his collection (as well as various photo galleries) is always present.
As streamlined as the interior tasting room environs are, the grounds leading up to the building are equally impressive. The sculptures there make it feel like you’re driving through a Tim Burton set, only less gothic and a little greener – maybe a Dr. Seuss kids book is a better comparison. Just look at those trees! There isn’t much that can takeaway from the presence of a bright white Yukon on a sunny summer’s day, but these do a mighty fine job of it.
As far as wines go, be sure to try their Dividend Cab Sav, Cab Franc and Merlot blend, if you can. With only 1,120 cases, it’s going fast.
For something entirely different, we head to Dirty Laundry, so named for the fact that in the 1800s during the prospecting era, former rail worker Sam Suey realized that there was a need for a laundromat for all the fur traders, rail workers and gold miners passing through. He also realized that they needed something to do while they waited for said laundry to get done, and he happened to have some extra rooms upstairs for various forms of “entertainment”. Hence the Dirty laundry laundrobrothel was born and as for the winery today, well, what a way to differentiate yourself in an area that’s chock full of ‘em.
Indeed, stepping in there (be sure to watch for the retro laundry tools and basins that greet you on the way in) is like stepping into a Wild West movie set; the servers all have bawdy nicknames and are in costume, the décor is rife with all manner of racy stuff and let’s just say if you happen to be on a bachelorette party, this is a pretty good stop. They also feature a full dining menu (with pairing events) and their Pinot Noir is a nice, more full-bodied departure from other versions of this blend.
The last two wineries we’re featuring—See Ya Later Ranch and Blue Mountain—can also make the Yukon feel quite small. The view off the back of Blue Mountain of the valley below has captivated artists for years, as well as numerous photographers and postcard stands. You go for their ultra-refreshing white wines, but you stay for that view. Like Liquidity, even the path leading up to that view is of the mystical variety, with old farmhouses and stables appearing like ruins across the landscape.
See Ya Later is different in that it asks you to take a steep journey off the beaten path; the entry to Ruby Blues may be just down the road from its sign, but See Ya Later’s tasting room exists about 5.5 km up the switchbacks of Green Lake road from Highway 97 outside Oliver, BC. It’s a good test of the Yukon’s ability to keep passengers insulated, especially if one of your passengers happens to be susceptible to motion sickness. Overall, the Yukon acquitted itself well here—thank you magnetic dampers—though you’re never going to quite get away from the fact that it’s a fairly tall vehicle and body roll is present.
We made it up without any issue, however, and at See Ya Later, we took our time to sample a bit of wine, hang out with their dogs (many wineries are dog friendly – there are entire calendars and books dedicated to the area’s various canine inhabitants) but really, for us, the picnic area behind the winery was the real highlight. There is a restaurant on-site, but if you’d prefer to bring your own sandwiches and whatnot, grab yourself a table overlooking the valley (or set up a blanket on the lush green grass) grab a bottle of See Ya Later’s Ping Meritage, and reflect on the wonders of the Okanagan. Oh, and be sure to check out the classic Chevy pickup – that still gets used from time to time – ‘round back.
A true vet
Since we were a little more pressed for time on the return journey home, we decided to take the Coquihalla back—that’s the alternate route we talked about earlier—as it is quicker. That tends to happen when you get speed limit increases to 110, then 120 km/h.
As we cruised along at that speed (in V4 mode, from time to time), I had a chance to reflect on the Yukon. There’s little question that this latest version does well to keep the mantra of quasi luxury up; heated and vented seats, high-quality leather, a version of the latest GM infotainment and V8 power will do that.
There are, however, areas where the Yukon’s age begins to show itself: many of the buttons on the centre tack are too small, there are some ergonomic issues mostly revolving around stray limbs cracking some sharp edges and V4 mode or no, we never saw much better than 14L/100 km, even on the highway.
Still, though; it looks the part, there’s plenty of room inside and a sense of occasion remains, all these years later. While I’m keen to see what they do with the revamp, there’s still plenty to like here.
As for the Okanagan: as usual, it didn’t disappoint. It truly is a small slice of paradise in BC—the wine, landscape and of course the fruit all see to that. Do yourself a favour, and get out there for a refreshing summer holiday. You won’t be disappointed, I guarantee it.
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