CHASE, British Columbia, Canada - I'm teeing off on a course I'd never heard of high above a lake I never knew existed after sleeping in a golf resort I knew nothing about.
And I'm loving these discoveries. I've been monitoring the rankings of Canada's top public golf courses by ScoreGolf since I first wrote for the magazine more than a decade ago. So when someone mentioned before the round that the Talking Rock Golf Course at Quaaout Lodge was recently rated the No. 1 course in British Columbia by a different publication, I almost laughed out loud. A place I'd never heard of better than the great courses of Whistler, Vancouver Island, Predator Ridge or even nearby Tobiano? No way, I thought.
My doubt faded as the round built toward two inspiring crescendos - the 14th tee overlooking Little Shuswap Lake and the finishing hole right along the beach. It was my first and lasting lesson that golf surrounding Kamloops is full of surprises.
With Whistler and Vancouver Island to the left and the Alberta's magical Canadian Rockies to the right and the popular wine region of Kelowna to the south, Kamloops probably feels stuck in the middle. It might be the most under-appreciated golf destination in the West, and that includes Canada and America. After five days sampling six courses and three wineries, I left feeling enlightened and inspired. The only chink in its armor is limited air access with connecting flights through Calgary and Vancouver. Beyond that, Kamloops is just plain cool.
Diversity is the biggest allure of Golf Kamloops, a consortium of courses. You've got a mix of architects: Robert Trent Jones Sr. (Rivershore Golf Links) being the most famous, Thomas McBroom the most heralded Canadian designer (Tobiano) and even a course that claims no designer (Eaglepoint Golf Resort). Course styles span from a housing development (Rivershore), a tribal course (Talking Rock) and a 100-year-old classic (Kamloops Golf & Country Club) to the confounding mounding of the 1990s (Dunes at Kamloops) and a modern marvel (Tobiano). The price points cater to all comers - ranging on the low end at the Dunes at Kamloops, a steal at roughly $50 Canadian all season, to Tobiano, a bucket-list scenic tour of Kamloops Lake that pushes $115-$135 in high season, a number that feels like a bargain for one of the top 10 public courses in all of Canada. That's well below the rate charged by Canada's 25 most expensive courses.
Talking Rock delivers the one true golf resort experience. I would have loved to spend more than just a night at the adjacent 70-room Quaaout Lodge & Spa. The room was comfy and updated, and the burgers in Jack Sam's Restaurant & Lounge were so good, I had one for dinner upon arrival and then lunch after the round. After putting out on no. 18, my foursome walked down to the beach and dock on the lake. The water was still, perfect for paddleboarding or water skiing. Lingering longer would have been nice if not for a tee time at Eaglepoint that afternoon.
Talking Rock, designed by Graham Cooke and Wayne Carlton, was brilliant. With two dynamite short fours on the back nine, and those killer views, it really leaves a lasting impression.
It's hard to beat a day at Tobiano, though. The views of Kamloops Lake radiate from the clubhouse and never cease during the round. The wild, rolling terrain over canyons sets up some epic carries. The tee shots on the par-3 seventh and par-5 eighth are downright frightening. Teeing it forward - the 6,200-yard Spur/Lake combo tees are all most golfers can handle - will keep the intimidation factor manageable and the day enjoyable. With five par 3s and five par 5s, there's endless opportunities to score or throw in a big number if your balls sail offline into the sagebrush.
After looking at the lake all day, it was refreshing to get in it. Renting a pontoon from the nearby Bruker Marina is affordable if you can recruit at least two foursomes on board (costing roughly $500-$600 per rental; roughly $70-$80 per person). I jumped in for a quick swim, while others sunbathed and savored their beverage of choice. The long and narrow lake is surrounded by steep embankments, leaving its shores mostly house-free. Few boats were out, so we felt like we owned the place.
The final morning was shaping up to be a reality check. After three straight weeks on the road, five rounds in four days and a full day of travel ahead, I was feeling ornery heading on the first tee at the Kamloops Golf & Country Club. Seeing the flat fairways of a 1914 design adjacent to the airport felt like a come-down after the eye candy of Tobiano. Thankfully, the course outdid its first impressions. To spice things up, I took a golfboard and had a hoot. Although the course was packed with walking members, we finished in less than four hours. As grand finales go, it was just about perfect.
For much of the trip, our small media group hunkered down at the newest hotel in Kamloops, the 82-room Windgate by Wyndham, which was within walking distance of a couple restaurants/bars. Every evening a contingent from the Rocky Mountaineer, a luxury railway tour, would descend upon the hotel to overnight before continuing their scenic adventures between Calgary and Vancouver.
With such an influx of tourists, Kamloops (population 90,000) seems to come to life in the summer. Free music in the park every night from July 1-August 31 brings the community together at Riverside Park, a beautiful spot where the North Thompson and Thompson rivers converge near downtown. I lived like a local, drinking in a makeshift beer garden and ordering from one of the food trucks, while listening to a cover band and people watching. More beer was on tap a couple nights later at The Noble Pig, a downtown microbrewery with a nice menu.
The region's wine scene is emerging, too, landing a coveted Thompson Valley "GI" (geographic indicator) earlier this year, meaning the three local wineries on the Kamloops Wine Trail can start marketing their bottles and the flavors of their grapes as unique to the region. An afternoon wine tasting might not pair well with a buddies trip, but for couples on a golf trip, it's a no-brainer. All three wineries have their merits - Harper's Trail Estate as the region's pioneer; Privato Winery as a smaller, more intimate operation (try the Woodward Cider, too) and Monte Creek Ranch as a bustling tourist attraction with the largest tasting room and best views, overlooking the river and railroad below.
Since there is a fair bit of driving between rounds, the owners of Tasteful Excursions shuttled us around. It might make sense to hire them instead renting multiple cars, especially for groups larger than a foursome. Their vans can easily fit all the golf bags and you'll get showered with insider stories and good hospitality along the way.