Solvang, CA: What is this Danish town like during COVID-19?
I need to preface this by saying that I thought long and hard about how I’d write this, or if I’d even write it at all. Here’s the reason. On the last weekend in August, I took a day trip to Solvang. If you haven’t heard of this town, dubbed the “Danish capital of the country,” I’ll try to explain it to you the best I can. Close your eyes and imagine an outline of an idyllic, picturesque storybook — windmills, half-timbered facades, gabled roofs and charming al fresco dining. Chances are, when you turn around the corner and arrive in Solvang, your mental sketch will perfectly overlay the real thing.
I’d heard about Solvang from friends, neighbors and even TV shows like “New Girl,” and I always thought I’d visit one day. That was during pre-pandemic times, of course, when I (and everyone else) took the luxury of freedom for granted. Back in March, when stay-at-home orders went into effect, this pint-sized downtown, which always enjoyed the attention of both tourists and locals, struggled. It turned into a “virtual ghost town,” according to an LA Times article. Of course, the situation wasn’t unique to Solvang. Most destinations that relied on tourism were hit particularly hard by the pandemic.
But a few months later, the town’s wheels started turning again. So, one sunny Sunday afternoon, Anton and I set out on a close-to two-hour drive to Solvang. It was his birthday, and I thought — what better way to celebrate than by taking him to a quaint town known for beer and sausages in 18th century Denmark. (If there’s a travel memory that Anton could go back to, it would most certainly be his trip to Germany when he was 12 years old). We were excited and eager to experience something that swept us away from the real world for the day.
And we did. Driving through the streets of Solvang, we looked left and right, gasping at the string of wineries, the charming little bakeries and the beautifully kept buildings of the fairytale land a group of Danes dreamed up back in 1911 when trying to build a Danish community in the area. I could imagine spending the whole day here, wandering through the city’s streets, punctuating our strolls with freshly baked pastries and marveling at the architecture — and still not being able to see it all. But then, as we parked, slapped our masks on and took our first step in town, we immediately sprung back to reality. I got a nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach, and an uncomfortable thought started wiggling around in my mind — is Solvang too crowded? Walking to our first restaurant, I realized that the rumors were true. Solvang is indeed like Disneyland, but that day, the magic was stripped away by the fact that it was (much like the amusement park) crawling with visitors.
At the Copenhagen Sausage Garden, our first stop, we struggled to find seating. While the family-style, communal tables would’ve been a draw pre-pandemic, the seating plan just didn’t work in the new world. Sharing our table with strangers stiffened the vibe for me, and I knew I didn’t want to stick around for too long — no matter how good those sausages were (and they really were damn good, perhaps even worth another drive on a less-crowded weekday). What’s more: Solvang’s sidewalks were somewhat of an obstacle course, the public bathroom was anything but a place to find relief, and throngs of shoppers made window-shopping a bit of an uneasy pastime.
A part of me (the optimistic part) hoped this wouldn’t be the case. That we’d enjoy strolling through Solvang without having to worry about the obvious. The other part (the cautious, practical part) planned for the possibility of crowds. That’s why I’d made reservations at a few other places outside of the downtown area. These days, going on any sort of trip requires five times more planning than before. Not only do you have to make reservations, you also have to do your due diligence and research certain aspects of your destination — location, outdoor seating options and safety measures taken, among other things. Also, you have to make sure you have a plan B and C, if plan A sours. Luckily, I had a plan B, and it involved some really big birds.
I don’t think I’d seen ostriches or emus before — not this up close, anyway. I’d certainly never fed them. But at OstrichLand USA, which is very much a real place, you can do all of those things for an entry fee of $5. It’s a bargain, in my opinion. It’s not every day that you get the opportunity to marvel at these strange creatures.
OstrichLand is a seven-minute drive from downtown Solvang and miles away from all the hubbub. You can buy tickets upon arrival, or you can opt to go contact-free, scoop them up online and have your code scanned at the door. I also bought the “feed” online, which is essentially a bowl with a handle filled with om noms for the birds. The rest is pretty simple. You go up to the fence, strengthen your grip on the bowl’s handle (they tend to yank on it), and let the birds go to town.
That’s really all there was to it, and it was plenty. I’m not really a born birdwatcher, but there was something so therapeutic about feeding an animal, especially when it’s the largest bird on the planet. As they nibbled on their meal, I stared at their long eyelashes and curious, large eyes. At their strong legs and two-toed, dinosaur-like feet, which makes them incredibly strong runners. (Their sprinting speed can get up to 43 miles an hour.) At their trembling, luxurious feathers, which, according to National Geographic, they use “as ‘rudders’ to help them change direction while running.” And of course, at their most defining feature — their long, skinny necks.
