Kamloops: More than just a pit stop for gas

News reporter Alan Campbell barrels downhill in Canada's mountain biking capital

HURTLING downhill on a narrow track at what felt like breakneck speed, a 12-foot ditch to the right, a good chance of a rattle snake to the left, every survival instinct engrained into our DNA was screaming at us to slam on the anchors and live to see another day.

So when Monique the Mountain Biker urged these novices to "let go" and "trust your bike," she would've been as well speaking Urdu than English for all the attention we were paying.

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It was hard to believe just moments earlier we were perched atop a hill, making memories with our eyes of an exhilarating, yet unnatural, landscape across the river - hoodoos they're called, tall, thin spires of rock protruding from the bottom of an arid basin or badland, usually a desert.

This was not some exotic, windswept locale, however, that you read about in a travel magazine while sitting, waiting in your doctor's office.

This is Kamloops, smack bang in the middle of our own B.C. Interior - known by many as a stopover or halfway house on a longer journey and as a sports tournament hub, known by less, it would seem, as the mountain biking capital of Canada.

And here we were, hanging on for dear life, skidding, sliding and picking our way down the side of a hill, packed full of tight turns (burms), jumps and unexpected obstacles.

After the quickest 15 minutes of our lives, we coasted safely to the finish with an emotional lather of relief and, dare I say, ecstasy swirling under our sweaty helmets. It appears Monique's sage advice to resist looking two feet in front of you, instead peering well ahead, shifting weight depending on the gradient and tapping, rather than slamming, on the breaks was indeed the key to success and "survival."

Having shed close to ten pounds in the first descent alone, I defy anyone who suggests downhill biking is not a workout.

Despite the initial trepidation, we couldn't load the bikes onto the back of Monique's truck quick enough and charge back up the hill for the second of three more runs.

Kamloops Bike Ranch is tailormade for beginners, but had enough variety to entertain more experienced riders. Whatever level of thrill you seek, Monique, our fantastic and incredibly patient guide, can take you and your party around any one of Kamloops embarrassing array of mounting bike-rich trails.



Hot Nite with cooling river, ribs

For many British Columbians, especially new immigrants, Kamloops is the place you "gas up" en route to northern B.C. or even Alberta and is the opposite for Albertans hitting the road for Vancouver.

However, myself and my 12-year-old son, Ben, discovered that this bustling city, which leans over the adjoining bend of the North and South Thompson rivers, has much more to offer than cheaper gas.

In the second weekend of August, for instance, it's a job finding enough time in the day to make sure you're not missing out.

We took in the 20th annual Hot Nite in the City, which is actually on during the day and is one of the best amateur car shows you're likely to see in Western Canada.

From American muscles to street rods, Ferraris and classic sports to vintage trucks and flower-power VW Beetle vans, all shined enough to shave in; this was a photo opp frenzy that shut down the best part of 13 city blocks in downtown Kamloops.

For grease monkeys, this was old school, horse power heaven. For regular folks, who don't know a piston from a python, like me, it was a free afternoon of very simple fun.

The full beam from the vehicle owners' grins lit up the streets, as the sweet scent of car polish and hot donuts wafted its way the few hundred yards, slightly downhill, to Riverside Park, the beating heart of summer family fun in Kamloops.

Hundreds of people were escaping the mid-summer heat with a sunset dip in the Thompson River, which has a beautiful little sandy stretch of beach in the park, as speedboats and jetskis purred past, beyond the roped swimming area.

A few yards away, picnics, games, interactive displays, vendors and a giant beer garden filled the rest of the park as part of the 3rd Annual Ribfest, an event which, as well as downhill biking, was another first for us.

Everywhere within a one kilometre radius of the park, there was no getting away from the intoxicating aromas radiating from the ribfest, which was a cook-off between five of North America`s top barbecue teams, and resembled that of a top outdoor music event, with each vendor vying to outdo their neighbour in the entertainment stakes.

We were both still full from lunch at the highly recommended Noble Pig Brewhouse, which we`ll get to later, but we simply had to tuck into a portion of ribs and chicken from the Boss Hogg station.

