The experience of finding Europe in unexpected places in America is not limited to Solvang in California, but, somehow, Solvang shows its national roots better - or maybe it's just got better Danish pastries.
Sometimes all tourists need or want is a convenient hotel that gives value and a restaurant that makes their stomachs smile. Solvang, Calif., delivers both.
Nailing down the hotel first probably makes sense. There’s a large, expensive and popular Fess Parker Wine Country Inn in nearby Los Olivos, but we have found the staff of the sister Fess Parker in Santa Barbara churlish and have never returned to this small chain.
On the other hand we have been impressed with the luxurious 20-room Santa Ynez Inn. And our kids like the 122-room Hotel Corque (it’s owned by the Chumash Indians). But if your destination is Solvang and you intend to explore, walk and taste wine, your decision surely comes down to location.
Trip Advisor’s label says it all: “Great value.” Hotels.com posts many reviews, mostly favorable, with one saying: this is a hotel “for someone who wants a great hotel but is smart enough to be on a budget…”
We stayed at the King Frederik Inn. Reviews for the hotel mentioned some traffic noise (it’s on the main street), but were positive about the convenience; the safe, clean and appealing neighborhood (it’s downtown) and features like the free parking, free pool, free WiFi and the free continental breakfast with Olsen Danish pastries. We found this older hotel, now renovated, ideal for all those features.
We asked the manager to give us a price list for our readers but she said travelers should check its website because prices change for many reasons and the website is always current. At our midweek visit the third night was free!
So off we go to this visitor-friendly small town of about 5,000 residents that pays such tribute to its Danish roots and to its Danish pastries! We sit in Olsen’s Danish Village Bakery under a 1996 photograph entitled “Worlds Largest Danish Pastry Man,” opposite Tracy Farhad, the executive director of the Solvang Conference and Visitors Bureau.
One year ago the town observed its 1911 to 2011 centennial and Tracy, a slim former professional dancer, is still celebrating with a mammoth Olsen’s Danish. We’re going to order the same but ask timidly, “How many calories on that plate?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care,” Tracy says. “I’m older now and don’t worry the same!”
We ask Tracy what she believes her town offers American visitors.
“Quaintness of architecture,” she replies. “Foreign travel without a passport. Stability: some family businesses have been here for five generations. Individuality: all areas in Los Angeles merge, but we stand out different, unique. The comforting nature of a safe small town.”
We ask about crime. Tracy laughs: “A kid once put soap in the Little Mermaid fountain!”
We pass art that shows the town’s roots. Normally we are careful to give credit to artists but it’s not always clear who painted much of the art on the walls of Solvang so we thank them now.
“On the Oprah Show the Danes were called “The Happiest People on the Planet despite the high taxation in Denmark” and here in Solvang we like to think our sense of humor shows on our walls,” one local stops to say as we take photographs.
Solvang is a great walking town. All attractions are close by. The Lutheran Church is about a mile away and the Mission a little farther but they are about the only times you’ll need your car.
The stained glass in the Bethania Lutheran Church is beautiful but the stained glass in the Bit O’ Denmark restaurant is attractive also. The shops are different. You can buy children’s clothes that would make a young person look like a character in a Hans Christian Andersen story. There is even a shop for hats and a shop for socks — and between them is where we are heading now: the Solvang Restaurant.
In the Solvang Restaurant owner Jeff Paaske sits in the booth used in the movie Sideways, where the two guys had an argument and keys were flung on the table. The movie gave some publicity to Solvang and reminded visitors there are wineries around here and the town offers wine-tasting.
We are in one of Solvang’s famous places to hear about the celebrated Danish concoction, the aebleskiver, and to find out how it all came together in Solvang at Arne’s Aebleskiver. The word supposedly means “apple pancake” in Danish where the batter is cooked in a circular pan to emerge like a small tennis ball. Jeff bought Arne’s 30 years ago but his roots go further back than that. His father Introduced Danish architecture into town in 1955.
In the Greenhouse Café, owner Aaron Peterson, a lawyer, reminisces about the town he was born in and the restaurant he and his wife, Elsemarie, a native of Denmark, co-own. She runs a chocolate shop in town as well — we showed up there with our tongues hanging out, but she wasn’t in at the time of our visit.
