Thursday, September 15, 2011

Strolling Solvang

Though Solvang started in 1911 as a Danish retreat from its native homeland; it’s still ripe with Scandinavian heritage and a new modern sensibility. In the 1950s, far earlier than other themed communities, Solvang sealed its fate by keeping a focus on Danish architecture, food, and style. An easily walkable town, Solvang is home to Mission Santa Ines, a motorcycle museum, bakeries, oak studded parks, shopping and a bunch of other stuff. Extensive information is listed in my national travel book, Santa Barbara & The Central Coast. To some Solvang might seem like Denmark on steroids, but the colorful, charming town is unlike anywhere else; a great escape from the tedious mall architecture that dominates much of America. You’ll notice storks displayed above many of the stores, a traditional symbol of good luck. 
At the Elverhoj

To fully understand Solvang visit the Elverhøj Museum (805/686-1211, which is a delightful and surprisingly cool place. Not only do they offer table top and kitchen linens and local crafts, they have a comprehensive history of the area with nostalgic photos of the early settlers. Of particular note is the typical Danish kitchen, hand painted in green with stenciled flowers everywhere, pine floors, countertops and tables, it gives an idea of how creative the Danes made their homes, no doubt in an effort to brighten bleak winters. The museum features exhibits of traditional folk art from Denmark like paper cutting, lace making and those famous wooden shoes.

A bird near the hand is worth...

Made popular by the film Sideways, Ostrich Land (805/686-9696, is 2 miles before you reach Solvang from highway 101. At first glance it seems somewhat prehistoric and you’ll see massive birds in the distance wandering through the shrubs their thin necks sporting small heads and big eyes. They usually keep their distance and only approach when there is food, and yes, you can feed them. You need to hold the food plate firmly in your hand as they attack the plate with a fierce determination. You can also shop for ostrich eggs, ostrich jerky as well as emu eggs and ostrich feathers.
Ballard Canyon is popular with cyclists, runners and anyone in a car. Just off the main street in Solvang, you will pass vineyards, bison and cattle and the road drops you out near Los Olivos. What makes this road so wonderful is the complexity of straight parts, mixed with gentle curves and occasional steep climbs, and of course, the bucolic scenery. Access Ballard Canyon from downtown Solvang heading north on Atterdag. The hill climbs for a while, then drops you down into the canyon. Veer right onto Ballard and take that all the way through and meet up with Highway 246. 
Beautiful Ballard Canyon

The Book Loft (805/688-6010, sells predominately new books with a small section of used. This 35 year-old two story store has a wall to wall, very well organized selection of authors including locals. The wood stairs creek as you venture upstairs. It has the feel of an old bookstore, not sanitized with fancy shelves, and in fact these shelves were all hand made. They also have a nice selection of antiquarian books and upstairs is the Hans Christian Andersen Museum.

Elna’s Dress Shop (805/688-4525) is the stop for handmade Danish dresses and costumes. If you’re searching for that perfect Danish outfit for a young one, here it is. Aprons, caps and brightly colored simple dresses, some with beautiful lace are off the rack, or they will make one for you. They have a few Danish pieces for young boys as well, and yes, these are pretty darn cute.

You can't go wrong with these cute outfits

Presidio Winery (805/693-8585, is one of the few wineries in all of the Central Coast to be certified as a biodynamic winery. Owner Doug Braun’s wines are quite good and his style of winemaking is more restrained than most that you’ll taste in the area. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah and late harvest wines are on offer at his storefront on Mission Drive. Winemaker Megan McGrath-Gates produces terrific white wines at Mandolina (805/686-5506, a bright and airy tasting room with exposed beams on the ceiling and a copper topped wood bar. The focus is on Italian varietals: Pinot Grigio, Barbera, Dolcetto, and Sangiovese. There’s a delicate touch to the wines due to Megan’s sensibilities, plus she studied in Italy. There are many other wineries within walking distance so check them all out.
Bit O' Denmark at right
The Bit O’ Denmark (805/688-5426) is the oldest restaurant in Solvang (1929) housed in one of the very first buildings the original settlers built in 1911. Known for their traditional smorgaasbord as well as roasted duck and Monte Cristo sandwiches, they also cook up Danish ham and pork. Their extensive smorgaasbord includes medisterpolse (Danish sausage), frikadeller (meatballs), rodkaal (red cabbage), spegesild (picked herring) and an array of cold salads. The room to the left as you enter is the best, with large curved booths. Ingeborg’s (805/688-5612, has been making traditional Danish chocolates for nearly half a century. Over 70 varieties of chocolates are here, handmade on the premises. Grab a seat at one of the six round red barstools and enjoy their ice cream. Root 246 (805/686-8681, by contrast is sleek and sophisticated, this newest addition to the dining scene has upped the ante. It looks like it belongs in Hollywood, not in rural Solvang. But that’s part of the evolution of Solvang’s wine country cuisine. Chef Bradley Ogden has started over 10 restaurants and knows how to create exciting food. The menu rotates depending on seasonal ingredients. You’ll find oysters, organic mushroom flatbread and a variety of fish and game dishes. For amazing Italian fare, visit Cecco Ristorante (805/688-8880, and get their wild boar sausage pizza, or for something completely different, try the Risotto Nero; rice is covered with black squid ink, scallops and a lobster broth and highlighted with red onion and heirloom tomato. It’s dark, seductive and amazing. Chef/owner David Cecchini also makes his own wine!
Stroll Solvang, or take a ride

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