SOLVANG, Calif. – As a Southern California native with a Danish dad and the tongue-twisting Danish name "Solvej," I've always been asked, somewhat cheekily, "Hey! Do you know the town Solvang?"
I do, of course. Yet, as an adult, I only passed through the touristy enclave of roughly 5,000 people about 130 miles (210 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles, in the Santa Ynez Valley. Founded in 1911 by Danish immigrants, Solvang now boasts Danish bakeries, a Hans Christian Andersen Museum and four windmills. Boutique inns and lodges have peaked roofs and spiffy monikers such as Svendsgaard's Lodge and the Hamlet Inn, along with bedspreads emblazoned with the red-and-white Danish flag.
Curious about this Danish-American village so similar to my name and such a long way from Northern Europe, I finally headed to Solvang recently for an overnight stay and 24-hour binge of Danish pastries, wine tasting and conversations in English and Danish with residents whose businesses add layers of history and heart to the town's Nordic shtick. Here are four things to do and see in Solvang, which I found to be a warm, fun and funky getaway that, appropriately, translates to mean "sunny field."
BAKERIES AND SWEETS
I've never had much of a sweet tooth, but even I couldn't escape the sugary appeal of Solvang's multiple family-owned Danish bakeries, including Mortensen's Danish Bakery, Olsen's Danish Village Bakery and Coffee Shop and the Solvang Bakery. At Mortensen's, owned by 83-year-old Danish-American Solvang architect Earl C. Petersen and his wife Dorothy, and run by their three sociable, vibrant daughters, I joined the morning crowd to chomp on the bakery's signature butter ring, a traditional Danish coffee cake.
"There are more bakers here than probably in the whole world," said Olsen's owner Bent Olsen, 70. A tall, burly man with a smooth Danish accent, Olsen moved to California from Denmark in 1965 and opened the bakery in 1970. "After dinner, I'm always looking forward to dessert," he blissfully added, as I sat next to him in the airy cafe, nibbling on a slice of Danish kringle, rolled in the shop and stuffed with almond paste, custard cream and raisins. For chocolate aficionados, 54-year-old Ingeborg's Danish Chocolates is a town favorite, displaying marzipan pigs and Danish chocolate covered handmade marshmallows called "flodeboller" the size of golf balls.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the 2004 wine-soaked movie "Sideways," which was partially shot in Solvang, and wineries in the area owe a certain amount of credit to the tourist boom that followed the film. Next to bakeries sit more than 20 wine-tasting rooms, from Dascomb Cellars to the casually hip Lucky Dogg Winery, which opened its sleek, red-walled tasting room in July.
"Solvang is more of a wine destination now," said Lucky Dogg co-owner Mead Whippo, 36. He expertly took me through the process of deeply smelling, glass swishing, smelling again and then tasting a range of Lucky Dogg wines, including a 2013 light viognier and 2013 spicy syrah. Wine tasting usually costs between $10 and $12 per person, depending on the winery. Keep in mind that many shops in Solvang close in the early evening, at the latest, including tasting rooms. Separate winery tours are also available.
HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN MUSEUM
As a kid, I owned two stocky volumes of fairy tales by 19th century Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen that I coveted like, well, chocolate. I inhaled those stories, from "The Little Mermaid" to "The Ugly Duckling." So visiting Solvang's Hans Christian Andersen Museum, a modest room upstairs from bookstore The Book Loft, was a treat. The museum is packed with hundreds of volumes of Andersen's books, including first editions, as well as a model of his childhood home. Owner Katheryn Mullins, 80, opened the museum with her late husband in 1990. "Andersen is for children from 8 to 108," she told me, before settling into reading quietly at her desk by the entrance. The museum is free to visitors.
The Elverhoj Museum of History and Art, a few blocks south of Solvang's center, dives into the town's history. With an intricately carved wooden front door, and built in 1950 to resemble a Danish 18th century farmhouse, the building itself is actually the former home of late Danish painter and sculptor Viggo Brandt-Erichsen and his American artist wife Martha. It opened as a museum in 1988 after her death. Exhibits include the recreation of an old-style Danish kitchen, complete with green hand-painted walls and porcelain Danish Easter plaques. "One Danish tourist told me, 'With Solvang, it's like they took the best parts of Denmark and put them onto two streets,'" said visitor services museum staffer Kimberly Davis. Admission is free, with a $5 suggested donation. The museum is closed Monday and Tuesday.
If You Go...
SOLVANG: Visitors Bureau, 1639 Copenhagen Drive, Solvang, California; http://www.solvangusa.com/ or 805-688-6144