Tucked away in the Santa Ynez Valley in the heart of California wine country is a little Danish City of just over 5,000 souls that is about as close to a European village as you’ll find anywhere in North America. With an abundance of old world charm, it is easy to imagine you are somewhere in Europe as you pass windmills, Danish flags, and buildings with steep gabled roofs on your drive into town.
Wander along the cobblestone streets of Solvang on an autumn afternoon and you’ll feel as if you are experiencing a little taste of Denmark. There are countless souvenir shops selling everything from wooden shoes to European chocolates. And you won’t find any American chain restaurants in Solvang. Instead, you will find unique Danish bakeries and restaurants serving up European treats such as the traditional Danish breakfast pastry balls known as Æbleskiver.
Founded in 1911 by a group of Danes who had travelled west to establish a Danish colony, the area was chosen for its ideal climate, averaging 340 days of sunshine a year, fertile land, and adequate supplies of water. The settlement was fittingly named Solvang, meaning “sunny meadows.”
I was fortunate to visit on a beautiful Wednesday afternoon when I could fully reap the benefits of the sunny climate at the weekly Santa Barbara Certified Farmers’ Market, which is set up in the heart of town on Copenhagen Drive and First Street.
As I wandered through the market, I could smell the wonderful aroma of freshly baked pies and vine-ripened vegetables and fruits. I stopped to sample almond brittle, some locally-produced olive oils, locally grown nuts and various kinds of fresh fruit including oranges, lemons, nectarines, and strawberries. By the time I had finished, there was no doubt in my mind as to why the original founders of the city had chosen to establish a colony in this abundant part of the world.
The Santa Ynez valley is also famed for its wine production and you don’t have to travel far to sample some of the area’s best wines. While I wandered around a nearby winery, my brother stepped inside a sampling room and tried some of the area’s best wines before purchasing a few bottles for a special occasion.
As the afternoon drew to a close, I found myself sitting on a park bench watching the comings and goings along the street while enjoying a sweet Danish butter cookie. I may have been in Southern California, but at that moment I was a million miles away.
Solvang Danish Days
The city of Solvang celebrates its founding on the third weekend of September each year with a special festival known as Danish Days. This year’s celebration will take place from September 17-19, 2010.
Each year a Danish Maid is selected to preside over the festival events. This year’s Danish Maid is a local college student of Danish descent named Heidi Anderson who has been involved with several local charitable events in the past.
Festival planners have promised there will be something for everyone during Danish Days from the storytelling of Hans Christian Andersen to displays of medieval armour and weapons and Danish food stalls. The Main Street will be closed to traffic to enable festival participants to partake in events, such as authentic folk dancing.
Danish Days features three parades where locals dress in Danish costumes. Of particular interest to visitors are those dressed to display medieval armour and weapons. There is a candlelit parade on Friday evening and a traditional parade on Saturday afternoon, both of which feature a replica of a Viking ship. The parade of children takes place on Sunday afternoon and the afternoon usually features story-telling and visits to the Hans Christian Andersen Museum, where sketches and collages created by the great children’s author are just a small sampling of the items on display.
Viking scenes will be re-enacted by a professional group known as the Ravens of Odin and interesting items such as Viking jewellery will be for sale. You can also purchase other types of crafts, home décor, jewellery, and various souvenir items inside Solvang’s more than 150 stores or at the street market.
After a visit to Danish Days, you’ll have little doubt that Solvang, California is about as close to a European getaway as you’ll find in the American West.
If you go:
• Solvang is located 74-km north-west of Santa Barbara, California. The drive to Solvang will take about an hour from Santa Barbara and take you past beautiful vineyards and through a lovely mountain pass.
• Solvang will be celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2011, so you can expect the annual Danish festival to be particularly colourful and busy next September. The first event in connection with the upcoming anniversary was a visit by the Danish ambassador to the United States in July of 2010.
• If you want to visit Solvang during Danish Days, it’s important to book accommodations as far in advance as possible. Solvang has 15 properties ranging from budget motels to quaint inns and full service hotels. There is even a luxurious guest ranch and golf resort known as Alisal Ranch (www.alisal.com).
• Accommodations are also available in the neighbouring communities of Buellton and Los Olivos, California, but it’s always nicest to stay right in town during the festival.
• For more information on visiting Solvang, check out the local tourism website at: http://www.solvangusa.com.
Celebration of Harvest
Santa Barbara County is famed for its wine production and the fall winegrape harvest is perhaps the busiest time of year for local producers. To celebrate the harvest, producers take a much-needed annual beak in October to showcase their latest wines at a Celebration Harvest. This year’s event will take place on October 9 from 1 to 4 pm on the beautiful grounds of Rancho Sisquoc Winery in the Santa Maria Valley.
For more information on the Celebration Harvest or to find out more about the wineries in Santa Barbara County, visit: www.sbcountywines.com.
Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story that we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.