Take a Road Trip to the Central Coast of California and Experience History
Only a 45 minute drive northwest of Santa Barbara: Solvang, OstrichLand USA and La Purisima Mission State Historic Park are great destinations for a Central California road trip.
Solvang is a thematic town that aims to bring a “little bit of Denmark” to California. Thematic architecture, incredible bakeries and boutiques entertain children and adults alike.
Solvang was founded in 1911, by immigrants from Denmark. However, it embraced its history and developed as a theme town in 1947. The town has four windmills. To continue the motif, local architect, Earl Petersen, gave the buildings a facade with a “Danish Provincial” style. They have exposed timbers and wood shingled roofs.
In addition to the architecture, wooden storks nest in some of the chimneys and there is public art honoring author Hans Christian Andersen. Surprisingly, the town doesn’t play up Vikings or Norse mythology which felt like a lost thematic opportunity.
European Pastry Bakeries
The bakeries are incredible and feature traditional Danish pastries. They tasted just like the treats I had in Europe. Rather than relying on extreme sweetness, like most American bakeries, European bakeries focus on the taste of the custard, quality of chocolate and the lightness of the pastries.
Hans Christian Andersen, the Famous Fairy Tale Author
Solvang pays homage to the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. He penned famous fairy tales such as “The Little Mermaid,” “Thumbelina,” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” There is a Little Mermaid statue and a bust of H.C. Andersen in the town.
As an English teacher, I was eager to visit the H.C. Andersen museum which lies upstairs in the Book Loft bookstore.The museum is a nonprofit and could use some love and curation. I recommend reading the Wikipedia entry before visiting to give the displays context. There are many first editions of Andersen’s books, but you don’t learn much about the author.
One interesting thing I discovered was that H.C. Andersen was an artist in the folk craft of papercutting. He would snip folded paper as he told his stories. At the end of the tale, he would unfold it and reveal an intricate cutout image. The museum has a few of his papercut pieces on display. There is also a board, reminiscent of a National History Day project, about the unrequited loves in Andersen’s life and which stories they inspired.
Bike Riding and Wine Tasting in the Santa Ynez Valley
Solvang lies in the beautiful wine country of the Santa Ynez Valley. There are several bike rental shops in town and they provide maps. We rode our bikes to one of the many wineries. Due to COVID, they weren’t offerening wine tastings, but the setting was gorgeous for relaxing with a glass of vino. Tip: I wish I had gone bike riding first, before all the shopping and eating made me lethargic.
Buellton, the Little City Next to Solvang
Solvang gets really crowded with pedestrians and traffic so we stayed on the outskirts for peace and quiet. We stayed in Buellton, home to the Firestone Walker Brewery. Their most popular beer is called 805. The Brewery had a large patio with views of the surrounding hills and oak trees. The original Pea Soup Andersen’s, with its famous windmill, is also in Buellton.
Be sure and visit OstrichLand USA in Buellton. Kids and animal lovers can feed ostriches and emus. There are plenty of opportunities to get eye-to-eye with these huge birds and take cute pictures. The ostriches have a large area and you will laugh while watching them run and posture with each other.
La Purisima Mission State Park
To learn the history of California when it still belonged to Spain, leave Solvang and head west on Hwy 246 towards Lompoc. La Purisima Mission State Park is the best preserved mission in the state of California.
La Purisima lets you envision what Mission life was really like. The Mission was revitalized by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. In addition to the Church, with its beautiful stenciled walls, the Mission has replicated/preserved many functional buildings. Visitors can see the lodgings of soldiers and officers. Cots, stoves and wooden plates show the primitive living conditions.
“Today, La Purisima Mission State Park is considered the most completely restored mission in California, with ten of the original buildings fully restored and furnished, including the church, shops, living quarters, and blacksmith shop. The mission gardens and livestock represent what would have been found at the mission during the 1820s.”La Purisima website
On the grounds, there are real sheep, just like the ones that were raised in the 1800s. There is also a chicken coop with several varieties of fowl.
The Mission had several craft industries to support itself financially. One was manufacturing wool blankets. Visitors can see the weaving room with looms and even touch freshly shorn wool.
Making soap was another Mission industry. The outdoor vats for melting the animal fat and mixing lye are behind the living quarters. The Mission also has mills and presses for making olive oil. The hoof marks of the donkeys that turned the mill are replicated in the concrete floor.
I loved looking at the pools of the Chumash Native Americans who worked on the Mission. The irrigation ditches, lined with flat rocks, let you appreciate how much engineering went into the complex. Visitors can learn how adobe was made using mud and straw. Outside is an area explaining how the roof tiles were formed with clay.
Although La Purisima Mission grounds were open for self-guided tours, I wish I had been able to enter the Visitor Center. Through the window I could see a display of the Civilian Conservation Corps. I think it would have been fascinating to read about the historic preservation that went into reclaiming the Mission. I also believe they have a Chumash Indian display. Call when planning your visit for visitor center hours and COVID restrictions. 805/733-3713
In California, kids learn about their state’s history in fourth grade. When our kids were young, we spent a summer visiting every mission. We started at the southernmost mission called Mission San Jose del Cabo Añuití, located in San Jose del Cabo, Baja. We then traveled up Baja and northward to all the missions in California. Out of all of them, La Purisima was my favorite. If you only visit one mission, this is the one you should see.
Solvang, OstrichLand, and La Purisima Mission make a terrific road trip for a long weekend or as part of a bigger trip. We continued north and visited Pismo Beach, Morro Bay and the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery. Be sure and read my articles covering those retro road trips!