”A group of 30 Danes came on a visit recently and told us, ‘This is prettier than home but it does look like our town 40 years ago!’” says Aaron.
“Is it real?” we ask. “Is it like living in Disneyland?”
“Not really,” he says. ”We’re very Mom and Pop. We had 980 kids in high school in 1978 and 1,080 this year. We are a stable community. I have a daughter in the 8th grade. She walks one-and-a-half blocks to school. Behind our house are 1,500 olive trees, behind them vineyards — and then a golf course, then the river, then the mountains, then the ocean.
“It may be a bit theatrical, but we’re just a small town in America. We don’t have a tire factory, but we do have tourism. Our only problem is as we lose our Danish elderly we are at risk of losing our very Danishness.” He frowns, lost in thought then brightens up when he sees the sign in his restaurant that says “House Wine $4.50 a glass.” “I put that up to be my answer to wine snobs,” he says with a grin.
Our middle left image, taken at the Elverhoj Museum of History and Art, shows the kitchen pan with examples of aebleskivers cooking (to remove them when ready the Vikings used their swords). And middle right is our great Danish lunch at the Greenhouse Café where we interviewed Aaron; and bottom line on the right is the figure of the chef that tells us we’re in Olsen’s and on the left, a room in the Bit O’ Denmark restaurant Solvang’s oldest restaurant.
A culinary and historical tour of town would include Olsen’s, the Solvang Restaurant, the Greenhouse Café and the Bit O’ Denmark, one of the first buildings to go up in Solvang. It was built in 1911 to serve as a college then a church until 1929 when it became a restaurant. Remodeled in 1963 it now is “the smorgasbord restaurant.” Each restaurant is different; anyone who likes German cooking will enjoy Solvang.
A 1913 photo in the Elverhoj Museum showing Eline Jacobina Skov raising her chickens on her farm exhibits a common scene in rural communities and gives way now to what is a similarly familiar scene today in small towns: the Farmers’ Market. That’s why food is so fresh in Solvang restaurants and if you feel insufferably virtuous from all those veggies you can always head for Ingeborg’s Chocolates.
In the upstairs of the Book Loft is the Hans Christian Andersen Museum. A notice in this small museum explains why it exists in Solvang, although most visitors already know the story: Andersen came from Denmark, Solvang has Danish roots and third, a local organization called The Ugly Duckling Foundation, operates the museum with the aid of Kathy and Gary Mullins, the owners of the Book Loft, who have donated space and time for it since 1989.
“We have stories for children from the age of eight to 108,” says Kathy showing visitors around. “We feel just as the English speak of Shakespeare and Americans Mark Twain, so the Danes have their Hans Christian Andersen. He was a simple man, child-like from originally poor circumstances. His mother sold matches on street corners to survive at Christmas. His stories (he lived from1805 to 1875) were favorites of children then but some are complex even dark with sad endings.”
The museum exhibits Andersen’s bust and favorite painting, and an original signed photograph from 1862. One of his cutouts is on show and galleys of his books with corrections similar to how, in the old days, travel writers got their articles back from glossy magazines!
Visitors who stay an extra day will have time to go back to the Elverhoj Museum of History & Art and study its Viking war history, such as the exhibits of a 5,000-year-old ax head, and maybe get the chance to enjoy the dry humor side of the Danes in the amusing art of Wesley Anderegg — humor that is often based on his puns.
The 100-year-old Bethania Lutheran Church hangs a ship from its ceiling to remind parishioners the Danes are a seafaring nation “and the church is the ship that carries people over life’s stormy waters.” An afternoon wine-tasting moment at Solvang’s Vin Hus demonstrated by the assistant, Debbie, prepares visitors for their later visit to the PCPA Solvang Festival Theater where they will be captivated by a brilliant summer evening’s rendering of Daddy Long Legs.
The experience of finding Europe in unexpected places in America is not limited to Solvang in California. Visitors can find a Dutch community in Holland, Mich., and a German town in Leavenworth, Wash., but, somehow, Solvang shows its national roots better — or maybe it’s just got better Danish pastries!
The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.