Can’t get to Europe? Try this fun, offbeat Danish outpost.
Here is one great reason to visit the old Danish colony of Solvang, Calif., tucked in the Santa Ynez Valley northwest of Santa Barbara: the blueberry Danish at Mortensen's bakery. Here's another: Mortensen's cream cheese Danish. Then there's the cinnamon Danish around the corner at Olsen's bakery. If nothing else, Solvang will change forever the way you look at Entenmann's.
In 1911, a group of idealistic Danish educators bought 9,000 acres close to Mission Santa Inés to found a traditional folk school (no textbooks, no tests) and named the village that grew around it Solvang (sunny meadow). The school is long gone, but playing up the town's quaint, thatch-roof heritage has become Solvang's bread and butter. If you've been there, you may remember Solvang as a kitschy, Scandinavia-themed tourist trap. Which it is. But it's also a charming, kooky little town with dozens of fun shops and tasty, truly unusual food—the perfect destination for a lighthearted weekend escape.
Solvang's repository of local and Danish history is the Elverhøj Museum, an eclectic jumble of artifacts in a brick-and-beam house built in 1950. Here you'll find prehistoric Nordic ax heads, tatted lace bonnets, and a 100-year-old eiderdown cape from Greenland.
A 10-minute stroll to the northeast, the Hans Christian Andersen Museum celebrates the world-renowned Danish author of "The Princess and the Pea" and "The Ugly Duckling." The tiny space exhibits several first editions of Andersen's books, countless modern translations, and photographs of the homely, brooding writer. His great gifts extended to papirklip art—elaborate paper cuttings—and the museum has outstanding examples of Andersen's intricate, whimsical silhouettes.
The museum shares its loft space with the Solvang Book Company, a top-notch antiquarian bookstore, perhaps the most interesting shop in town. It specializes in Scandinavian literature and offers a nice assortment of books on California. You can get your Kierkegaard with a side of Morro Bay Meanderings. Two other essential stops: The Solvang Shoe Store is a veritable clog emporium, and even if you haven't worn the clunky shoes since ninth grade, you may be inspired to buy a pair of funky denim, sheepskin, or hand-painted clogs. And Ingeborg's makes chocolates from venerable Danish recipes and is justly famous for its marzipan.
Indeed, it would be easy to do nothing but eat in Solvang. While it's tempting to consume only Danishes, it's impossible, perhaps even wrong, to visit the town without sampling aebleskiver—the hearty dough balls that are the Solvang Restaurant's house specialty. Drowned in thick raspberry jam and dusted with powdered sugar, aebleskiver are essentially jelly doughnuts turned inside out. Served with some medisterpølse sausage, they could fortify a potato farmer for a morning of hoeing—or a traveler for much longer than that. Even at dinnertime, you may be ready for little more than a dainty plate of pickled herring and a quick shot of aquavit—the Danish national spirit, which tastes like rye bread and goes down like good vodka. Skål!
Photography by Anne Hamersky
This article was first published in July 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.