Go Danish or Western in the Santa Ynez Valley

From the quaint town of Solvang to the rustic trails near Alisal Guest Ranch, your family can have a world of fun.

by Mimi Slawoff

Located in northern Santa Barbara County, the Santa Ynez Valley contains six distinctive, rural communities with a total population of about 20,000. The most unique and picturesque is Solvang (Danish for “sunny field”), a Danish community.

Go Danish or Western

The 2013 Danish Maid is 17-year-old Emma Andersen. PHOTO COURTESY SolvangDanishDays.org

Only about 125 miles from L.A., it feels worlds away. And while it’s best known for the charming Danish town, Solvang is also home to the Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort, a working cattle ranch offering families Western-themed activities.

September 20-22 is an ideal month to visit because the town celebrates Solvang Danish Days (www.SolvangDanishdays.org). In its 77th year, the event features a torchlight parade, the introduction of the 2013 Danish Maid (17-year-old Emma Andersen), children’s activities, concerts, contests and traditional Danish food.


I’ve been visiting Solvang since childhood, and am happy to say that not much has changed – though my husband and I applaud the addition of tasting rooms serving Santa Barbara wines.

A comfortable home base is Solvang Gardens (www.solvanggardens.com), a country-style inn with pretty gardens and water fountains. A complimentary continental breakfast is included. Located two blocks from downtown, it’s just a short walk from Solvang’s shops, galleries, museums and restaurants.

The best way to explore Solvang is on foot. When my kids were little they enjoyed searching for windmills and ornamental storks (considered good luck) atop roofs, shopping for souvenirs in toy stores, playing at Hans Christian Andersen Park and savoring yummy baked goods. Now they’re old enough to appreciate Solvang’s history.

On our last visit we toured the Elverhoj Museum of History & Art (www.elverhoj.org), which contains photographs, artwork and artifacts from Solvang’s early years. Docents demonstrate crafts, such as how lacework was woven in the “old country.”

One of our favorite places still is the Hans Christian Andersen Museum (www.solvangca.com/museum), a cozy two-story venue that doubles as a bookstore with displays of the famous author’s literary works, photographs and letters.

Even if you don’t have a fourth grader, it’s still fascinating to take a self-guided tour through Old Mission Santa Ines, the 19th of California’s 21 missions. This mission has an active church (with English and Spanish-language Masses), gardens, a cemetery and a museum containing artifacts, vestments and artwork.

Dining in Solvang is always a treat. We favor casual eateries that serve traditional Danish fare, such as Solvang Restaurant’s Æbleskivers – pancake balls dusted with powdered sugar and served with raspberry jam. For lunch or dinner we order Frikadeller, tasty meatballs served with mashed potatoes, gravy and red cabbage.

We were pleasantly surprised to learn that the Carivintas Winery tasting room (www.carivintas.com) is kid- and pet-friendly. A youth area with puzzles, games, LEGOS, a computer and big-screen TV keep kids and teens entertained, while canines are pampered with beds and treats. The clean and spacious tasting room has comfortable seating, music, free WiFi and friendly service.

One thing still on our to-do list is to attend a performance at the700-seat open-air Festival Theater.

Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort

About two miles from downtown Solvang families can fish, swim, ride horses and feed barnyard animals. We began bringing our kids to the Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort (www.alisal.com) before they were 7, the minimum age to ride horses on trails, but they were content to feed chickens, pet pigs and help gather eggs (a daily 1 p.m. activity). Swimming, fishing on the ranch’s 100-acre, spring-fed lake and riding in a hay wagon rounded out our days. A children’s program with crafts and movies filled in the gaps.

Go Danish or Western

Kids can saddle up at Allisal Guest Ranch. PHOTO BY GARY KNIGHT

Since then, we’ve returned to ride horses through rolling hills dotted with coast live oaks and grazing cattle. Last April I met up with some gal pals at the ranch, and we rode twice each day and learned to steer cattle and groom horses. We got a little dusty, but it was a good workout!

The ranch also offers golf, tennis, archery, boating, a fitness center and a spa.

After all that activity outdoors, it feels good to change from jeans and boots into something nicer for a gourmet dinner in the Ranch Room. Entrees change daily, but include fish, steak, lamb, chicken and vegetarian dishes.  Breakfast and dinner are included in the Alisal’s daily rate. You can also sign up for a breakfast ride (on horseback or by hay wagon) in the hills. Although this means rising early, the views and hearty breakfast of pancakes, eggs, bacon, tortillas and fruit served outdoors by a fire pit are worth the effort.

By day’s end it feels good to relax in your room on a plush bed surrounded by Western artwork and a wood fireplace, but no phones or TVs.

For the best value, consider an Alisal package. The Round-Up Vacation package – offered Sun.-Thurs., Sept.-May – starts at $515 per day for two adults and includes meals and activities. Kids’ daily rates are $55 for ages 3-5, $85 for ages 6 and older.


Let’s Go columnist Mimi Slawoff is a mother of three who writes about family fun.

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