he Danish town of Solvang and a host of other attractions combine to make this southern California area a place of note.
By Betty Cosley
Small-town hospitality mixed with Old World charm; gourmet dining; superb wines and wine tasting; hiking trails through fields of wildflowers into the back country “” that’s a good description of the treats in California’s Santa Ynez Valley. Add to this an old Spanish mission, museums, a fishing lake, wildlife cruises, llama ranches, and an ostrich farm. Maybe even a glimpse of a movie star or two, if you’re lucky. This is a part of California no one should miss.
The drive to this area, located approximately 150 miles from Pomona, where FMCA will hold its 75th International Convention March 20 to 23, can be downright pleasant. Once away from the big-city atmosphere, you can relax and enjoy the scenery: white beaches and the blue, blue Pacific Ocean. It’s a smog-free, sunny place, with cool nighttime temps. And campgrounds are plentiful along the way, should you want to stop.
You will see your first valley windmill at Buellton, a small town nestled in rolling, green hills that is called the “Gateway to the Santa Ynez Valley.” This is just a hint of what’s to come.
The Flying Flags RV Resort in Buellton (180 Ave. of the Flags; 877-783-5247, 805-688-3716) is a full-service campground and one of two in the immediate area. Its close-in location makes it convenient for touring Solvang and the surrounding countryside. Later, if you want to move on, head for a campsite at Cachuma Lake Recreation Area (described below), where you can continue exploring the beautiful Santa Ynez Valley.
Buellton is home to a restaurant called Pea Soup Andersen’s, which has become quite famous over the years; most recently, it was included in the Oscar-nominated movie Sideways. Should it be time to eat when you arrive, you’re in luck. I heartily recommend Andersen’s pea soup. Other special dishes appear on the menu, but the split pea is by far the most popular. The world-famous restaurant has a great gift shop, plus a bakery that makes resistance futile. Go ahead; pick up a special treat for the road as you leave.
Another popular spot in Buellton is Firestone Walker’s Brewery and Restaurant, which features tours, beer tastings, and entertainment.
East of Buellton on State Route 246 is the famous Ostrich Land, where the feathered giants are hatched, raised, and displayed. You’ll enjoy meeting these big birds up close and investigating the gift shop, which is full of beautifully painted and decorated ostrich eggs and other items.
Continuing eastward on State Route 246, you will drive through rows of magnificent Deodar cedars that form a corridor between luxurious horse farms. On the left is Flag Is Up Farms, owned by Monty and Pat Roberts. Monty has gained international fame as the “man who listens to horses.” The film The Horse Whisperer was based on the training techniques he discovered. If you would like to see how a real horse ranch is run, just stop by and ring the bell at the gate. The ranch is open to visitors from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and no reservation or fee is required.
Just a bit farther east is the village of Solvang, called the Danish Capital of America. It was named one of the “10 Most Beautiful Small Towns in the Western United States” by Sunset magazine. The pretty architecture is not just there for show; the town truly was established in 1911 by Danish folk, and two-thirds of its residents are of Danish descent. “Solvang” is the Danish word meaning “sunny field.”
Before starting your tour of Solvang, stop at the visitors information center on Mission Drive and pick up a map and information about various events in town. Also, if provisions are getting low in the motorhome, keep in mind that every Wednesday Solvang has a farmers market on First Street beginning at 3:00 p.m., where fresh produce and foods are obtainable. Incidentally, RV parking is located off Mission above Alisol Road.
In town, windmills tilt in the breeze, wooden shoes clop along cobblestone walks, and shopkeepers dressed in Danish costumes greet you with a “Velkommen.” Flower-laden nooks offer craft shops, collectibles, antiques, Danish imports, smorgasbords, wine-tasting rooms, and gourmet restaurants, along with a scent of fresh-baked goods that will drive you crazy until you have located their source “” an authentic Danish bakery. The Danes really know their pastries. Try several. An “aebelskiver” is a ball-shaped Danish pancake with jam and powdered sugar; an elegant “Sarah Bernhardt” is a tiny macaroon shell filled with chocolate butter cream. Pick up a tub of Danish butter cookies to go.
Now that you’ve eaten, you may feel the need to get off your feet, so continue your trip through town via either the “honen,” a street trolley pulled by a pair of Belgian draft horses, or one of the surrey cycles, which demand family pedal power. Rentals are located behind Solvang Park. Both are fun and should get you wherever you want to go.
Thirsty? Then head over to one of Solvang’s 11 wine-tasting rooms and get acquainted with some of the finest vintages in California. The Santa Ynez Valley is a respected grape-growing region and is known for its superb wineries. Alisal Cellars, the oldest and largest wine cellar in town, has not only wine and beer tastings, but also champagne and sake (Japanese rice wine) tastings on the weekends. If it’s too early in the day, or you don’t prefer such beverages, try the Bulldog Café, next to The Book Loft on Mission Drive. It is said to have the best coffee in town as well as Internet connections. Don’t be surprised if you run into famed cycling champion Lance Armstrong, who bases his training in the area each winter.
Actually, with more than 35 wineries in the area, wine-tasting can be a full-time pursuit. From Buellton and Solvang to Santa Ynez and Los Olivos, the public is invited to swirl, sniff, and sip the excellent wines from the surrounding vineyards. All are within easy driving distance of Solvang, and most are open to visitors year-round.
