A 55-mile long sliver of water called Lake Chelan sits nestled at the base of the North Cascades mountain range in Washington. Located three hours northeast from Seattle, this out-of-the-way region has been known to city-dwellers for decades as a summer getaway spot, but has only recently made its national debut as a trek-worthy destination. And for what? Wine, of course. The pioneers of the nascent, ten-year-old industry took vinous cues from their cousins in the north—the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia—and concluded that if the Canadians could make robust reds and zippy whites another three hours further north in a similar climate, so too could they. There is more to do around Lake Chelan than drink wine—actually lots—but a visit to the vineyards makes for a good beginning to any trip.
Launch your day at Vin du Lac Winery. Owner Larry Lehmbecker produces a variety of wines, including a particularly good Riesling and Cabernet Franc. The property sits perched above the lake, and tastings can be enjoyed outdoors on the patio. Stay for lunch to sample their bistro fare. Next, pay a visit to gregarious couple Rob and Donna Mellison of Mellisoni Vineyards. Forget jockeying for position at annoyingly crowded tasting bars—the Mellisons bring the wines to you while you’re literally barefoot in the grass, reclining in their Adirondack chairs. The lake view is so expansive you’ll feel like you’ve been painted onto a life-size canvas. And the wines are stellar, too.
Every party needs a little sparkle, so take yours to Karma Vineyards to taste fine bubbly wines produced in the style of méthode champenoise (the way the French make it in Champagne). Tour their cave, and then hitch a ride up the hill on the Karma trolley for another incomparable Lake Chelan view. For a small operation making impressive wine, visit Nefarious Cellars; the bright, crisp Riesling and plummy-floral Syrah stood out amongst their peers. Wrap up your afternoon with a tasting at Ventimiglia, founded by Ron Ventimiglia, a tile-setter-turned-winemaker. Open during the summer until six pm Thursday through Sunday, Ventimiglia puts out a serious line-up that includes flavorful Pinots and Syrah.
Insider Tip: To make for a full day of wine touring, designate a driver or hire a limo. If you’re partial to a guide with a boisterous personality, hire the best-named chauffeur in the world, Danger Russ; someone will definitely go home with a cork-necklace that night.
Affordable Transportation—in a Seaplane
Chances are, you’ve never gone wine-tasting in a seaplane. Not only is it unusual, but it sounds frighteningly expensive. Yet, Chelan Seaplanes, a local family-owned company with a 41-year safety record, regularly transfers tasters from downtown Lake Chelan on a de Havilland Beaver floatplane and delivers them to Rio Vista Wines, a winery with an enviable riverside location. The 10-minute scenic flight provides glimpses of the Columbia River, the iridescent turquoise lake and vineyards strung along the hills. After your hour-long tasting at Rio Vista (try the Malbec and Tempranillo), climb back onboard for your return flight home. For an aerial view and glamorous arrival, $69 round-trip is a bargain.
Insider Tip: If traveling with a group of six, charter a plane for the day. Hit the winery before heading towards Canada for a flightseeing tour of the North Cascades, home to over 300 glaciers. Each seat on the plane is equipped with a headset and intercom for your pilot to narrate points of interest along the trip. And in their words, "if there is a landable lake or body of water, we can charter you from here to there." Sounds like a challenge.
Day Trip to Stehekin
Lower Lake Chelan, where most of the vineyards are located, is dry and arid rather than wooded wilderness. To satisfy your inner woodsman, head to Stehekin, located at the convergence of four protected areas, including North Cascades National Park and Glacier Peak Wilderness Area. There aren’t any roads—a visit to this "town" (fewer than 100 people live here year-round) requires entry via foot, flight or boat. Chelan Seaplane (see above) charters flights for day trips, or seize the opportunity to get on the water and float into town on the Lady of the Lake ferry. At the boat dock, rent a bike and ride through the community, or a kayak to ply the nearby glacier-fed waters. Of course, hiking is a major attraction, and there are trails to keep you occupied for days should you decide to stay over and camp or rent a log cabin.
Insider Tip: For a "taste of Stehekin," ride your rental bike two miles up the valley road to the Stehekin Pastry Company. Owned and operated by the Courtneys, the original family to settle this remote area, they bake a mean cinnamon roll. Next, head over to The Garden to meet Karl Gaskill, the village organic farmer, and score some of his honey and homemade goat cheese. Remember to pack the honey in your suitcase; it’s considered a liquid and the crack airport security staff nabbed mine from my carry-on. Finally, have a true cowboy dinner at Stehekin Valley Ranch, featuring a limited menu of nightly specials and a chance to hang one-on-one with a Courtney.
To get the most out of the lake, stay on it. Unlike most resort towns where a beachfront view costs as much as the plane ticket, the properties around Lake Chelan serve up affordable water views, often from your private balcony, steps from the lake’s sandy shores. Our favorite is Campbellâ€™s Waterfront Resort. Both family-owned and family-friendly, you get a reasonably-priced, spacious room without sacrificing style or charm. The resort has a pool, spa, and on-site dining at The Pub and Veranda, a popular spot with an open-air atmosphere overlooking the historic downtown. A few others to try: Wapato Point and The Lake House at Chelan.
Insider Tip: While you are on the lake, take the opportunity to paddleboard and kayak, both popular water activities. If you are staying at Campbell’s, you can fish right off their dock—just pick up a license at Kelly’s Hardware, a half-block from the resort. Also, every Wednesday, Campbell’s offers a fishing class for kids. If you want a fishing guide service or boat rental, speak with the front desk or check their website for resources.
Small-Town Prices, Diverse Dining
The "finest" dining in town, Andante offers classic Italian dishes. In general, however, the region sports a down-home, casual approach to living and eating, so embrace the vibe. Head for the hills, or rather, head for Blueberry Hills in Manson for a breakfast of overstuffed fruit-filled pancakes and crepes or eggs-benny. They have a U-pick farm next door, so load up on blueberries and strawberries for the 15-minute drive back to Lake Chelan. Another Manson option, Cannella Kitchen defines "homemade" and "farm-to-table" dining; during the growing season, Adrianne and staff farm and harvest most of the vegetables they serve. No liquor license yet, but fingers-crossed for craft cocktails starting in August. Back in Lake Chelan, if you are hunting for pizza, locals swear by The Local Myth, and to satisfy those with a meat-tooth, the Winemaker’s Grill at Wapato Point Cellars has earned acclaim for its selection of dry-aged steaks. For a dose of Italian fare with great views and house wines, try Sorrento’s at Tsillan Cellars.
Insider Tip: From May to October, Lake Chelan Winery throws a nightly BBQ in the vineyard featuring ribs, chicken, and salmon paired with house wines. Kids have free rein to run around the vineyards and play kickball, keeping them happy and busy while you relax.
Photo Credit: ©2012 Lauren Mowery