International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
Celebrating its hundredth birthday this year, the town of Solvang is two-and-a-half square miles of Denmark nestled into a high-desert California valley.
It can be disconcerting to see a windmill straight out of a Hans Christian Andersen story surrounded by epic palm trees -- akin to finding a snow-covered Egyptian pyramid -- but that is no reason to skip this Santa Barbara side trip. Like Paul Giamatti’s visit in the film Sideways (which was largely filmed there), the best way to experience the town has little do with its Danish roots.
Take the 101 north of Santa Barbara and connect with the 154; just out of town you will climb into Los Padres National Forest. Try to keep your eyes off the rear-view mirror as the park’s rising, twisting mountain road brings insane views of the Pacific Ocean into focus behind you.
Stop at Cold Spring Tavern for a barbeque sandwich and a beer. A former stagecoach stop once popular with robbers, it is now often so packed with bikers and in-the-know wine-trippers that it can be difficult to find parking (if you go past the bridge, turn around). The moss-covered buildings retain a rustic, Lord of the Rings-meets-Clint Eastwood charm and a sign above the bar reads, “What Would Johnny Cash Do?” Unexpectedly, Cash himself almost burned the entire area down when a truck he was driving combusted. As a result, no fires are allowed by campers in the park.
Late autumn and winter is bald eagle season at nearby Lake Cachuma, where the southward migrating birds stop off to steal catches from local ospreys. The best way to experience the birds is by boat tours led by naturalists, running November through February.
Another 20 minutes past the lake, you can check into the Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort, where 73 cottages and rooms all have working fireplaces, en-suite bathrooms, and wi-fi. There are no phones or televisions, but who needs them? Two golf courses, horseback rides and a spa will keep you busy.
For dinner, head to the recently refurbished Hotel Corque (formerly the Scandinavian Inn) and get a table at Root 246, award-winning chef Bradley Ogden’s innovative farm-to-table restaurant. You can get chilli-cocoa rubbed Filet Mignon, shoestring wrapped prawns and sweet potato gratin – all in one dish. After dinner, grab a glass of local wine (you can bring your own bottle if you like) near the fireplace for live music. This is the town’s social centre.
Hans Christian Andersen did not write his books on a laptop -- nor were they initially published on a Kindle. At The Book Loft, the bottom floor is kept current while upstairs is a library-like collection of rooms filled with well-preserved used books. Its HCA Museum, a set of rooms dedicated to the author, probably has the largest assortment of his books in the US (outside of your iPad).
Breweries and wine bars can be found on just about any corner in Solvang, but for a decent cup of Joe, head to the Bulldog Café (1680 Mission Drive; 805-686-9770), which doubles as a major highlight on cyclists’ Amgen Tour of California, mostly due to the star power of Lance Armstrong, who has been known to stop in for carbs and coffee.