Solvang, California. America's Danish village
Among perfectly hidden oak groves, flower fields, and vineyards 45 miles north of Santa Barbara in the Santa Ynez Valley is the small town of Solvang. The setting was perfect and the surroundings beautiful for a start-up colony of Danes. This is what happened in the early twentieth century when Danes settled the area in 1911 and established an academy to educate their children in the language and culture of their homeland. They named the town to follow ‘Solvang’ which translates to ‘Sunny field’ in Danish. Prior to this the area was part of the Rancho San Carlos de Jonata and Spanish settlement dates to 1804 with the establishment of the Mission Santa Ines, the 19th among twenty-one Spanish missions along the El Camino Real in Alta California. Mission Santa Ines, much rebuilt, adds a nice cultural twist to Solvang and anchors the eastern edge of Solvang just off Highway 246 (Mission Street) which also serves as Solvang’s main east-west axis. Chumash Indians inhabited the area long before the Spaniards and Mexicans and today the Santa Ynez Reservation is just east of Solvang and well known for its casino, the Chumash Casino Resort.
Lonely Planet’s write-up on Solvang is lukewarm and dismissive, but that shouldn’t keep you from visiting. It’s difficult to refute that Solvang is touristy, but it’s in good taste. Few billboards advertise the town so the approach is a nice surprise. While the buildings and their faux Danish style seem artificial at close range, the town’s cultural and historical legacy is genuine and it is a bit of old world Europe in the most unlikely place. The town’s “all-Danish” appearance took form just after World War II. Among the buildings are a few worth mention because of their unique character and architecture and include the Bethania Evangelical Lutheran Church which was built in 1928 and replicates the style of rural churches in Denmark. Constructed with one-foot thick walls and hand-carved woodwork in the interior the church is on Atterdag Road and Laurel Avenue two blocks north of downtown. The Atterdag College was Solvang’s original purpose for existing and the folk school was launched in 1914. Torn down in 1970 the Atterdag College served a primary purpose of establishing Solvang, which now numbers 5,300 residents, and maintains its Danish charm and traditions with yearly festivals and daily traditions. There is a memorial plaque that marks the spot of the Atterdag College.
Getting oriented in Solvang is easy because of its compact size and grid layout. The main route to and through the town is Highway 246. Also called Mission Drive there are a number of businesses, hotels, and shops along this route. You can also take 246 to get to U.S. 101. Public parking in Solvang is easy to find and free (August 2011). Try some of the side streets south of Mission Drive if you can’t find a spot. Once you’ve parked head to the blue windmill at Hamlet Square to get oriented. Shops, bakeries, and restaurants are everywhere, so try to take time to appreciate the points of historical and cultural interest. The Danish Heritage plaques are in the park on the south side of Mission Street between Park Way and First Street. The marker commemorates the original settlers who established the town in 1911. You’ll also find the Hans Christian Andersen Monument, which was sculpted by Henry Luckow Nielsen of Copenhagen, Denmark, in this same park. Adjacent to this monument you’ll see a rock which marks the mileage to Copenhagen at 11,270 kilometers away. The sundial next to that marks the Latitude and Longitude of Solvang at 34º35’N, 120º8’W. Continue down Mission Drive between First and Alisal and you’ll find the Hans Christian Andersen Museum upstairs in the Book Loft. Apparently it holds original copies of the famous author’s works. No tribute to Denmark is complete without a replica of the Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen. The Little Mermaid Fountain can be found across the street in the corner of Mission and Alisal. Another building which replicates old country architecture is the one-third size scale model of the Round Tower (Rundetaarn) in Copenhagen. This is found between Alisal and the Mission Santa Ines. Take time to visit the Mission Santa Ines. While most of it has been rebuilt after various disasters and neglect, including the Earthquake of 1812, the lavenderia and exposed arch ruins are nice examples of the original structure and settlement and the Mission is a beautiful reminder of the rich fabric of Solvang’s earlier pre-Danish history. At Second and Elverhoy Streets is the Elverhoj Museum of History & Art which covers Solvang’s history. Not to miss for any fan of Danish imports is the Royal Copenhagen Shop on Copenhagen Street. If you are looking for good eats, try the Danish pancakes on the breakfast menu at one of the many restaurants in town. The pastries at the many bakeries are also worth a go. Not particularly Danish but abundant in Solvang, because of its location in wine country, are the number of wine tasting outlets representing mostly local wineries. They are everywhere! The town celebrates its Danish-American heritage every September with the Solvang Danish Days. Lookout for quirky and kitschy things that are scattered across the town and serve to remind the visitor of the old world ties. The 'gossip bench' on the corner or Mission Drive and Fourth is such a reminder. Models of stork's nests can also be seen on many of the rooftops - a good luck symbol in Denmark and in many other places in Europe. Finally the tradition of rejsegilde, a Danish tradition marked by the raising of the highest rafter on new buildings, is now a tradition across the Santa Ynez Valley, and demonstrates the reach of Solvang to the larger non-Danish surroundings.
If you are staying in Solvang for a couple of days a beautiful excursion is the short trtip to Nojoqui Falls (No-ho-wee) south of the city. Take Alisal Road south for about ten miles past resorts, ranches, and through oak groves. Nojoqui Falls is a Santa Barbara County park and a ten minute walk up a moderate incline ends at the foot of this 100 foot plus plunge falls which is beautiful any time of year. Water rich in calcium carbonate is expanding the headwall outward. Most waterfalls erode the rock - this one has the opposite effect which makes it unique. Also worth the trip is a lunch visit to the famous Pea Soup Andersen's Inn which serves up its unique blend of pea soup. Known as Pea Soup Andersen's, it's located about 5 miles to the west of Solvang on Route 246 in Buellton. Andersen's Inn is easily recognized and just off the US 101 exit along 246. The motel's gift shop is also huge and its selection rivals any tourist trap.