Back to our tour of Solvang. Above The Book Loft is the Hans Christian Andersen Museum. Hans Christian Andersen is one of Denmark’s most famous figures, known and beloved everywhere for his fairy tales. Next to the Bible and Shakespeare, Andersen’s tales are the most translated literary works in the world. If you have any fond childhood memories of reading his fairy tales, you will enjoy this museum thoroughly.
To learn more about Solvang’s history and culture, try the Elverhoj Museum of History & Art. It is a perfect example of Danish architecture, from the hand-painted tiles in the kitchen to the woodcarvings on the front door. Elverhoj means “Elves on the Hill” and is from a Danish fairy tale used as a theme when the original home was built. The art gallery and its special displays are worth seeing; it’s open Wednesday through Sunday.
If you like antiques, you’ll be impressed with the Solvang Antique Center on First Street. Considered to be one of the finest in California, it includes large collections of antique clocks and music boxes. Antiques of another sort can be seen at the Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum. Its vast collection of vintage racing motorcycles and European bikes is amazing.
Hopefully, you’ll still have time to check out one of California’s Spanish treasures, Mission Santa Ines, at the edge of town. Named in honor of St. Agnes, a 14th-century Christian martyr, the mission was the first European settlement in the Santa Ynez Valley and the 19th of 21 missions built in California from 1769 to 1823. Its museum, which is open daily, exhibits a collection of early European and Indian art and religious artifacts. Numerous fiestas are held in the church meadows throughout the year.
Feel like taking a hike and having a picnic? Drive out Alisal Road to Nojoqui Falls County Park (20 minutes from Solvang), where a breathtaking 60-foot waterfall is the centerpiece of the 80-acre park. The falls are reached via a 15-minute walk on a canyon trail. After a good rainy season, the sight of the water cascading down the mossy cliffs is spectacular. The park provides picnic and barbecue facilities, rest rooms, and a playground, and is open from 8:00 a.m. to sunset. (Camping is not available.)
The valley is also the home of Quicksilver, a miniature horse ranch, where waist-high horses are bred and raised. Although horses are showcased at numerous other horse ranches in the valley, these little guys are the most popular. They are gentle, affectionate, and a pleasure to watch. Visitors are welcome daily from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. In addition, several llama and alpaca ranches are located nearby “” El Ranchito in Santa Ynez and Westin’s Flying V Ranch, 6 miles west of Buellton. Both can be visited by appointment only.
Solvang bustles with fun activities and special events all year long. In February, the town holds its annual “Flying Leap Storytelling Festival.” Storytellers from around the world gather to spin their tales and entertain visitors. This year’s dates are Friday and Saturday, February 24 and 25. Ticket prices vary. Call (805) 688-9533 for more information.
The surrounding communities in the Santa Ynez Valley are all rich in history and the arts, as well as home to many Hollywood notables. They are small, but so close it would be a pity not to stop and see them. The pioneer Western town of Santa Ynez has fine antiques shops and numerous art galleries. Stroll the paths of the Victorian Gardens and marvel at the cluster of lovely restored Victorian homes. Go wine-tasting at the Santa Ynez Inn Wine Cellar. Check out the Parks-Janeway Carriage House at the Santa Ynez Valley Historical Society & Museum. It houses seven rooms of memorabilia and the largest collection of horse-drawn carriages and wagons west of the Mississippi. Then, if you’re in the mood for fun and entertainment, try the Maverick Saloon in Old Town on Segundo Street. A popular restaurant and bar, it is one of the livelier night (and day) spots.
Moving on, you will come to the village of Los Olivos. This tiny, upscale village should please collectors of fine arts with its many art galleries and more wine-tasting cellars (including the Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard). It has a reputation as one of the finest art colonies on the West Coast.
About 10 minutes southeast of Solvang is Cachuma Lake Recreation Area. Set amidst acres of wilderness and the picturesque Santa Ynez and San Rafael mountains, it is the “Jewel of the Santa Ynez Valley.” Famous for fine fishing, it has many campsites (420 in all, 90 with full hookups), and amenities such as showers, rest rooms, a dump station, laundry facilities, and more. Reservations are not taken; sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. For information, call (805) 686-5054 or (805) 686-5055.
This recreation area is renowned for harboring numerous species of birds, as well as being a wintering site for bald eagles. If you visit from November through February, one way to see these majestic birds in action is to take the Cachuma Lake nature cruise. These boat tours focus on searching for eagles in their natural habitat. The cruise focuses on other wildlife and a vast array of ospreys, hawks, and other fowl from March through October. Don’t forget your camera, binoculars, and jacket.
Actually, there is still more to do in the valley “” picnicking in the enchanting Hans Christian Andersen Park in Solvang; soaring like an eagle over the Santa Ynez Valley; or taking in a few rounds of golf. But you’ll discover all this for yourself during your visit. Have fun!
For campground listings other than those in this story, please consult your favorite campground directory or FMCA’s Business Directory, published in the January and June issues and online at FMCA.com.
More information about attractions and activities in the Santa Ynez Valley is available from both of these sources:
Santa Ynez Valley Visitors Association
P.O. Box 1918
Santa Ynez, CA 93460
Solvang Conference & Visitors Bureau
P.O. Box 70
Solvang, CA 93464