And all the while, the eclectic sounds of local bands and musicians, as part of Music in the Park, kept the festival goers amused alongside the ribfest, before the main act, Dreams: a Tribute to Fleetwood Mac took to the stage as the sun retired for the day off the shoulder of the glistening Thompson.


Wine, golf breaking ground

Adding to the "I didn't know they did that in Kamloops" list was a visit to a winery. Yes, I said winery.

One of only three of its kind in the area, Harper's Trail, with a south-facing slope (rare for the Interior) sliding down to the South Thompson River, is the pioneer of Kamloops' wine industry at just seven years old.

Apparently, until recently, Kamloops' winters had been regarded too harsh in comparison to its neighbours in Kelowna and the south Okanagan and was therefore dismissed as a region even capable of growing grapes.

It was an anomalie not lost on myself as, driving along the riverside road toward the winery, the landscape of rolling sage and grass hills and hoodoo-fronted limestone was remarkably similar to that of the "Golden Mile" in the south Okanagan, where you literally fall over one signature vineyard after another.

Given the history, Harper's Trail's owners, Ed and Vicki Collett, took something of a gamble all those years ago. It's a risk, however, that is paying off in spades, and, with some fascinating little whites and reds rolling off their production line, it's not beyond the stretch of imagination to envisage Kamloops growing into a wine destination on a par with Kelowna and Oliver.

Look out for a 2013 sparkling Bella Chardonnay from Harper's Trail grapes, which I was fortunate enough to be one of the first to taste when I dropped into Vicki and Ed's tasting room patio.

Another attraction breaking newish ground for tourists in Kamloops is golf.

Similar to the stiff wine tour competition its surrounded by, Kamloops is fighting its  way up the golfing ladder via some surprisingly challenging and finely detailed courses, such as Sun Rivers, perched high on the hillside above the Thompson River.

Sun Rivers, boasting some impressive blind holes, some long, some short, some going up, some down and with stunning vistas, is well worth consideration and is more than enough reason to pack your clubs into the van. On a toasty morning, you'll be glad of the fantastic complimentary "ice towels" at the end of your round.

Watch out for the bighorn sheep, though, who refuse to yield on the fairways and keep an eye behind you for something much faster, but less intimidating - the local resident golfers, who concede six-feet putts and try to play 18 holes in two hours!


Where to stay?

The Sandman chain recently opened one of its "Signature" brand in Kamloops and is everything you'd expect from a brand spanking new hotel, from crisp decor to fixtures and fittings that function perfectly.

The hotel is in a prime spot, overlooking Riverside Park and a matter of yards from the downtown core.

I'd advise booking a riverside room, though, to sidestep the landmine that is the noisy, all-night long freight trains that rumble past the hotel.



The Noble Pig Brewhouse is a popular spot on the eastside of the downtown core and for good reason.

I've sampled some burgers in my time, but the Noble Pig's home-made, hand-crafted patty is quite simply the best that's passed my lips. And it has a very classy culinary cousin in the brewhouse's chocolate torte. This is all on the back of the family-friendly restaurant's very own craft brews, many of which bear curious monicars! Also, look out for the restaurant's patio, which is actually a filled-in pool, although they retained the poolside tiling.

For an evening dinner, Storms on the River should be on your list. Set, as the name suggests, on the south bank of the Thompson, Storms is one of those finer restaurants that we used to know, the ones that don't open until dinner time.

Families in floaties and pleasure craft of all shapes and sizes cruise past Storms' patio at varying speeds. There's something very enchanting about watching life on the river drift by as you sip on a glass of something favourable with the sun lowering its ambitions. Storms' goats cheese appetiser, seasoned steaks and banoffee desert have to be ordered.


If you go:










The 2014 sockeye salmon run pulls in tourists and fishing enthusiasts from all over North America to the world famous Adams River from Sep. 20, right through October. Approximately 40 minutes east of Kamloops, Tourism Kamloops has set up a number of stay and play options. Click on their website above for details.

Kamloops is also getting to transform itself into one big scary city on the run-up to Halloween. "Spookloops" is packed full of festivals, haunted tours, dances and more. Check Tourism Kamloops website above for full details.

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