A slice of Danish in California

A small town in California that owes its look to the Danish-Americans who settled there inspires songwriter Jim Messina

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 January, 2013, 10:26am

The first time musician and songwriter Jim Messina (of Loggins and Messina) brought his then-toddler son Julian to Solvang, it was Christmas time. As they pulled off Highway 101 and drove through a forest of old-growth trees, they entered the town and could hardly believe what they saw: hotels, post offices and city buildings with windmills and thatched roofs and bell towers, decorated in bright red, blue, green and yellow - the colours of a children's storybook.

Santa and Mrs Claus roamed the streets, as did horse carriages, dancers in bright petticoats, aprons and clogs, and the occasional Viking trussed up in fur and a horned hat. The father and son walked around the magical town, feasted on fudge, sampled aebleskiver - a famous Danish breakfast treat served with jam or maple syrup - and gazed at the towering pines trussed up with giant Christmas balls.

"Julian believed this is where Santa actually lived," Messina says of his son, now a grown man. The two fell in love with the impossibly sunny North Pole that Solvang represented.

But it was when the pair returned later in the year - when the Christmas baubles and lights were tucked away in their boxes, the candy canes and chocolate Santas cleared from the store windows - that Messina began to see another side of Solvang. He found rolling hills, centuries-old oak trees, thousands of kilometres of horse trails, and a natural waterfall.

"Moving up here put my son and me back in touch with nature and real people," says the songwriter who penned the folk-rock classic Watching the River Run.

It was the kind of country idyll where you could be ordering a burrito and find yourself next to high-profile locals such as actors Cheryl Ladd (of Charlie's Angels fame) and Noah Wylie (ER), singer David Crosby (Crosby, Stills and Nash), or a member of the Chumash Native American tribe.

Solvang's unusual heritage - the whole town feels as though a northern European village has been airlifted and dropped down in California - was established in 1911, when a group of Danish-Americans from the Midwest braved the trek across the Great Plains to start a settlement in the Golden State. They named their new home "Sunny Field", which is how Solvang translates from the Danish.

Messina has now lived in the area for about 14 years and has seen it gently transform from an oddball backwoods to a sophisticated getaway from Los Angeles. The 2004 comedy-drama Sideways, which follows a couple of Los Angeles men in their 40s on a week-long road trip through the Santa Ynez wine country, was shot in these parts.

Indeed, many of the restaurant scenes take place at the Hitching Post II, a delightful cowboy bar and grill that serves up the local delicacies of grilled sirloin with a topper of the restaurant's famous "Magic Dust" - a secret spice blend, or the smoked duck breast that comes straight out of the smoker. But many come just to hang out at the bar, sample from the long list of Santa Ynez wines, and hope to create their own version of the Sideways drama.

Solvang marks the start of Santa Barbara County's wine country, with about 85 wineries lining the nearby roads. Solvang's town centre has a tasting room, Lucas & Lewellen, featuring the family-owned vineyard's reds, whites and rosés.

It's the local wine, and the sun-soaked fields from which it springs, that has made Solvang a mecca for innovative restaurateurs, which in turn has transformed the town destination for epicureans from Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, searching for the authentic, the novel and the delicious.

Root 246 is run by members of the Chumash tribe and features the farm-to-table fare, from fried chicken plucked from the neighbouring fields, to Morro Bay oysters accented with local peach juice.

Solvang also offers its share of Scandinavian smorgasbords: a never-ending spread of meatballs, cold sausage, stewed red cabbage and pickled herring.

But it's the verdant Santa Ynez hills and fields where Messina finds the most inspiration. To that end, for the past few Februarys, the musician has been hosting a songwriter's workshop at the Alisal Guest Ranch, a rustic, iconic resort and horseback riding destination where a range of Hollywood stars, from Clark Gable to Michelle Pfeiffer, come to don their chaps and cowboy hats and canter along 2,400 kilometres of trails.

During a long winter weekend, Messina teaches aspiring songwriters how to create lyrics. Whenever he is on the resort grounds, the musician likes to find a quiet, shady patch under an oak tree and find another song within himself, too.

For those who need a little pampering, even out in the sticks, the Alisal also has a lauded spa that offers such soothing treatments as the Nojoqui Mud Wrap and Sage Bliss Massage, named after the local waterfall and created with naturally active botanicals from the region.

And if he still can't find his songwriting mojo, Messina heads up to the Nojoqui waterfall, a short 20-minute hike through a tree-lined path. "It's great to pack a picnic and feast on it in front of the waterfall," says Messina.

Reason enough to journey to this strangely beautiful haven of Danish-ness in the middle of California.