If bakeries and beer gardens are high on your list of vacation amenities, you couldn't do better than a visit to Solvang, the Danish-inspired theme community just a half-hour drive from Santa Barbara. Of course there is much more, but food is a great place to start. Few can resist the lure of Danish, German and other cuisines offered in a variety of restaurants all housed in buildings remodeled to make this look like a quaint little European village.
It also doesn't hurt that Solvang is located in one of California's most scenic areas - wine country that was shown off spectacularly in the widely acclaimed movie Sideways. Several picturesque wineries are sprinkled throughout these rolling hills offering wine lovers the alluring prospect of scenery that becomes even more spectacular with every taste of these locally produced world-class wines.
Refreshingly, the Solvang area still registers quite low on the snootiness scale, with visitors of all types finding much to see and enjoy in the area. In the village we noticed mostly families on the sunny weekend we visited, while the wine-touring crowd was divided more into couples and small groups. There's the Solvang that has families renting pedi-cars, laughing their way through the one square mile of downtown stores and shops. Then there's the Solvang of the wine-lovers who stay at such luxurious lodgings as the Santa Ynez Inn or Fess Parker's Wine Country Inn and toast their crystal glasses while touring the wineries by luxury limo.
Spending a few hours shopping in Solvang reminded us of a similar theme town close to where we grew up - Leavenworth, Washington. In both towns seemingly all of the townspeople and businesses buy into creating the illusion for visitors that they are truly vacationing in Europe. While Solvang is a Danish theme, it also shares a lot of the German or Alpine costumes, music and food that you will find in the Bavarian village of Leavenworth. And, of course, both towns have an abundance of bakeries and beer gardens.
The name Solvang means "sunny field" and the town was founded in 1911 on 9,000 acres of former Spanish land grant. The Danish settlers -- who actually came from the Midwest -- were educators and they immediately established a Danish folk school. That school played a major role in keeping the Danish culture alive in this area for generations. Solvang is not just a town of Danish storefronts; many of the local residents are involved in Danish fraternal organizations and are of Danish ancestry.
Over at the Elverhoj Museum of History and Art visitors will find displays of how the early settlers lived. Maps will help visitors find the original sites where the community was settled. Downtown you'll find more history at the Hans Christian Andersen Museum. In nearby Santa Ynez, the Santa Ynez Valley Historical Museum and Carriage House offers eight rooms of the valley's history including Chumash Indian implements, guns, saddles, clothing, furnishings and 30 carriages, wagons, stagecoaches and buggies.
The shops downtown are a many and varied and it will take you hours to get a sense of the variety. From Christmas shops, to Danish chocolate shops to an amazing assortment of gift shops, the town does not disappoint. If both spouses aren't interested in making this a shop-til-you-drop weekend, Solvang offers a simple solution: enough beer gardens and wine tasting rooms to keep the non-shopper occupied for hours. In fact, the Solvang Conference and Visitors Bureau lists no fewer than 12 wine tasting rooms, and the beer gardens serve up real German beer in real one-liter German steins.
Additional tourist infrastructure that will prove useful: an unusually large number of restroom and parking facilities. While most small tourist towns might be content with one major parking and restroom area, we counted at least three in Solvang - assuming there were not others we missed. Solvang visitors never have to waste too much time looking for parking or a restroom, and the locals seem to understand that's all the more time for spending money.
There are several inns located close to Solvang shopping, each sharing the Danish motif and some quite elaborate. We stayed at the upscale Hadsten House, an island of luxury with each of its rooms updated to the standards of a top luxury hotel. The owners have paid attention to detail with each room featuring everything from top-grade carpets, custom bed treatments and French furnishings to new fireplaces and completely remodeled bathrooms. High-definition LCD televisions and DVD players are standard.
The Hadsten House features landscaping, a wine bar, a 15-person Jacuzzi and hot breakfasts to order in the new lobby dining area. Overall there is a lot for the traveler to like about this particular property and since coming on the scene a few years ago it has been popular with visitors to Solvang
Solvang is located in the Santa Ynez Valley and, as previously noted, many visitors combine their Solvang shopping with excursions to several of the area's 60 wineries. About 18,000 acres in the valley are are currently covered with grapevines. Most wineries welcome visitors year-round and, if you don't have a designated driver, there are wine tours offered that will take you from winery to winery in a luxurious stretch limo.
Another fun thing to do in the area is to explore the locations that you saw in the Sideways movie. A brochure-map will direct you to locations in Los Olivos, Santa Ynez, Buellton and Solvang, all featured prominently in the film. There is the Days Inn Buellton where Miles and Jack stayed and the parking lot where Stephanie beats on three-timing Jack. Or how about A.J. Spurs, the western-themed restaurant where Jack meets his one-night stand, Cami. Then there's the Sanford Winery, where Miles teaches Jack the basics of wine tasting and, of course, Fess Parker Winery where the server refuses to serve Miles a full glass of wine so he guzzles the spit bucket instead. Altogether there are 19 Sideways locations detailed on the map, all quite recognizable from the film.
WHERE: Solvang is about a half-hour's drive north of Santa Barbara and can be reached easily by driving from Santa Barbara over the scenic San Marcos Pass. From the north, follow Highway 101 south to the turn-off.
WHAT: Solvang and its surrounding countryside are scenic and chock-full of visitor attractions. A visit to the town can be a great trip or overnight excursion, but it will take at least a couple of days to get a good sampling of what the valley has to offer in terms of wineries and tourist attractions.
WHEN: Anytime. The climate in Solvang is mild so it's comfortable year-round. Check with the local visitor bureau about seasonal wine events if you're interested in seeing how grapes are produced into wine.
WHY: Solvang, with its colorful Bavarian motif buildings, its great selection of restaurants and wine bars and its scenic rolling hills and nearby wineries, would seem to have something for everyone.
HOW: For more information on Solvang contact the Solvang Conference and Visitors Bureau at 800-468-6765, ext. 105 or go to www.solvangusa.com. For more information on the Hadsten House, phone 800-457-5373 or go to www.hadstenhouse.com.
Photos: Danish folk dancing on weekends near the Solvang Bakery; many visitors opt for a pedal-car tour of the charming village; Danish architecture is everywhere you look; Hadsten House ios latest addition to Solvang lodging choices
(Editor's note: CaliforniaWeekend.com is California's leading source of information on getaway travel in the Golden State. Visit the site often to find the latest getaway specials, a comprehensive list of resorts and lodgings and to use the Getaway Machine travel calculator to match up your needs and preferences with exactly the right lodgings and location.)
Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway
OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other California vacation ideas, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles onYosemite National Park, Idyllwild, Julian and Sequoia National Park.