In my book, summer is all about being outdoors. So when friends raved about the kid-friendly productions at Theaterfest, the outdoor summer repertory theater of the Pacific Conservatory of Performing Arts in Solvang, it sounded ideal. But Solvang? The Danish-themed place in the Santa Ynez Valley?
The city, founded in 1911 by Danish educators building a folk school, started out nobly enough. The current incarnation, though, had struck me as mostly a kitschy tourist stop rife with candy stores and gift shops.
But there we were last month, in Solvang, watching "Fiddler on the Roof" in an outdoor amphitheater surrounded by oaks and sycamores. The opening number, "Tradition," still impressed. The belligerent Cossacks still shocked. And the plight of Tevye, that poor Russian Jew caught in the cross hairs of a changing world, still touched us. I wasn't just enduring Solvang; I was actually liking it.
It had taken more than Theaterfest to convince us to come. My husband, Keith, and I were faced with a summer dedicated to chauffeuring kids to sports camps. We and our boys, Adam, 14, and Ethan, 11, needed a getaway that didn't involve a ball, hoop, glove or 9-iron. And we wanted to get there without needing a second mortgage to gas up the car. Solvang, about 130 miles northwest of Los Angeles, started looking better and better.
The Saturday morning we headed out, gray skies hung over us along U.S. 101 through Santa Barbara. Within minutes of our turning inland just past Gaviota, the coastal gloom disappeared, and we were embraced by sunny skies, a light breeze and rolling hills.
Feeding the emus At Buellton we turned east onto California 246 toward Solvang. Just outside of town is Ostrich Land, a combination ostrich farm and roadside fruit stand. Ostrich talks are often given here, but not during our visit. The main event for us was a little corral of emus where, for 25 cents, a machine dispensed emu grub. All are welcome to take their chances with the long-beaked creatures, but not everyone will want to. Emus reek to high heaven and peck at fingers.
After the emus, it was just another minute to Solvang, which means "sunny field" in Danish. Stores, restaurants, tasting rooms featuring local wines and assorted Danish-themed storefronts line Copenhagen Drive. The heavy aroma of aebleskiver, the Danish equivalent of a doughnut, served hot and topped with powdered sugar and warm jelly, permeates the town.
The heart of the village is about five blocks long and two blocks wide. The boys and Keith browsed TJ's Hobbies, a baseball card and sports memorabilia store where allowances went far. My stroll led me to West of Eden, a garden shop and gallery with a small but striking collection of landscape photography. We regrouped at a store called the Book Loft, which houses the Hans Christian Andersen Museum, a free and informal display on the life and work of the Danish author.
Lunch was at the Red Viking, where the kids predictably eschewed all things Danish and ordered burgers. My Danish sausage and sweet red cabbage sandwich on pumpernickel was good. Keith's open-faced ham (Danish, of course) sandwich with cold asparagus was also tasty.
With more time, we would have visited Old Mission Santa Inés and the Elverhoj Museum (with Danish and Solvang history) and taken the 15-minute drive to Cachuma Lake for a nature and bird-watching cruise. But I was curious to see the Quicksilver miniature horse ranch, less than three miles outside of Solvang, and we had just enough time to visit before it closed at 3 p.m.
"How many weird animal farms do they have out here?" asked Adam, recalling the morning emu encounter.
Happily, we found the miniature horses to be sweet and gentle and not at all interested in biting off our fingers. Visitors were welcome to wander the grounds and pet any horse willing to come over to the pasture fence. Some of the little doe-eyed animals were shy, but we found several that couldn't resist a little ear scratching.
Then we checked into our hotel, the Royal Scandinavian Inn, where we had booked a package that included dinner and theater tickets. Our room was bright and spacious, and it opened onto a small patio. A path lined with white roses led to the pool. While Ethan and I swam, Keith and Adam went to the small but clean gym, which was stocked with fresh towels.
The package included dinner at the hotel restaurant, Meadows, where the smorgasbord was good: a large salad bar, focaccia, soup, sausages, cabbage, potatoes, glazed carrots, ribs, stuffed chicken and spiced apples.
Under the stars A short walk got us to the Solvang Festival Theatre, one of three stages run by the Pacific Conservatory. The group is a professional company and a two-year student program of Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, drawing prospective students nationwide. Among the actors who passed through the Solvang summer program early in their careers were Academy Award winners Robin Williams, Kathy Bates and Mercedes Ruehl and three-time Tony Award winner Boyd Gaines.
Before curtain, theatergoers picnicked on the grounds, sipping local wine sold at the bar and breaking into pink pastry boxes stuffed with — what else? — Danish pastries they had picked up on the way to the theater.
"Fiddler" was terrific, with strong acting, singing and dancing, especially by David Studwell as Tevye and Heidi Ewart as his wife, Golde. The 700-seat theater wrapped around a stage thrust into the audience, so there didn't appear to be a bad seat in the house, and the action felt close. Actors frequently entered and exited through the aisles too, which was particularly pleasing for the kids. As we walked back to the hotel, my husband and I, native Californians both, felt a little silly for not having known about the Pacific Conservatory's Theaterfest, which is celebrating its 40th season and its 30th year at the Solvang Festival Theatre. ("Fiddler" closes tonight; "Bullshot Crummond" is set to run July 23 to Aug. 8 and "The Wildest!!!" runs Aug. 13 to 29, followed by two more shows.)
The next morning we departed for berry picking at one of the farms outside of town on Alamo Pintado Road but were disappointed to find the field temporarily picked out. (Other farms promise apple picking starting in August.)
We drove a mile or so to Roblar Avenue in Los Olivos and found Clairmont Farms, an organic lavender farm. We smelled it before we saw it — and still were dazzled when we rounded the driveway and spied 6 purple acres moving ever so slightly in the breeze and humming with a multitude of bees.
We bought a huge scoop of dried lavender for $5, stowed it in the car along with a box of Danish and drove home with a new impression of that little place called Solvang.