We all know the saying, “bury your head in the sand,” which carries a negative connotation and — let’s set the record straight here — isn’t even true of ostriches. But there’s another old saying attributed to bedouins. It goes something along the lines of, “It would greatly benefit a person to have a neck like an ostrich.” In other words, since it takes quite a journey for the sounds made in an ostrich’s chest to reach its flat, broad beak, the animal has enough time to rethink what comes out of its mouth. I think I like that saying much, much more.
A mere nine-minute drive away from the land of ostriches is a u-pick farm called “Santa Barbara Blueberries” in Gaviota. Anton has always waxed poetic about the many times he picked fruit with his own bare hands. “It just tastes sweeter,” he frequently said. So, on his birthday, I decided to add a u-pick farm on the agenda. Blueberry season was behind us, but there were still enough raspberries and blackberries for us to pick.
It was around 4 p.m. when we arrived, and almost no one was there at all. At the stand-slash-mini-shop, the lady behind the counter handed us two buckets and a few nuggets of fruit-picking wisdom. The short of it was: Don’t pull until the raspberry gives. It should fall off with a gentle tug. That’s how you know it’s ripe. Then, we were left to our own devices.
Meandering up and down rows of raspberry crops, at first, it seemed like there was nothing to find. But then, I saw one pop of dark pink, then two, then three, then more. I squatted in my dress, rolled the dainty raspberry between my thumbs and released it into my hand. “Try it,” Anton urged, and I popped the fruit into my mouth. It exploded on my palate with a special, earned sweetness. He was right; it didn’t taste like anything you’d pick up in a plastic container at the grocery store.
The task became easier and easier after that. We’d get excited every time we found a cluster of them hanging from the same bush. Since raspberries tend to grow on prickly brambles, picking them was sometimes a two-person job. One of us lifted a branch, the other separated the fruit from its core. We did that until our buckets were full. Walking around, now-heavy bucket in hand, as silly as it sounds, I felt childishly proud of my harvest. I almost didn’t want to leave.
Since we didn’t end up spending much time at Solvang’s main attraction, we had time to kill before dinner. So, we went for plan D, which was a stroll around Hans Christian Andersen park. However, when we parked and hopped out, we were mildly disappointed by the place. Too small, with not much to see or do. Maybe it was always meant to be a humble neighborhood pocket park, but naming it after a prolific writer like Andersen gave it somewhat of a fairytale-esque illusion that was quickly brought down. Lucky for us, there was still food on the horizon.
We settled into our seats at S.Y. Kitchen’s outdoor patio and took our masks off. “Do I have any lipstick on my chin?” I asked Anton, peering down at the pink smudge on the inside of my mask. All good; He gave me the thumbs up before diving into the California farmhouse’s Italian-inspired menu. I followed suit. The menu, designed by chef Luca Crestanelli — who hails from Verona, Italy, and helms the kitchen with his younger brother Francesco Crestanelli — was a reflection of the brothers’ years of extensive French culinary education and experience. Plus, a passion for real-deal fresh pasta that tastes like a nonna made it especially for you when she heard you were coming over for dinner.
And really, that dedication showed. Because when the waiter gently placed the Fusilli Al Ropeton in front of my nose, and when I took my first bite, I was immediately transfixed. The plate, a marriage of sausage, pancetta, tomato, roasted peppers, mascarpone, basil and a smattering of pecorino, was a union no one would ever even think to object to. If I’d had this on my trip to Italy last year, I would’ve been very happy. And that says a lot, given the fact that we had some pretty superior pasta while traipsing around the country.
Later, while savoring the kitchen’s famous gelato and properly putting the last bite to bed (aka my stomach), I thought about the day’s highlights — picking raspberries, feeding ostriches and hunkering down in front of a warm plate of pasta at the end of the day. I came to the conclusion that there’s still a lot to be enjoyed in and around Solvang outside of its ever-so-popular downtown. And that’s particularly why I decided to write this piece after all.
In today’s world, travel writers find themselves stuck between a desire to bring readers along on a journey of much-needed escapism and a new sense of responsibility. Perhaps Solvang was too crowded for me, and perhaps I’m not too keen on drawing attention to it. (That said, if you’re hellbent on going, and I can completely understand why, I strongly suggest going on a weekday.) At the end of the day, readers flock to their favorite publications and blogs for advice. They want — if not expect — to receive information that’s not only new, but also, useful and accurate. It’s not a perfect science, but as long as honesty lives at its core, then it’s close enough. In the midst of this crazy year, I’m sure, there are still ways to tell stories responsibly — and I’m learning how to best do that.
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