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Best known as a cowboyin' town in BC's interior, Merritt boasts other unique attractions like a meditation retreat and electronic music festival that make it a meritorious destination
Nestled in the heart of the Nicola Valley in B.C.’s southern Interior, ranching continues to be a way of life in this city of 7,000. As some locals proudly point out, “It’s one of the few places where cowboyin’ is still done on horseback, instead of on Yamahas.”
Whether you’re rolling through for a day or planning to stay several nights, the magic of Merritt won’t be lost on you. From horseback riding to silent meditation, saddle making to country singing, you’ll love the many unique attractions and activities this town has to offer.
With rolling grasslands perfect for livestock, the first Europeans settled in Merritt in the 1850s, using large tracts of the surrounding Nicola Valley to raise cattle. Several of the area’s earliest ranches are still open to visitors, some offering guests an authentic cowboy experience.
Nicola Ranch, one of Canada’s largest cattle ranches, features heritage buildings that were once part of the Town of Nicola, including a circa-1876 church, a blacksmith’s shop containing a unique collection of antique tools and a classic red barn, plus family- and group-friendly bungalows with kitchens for overnight guests.
Established in the 1870s, the Quilchena Cattle Company continues to run thousands of cows over 28,000 acres with a crew of six cowboys and a herd of 80 horses. Explore the ranch by horse (or mountain bike), shop at the old general store, sidle up to the bullet-pocked bar or chow down on a steak sandwich in the saloon. The turn-of-the-century hotel boasts 15 antique-appointed rooms; feel free to stay a while.
One of B.C.’s best-known saddle makers, Don Loewen, maintains a shop in downtown Merritt and invites guests to stop in, have a coffee and check out his beautiful saddles, made to “suit every cowboy style.”
Born into a cowboy family, Loewen shaped his first saddle at the tender age of 14 before setting off for saddle school in South Dakota. Today his seats—including the Will James, Cliff Wade and Tucson models—are sought after for their comfort, durability and ability to stay positioned throughout a full day’s ride.
A second legendary saddler, Andy Knight, turns out slick, made-to-order seats perfect for cowboyin’, trail ridin’, reignin’ and ropin’. Knight, who works closely with local ranchers to ensure his saddles suit those who make their living riding, keeps a few horses around his Knight’s Saddlery should you wish to try out a saddle.
One rodeo is fun—but several rodeos are even better! Merritt celebrates its long ranching roots with events throughout the year, including the Merritt High School Rodeo in May, the Little Britches Rodeo in mid-June and the Nicola Valley Pro Rodeo, usually held over the Labour Day long weekend in September.
Though the Merritt Mountain Music Festival recently called it quits (after nearly two decades in operation), the city’s legacy as the Country Music Capital of Canada lives on through its Walk of Stars attraction.
The “Walk” consists of no less than 90 bronze stars, each proudly showcasing the handprint—and, in certain cases, footprint—and signature of one of the country western singers who graced the city’s festival stages between 1993 and 2011.
Among the crooners who have left their mark on Merritt: Johnny Cash, Anne Murray, Brooks & Dunn, Billy Ray Cyrus, Kenny Rogers and the Dixie Chicks (even non-fans will recognize and appreciate many of the names). Visitors are invited to pull on their cowboy boots, download a map and take a self-guided tour of the stars.
A second tribute to the city’s longtime role as host to many of the biggest names in country music: several larger-than-life celebrity portraits painted on public buildings by Michelle Loughery—one of just a handful of muralists worldwide who paints completely freehand, without the use of a grid or projector.
Loughery, who invited local youth to help her complete some of the work, says that her murals “are about people having an effect on their cities, taking responsibility for their visual and physical environment, leaving records of
their lives and concerns—and in the process transforming neighbourhoods.”
In total, Merritt boasts 60 giant murals by Loughery and other artists. Among the celebrities depicted in the paintings: Reba McEntire, Tim McGraw, Randy Travis, Carrie Underwood and “the King” himself, Elvis Presley.
When the Merritt Mountain Music Festival shut down in 2012, it ended a popular tradition that flooded the city with as many as 150,000 country music fans each summer. As they say, however, when one saloon door closes, another one opens.
August 2-5, 2013, marks the start of a brand-new tradition in Merritt (though you may not hear much country music in the mix). The Bass Coast Electronic Music & Arts Festival is coming to town—and expects to bring at least 4,000 visitors with it.
Liz Thomson, co-founder of Bass Coast, says Merritt’s close proximity to Vancouver along with its beautiful climate and pre-existing arts culture made it the clear winner when festival organizers began scouting for a new location after outgrowing their old Squamish digs.
Ever feel like “getting away from it all”—to the extreme? How about a 10-day totally silent retreat? The Dhamma Surabhi Vipassana Meditation Centre of BC, on 56 forested acres 20 minutes outside of Merritt, invites you to “see things as they really are” by practising one of India’s most ancient meditation techniques.
With accommodations for 60, the centre helps guests eradicate mental impurities and achieve the “highest happiness of full liberation” through still, silent meditation. The close observation of physical sensations is said to develop a deep mind-body connection and a more loving and compassionate outlook on life.
Though not being able to utter a word (that includes eye contact and other types of communicative gestures; reading, writing and playing Candy Crush on your iPhone are also prohibited) may seem daunting, many first-timers have aced the course. Not only is the vegetarian menu delicious, the retreat is free of charge (if you wish to leave a donation at the end of your experience, it’s up to you).